Coffee & Streaks

I had a cup of coffee this morning. That’s an ordinary way start to the day for most Americans. But it was an extraordinary way to start the day for me. You see, I hadn’t had a caffeinated cup of coffee in more than a year and a half. Last year, I wrote about why. Today, I am writing about why I broke that streak, and it starts with focusing on streaks themselves. 

Streaks are unique. They are useful because they make continuance the default whereas the opposite of whatever you are doing or not doing to continue the streak might have otherwise been the default. In this case, not drinking caffeinated coffee became my default whereas drinking caffeinated coffee might have otherwise been my default if I did not care about continuing the streak. Exercise is another good example. You might not ordinarily exercise on a day where you are extraordinarily busy, but if you have a 78-day streak going, you are probably going to find a way to make it happen that day, for the sake of the streak. 

Streaks are powerful because they add more relative value to the incremental continuance of the streak than that increment would have held in absolute value on its own were it not for its relevance to the streak. For example, if you miss just 1 day of exercise in a year versus missing 0 days, the difference in the percentage of days you exercised is only 0.27% (1-(364/365)), but if, let’s say, that day occurred halfway through the year, your longest streak of consecutive days exercised is cut by 50% (182/365). In that sense, the impact on the streak is ~200x as large as the impact on the percentage of days you exercised that year (50.00% vs. 0.27%), so if you’re focused on the streak as opposed to the overall hit rate, the impact of missing 1 day is 200x as important.

The psychological power of the streak is extremely useful for some people in certain situations. For example, people recovering from alcoholism or other addictions can benefit greatly from the zero tolerance policy that the outsized importance of extending a streak incentivizes. For those people in those situations, a single exception can be a slippery slope resulting in an extended relapse. It could be argued that that slope is made more slippery by the streak itself and the outsized weight that is placed on its breaking as a result of the outsized weight that is placed on its continuance, but I would give the benefit of the doubt to the idea that sobriety streaks are net positives for addicts overall.

Now, coming back to why I decided to have a caffeinated coffee today, it was mostly for the purpose of breaking my streak which I felt was becoming more important than not drinking coffee actually meant to me. I still believe in everything I wrote about why I quit caffeine more than a year ago. I don’t expect my drinking coffee today to lead to a regular habit of drinking coffee in perpetuity. But basically I know now (and have known for a while) that I can quit coffee any time (the substitute habit of drinking decaf being the key to helping me do that sustainably where I had not as sustainably done it in the past). I don’t need to never have another coffee again. 

I believe in moderation and balance. While I still believe it is best for me personally to not be a daily or even weekly coffee drinker forever, I suspect that the occasional cup of coffee may be beneficial, even marginally, to my life as a whole. It is for similar reasons that I don’t expect to ever entirely give up alcohol even though I have generally trended towards drinking less of it over the last several years. Just like coffee, I don’t believe it is best for me personally be drinking alcohol daily (obviously) or even weekly forever, but I do believe the occasional scotch or tequila on the rocks can be beneficial to my life as a whole.

It’s funny. When I first quit coffee, I had the occasional cravings that one would expect. Even several months after, I would have an infrequent temptation – a Sunday morning on a rare vacation on a beautiful summer day with a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen, made for the house. Most of those days I would quell the craving with a decaf. But today was not one of those days where I had a big craving or temptation. Part of the reason I felt good about breaking the streak was because I did not feel that craving or temptation. I wasn’t giving into anything. I wasn’t losing the streak. I was breaking it, intentionally, on my own terms, because it just wasn’t that big of a deal. I felt like the streak was starting to over-inflate the importance of a zero-tolerance policy towards coffee in my life. So I decided to break the streak. 

I enjoyed my first coffee in a long time. And I was pleased to confirm that both the taste and the ritual were indistinguishable from drinking a decaf. The difference is strictly confined to the feeling and the buzz of consuming caffeine itself. And I’m not going to lie, that made this blog post a little extra nice to write.

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