The utility of a maintaining a meaningless streak

On crosswords, consistency, and unproductive goals.

Two years ago, I started a streak. 

According to the New York Times crossword puzzle app, it started on January 22, 2018. I was marooned in a hotel room in North Dakota, another in a seemingly-endless parade of work trips, attempting to move forward a massive project that was fraught from the start and deeply resistant to our corrective measures. It was a long, tiring day of meetings, and too bone-chillingly cold to dare leave the hotel room once the work was over. I did that day’s crossword — a Monday crossword, those are always the easiest ones — in just under five minutes. Barely a brain-stretcher; hardly killed any of the empty time in a long evening away from my wife and kids. I read a good chunk of a book that night.

The next day, I had roughly the same evening. Slightly harder puzzle. Eight and a half minutes. 

I kept at it the entire week, each one a fleeting footnote in a day that managed to both be extremely busy and utterly boring. Back home the next week, I kept at this little nightly distraction. Ten minutes here. Eight minutes there. A rebus puzzle — twenty minutes. (For those not familiar with the terminology, this is a construction where a single square, normally filled by a single letter, is actually filled by multiple letters or an entire word, a clever little trick I usually only realize is in play once I’ve started tearing my hair out because nothing makes sense. I hate rebus puzzles.)

Somewhere along the line, it just became something I did every night. The Times’ crossword app releases new puzzles at 10pm the night before (6pm for the Sunday puzzles!), and most nights, I’ll glance at the clock, realize it’s just past 10, and begin pecking away while I’m doing whatever else it is that I’m doing. I took a break while writing this to do one. That makes 724 days in a row. Every day for 724 days, a week shy of two years, I’ve opened the app and filled in every square. 

Doing this one small task each night has taught me a lot of useful things, like…

Ah, well, um…

There’s…

Well, Ulee’s Gold comes up a lot more often than it does in normal life.

I’ve never heard margarine referred to as “oleo” in conversation, but I trust that it’s a thing that happens somewhere? I don’t buy margarine. Trans fats, y’know. “Pac-12 team?” Ohh, buddy, that’s obviously the first team everyone thinks of when they think of the Pac-12: the Utes. I’ve never read “Fear of Flying”, but you’re damn right I know “author Jong” is Erica. Director Kazan, Nobelist Wiesel, singer Fitzgerald, fashion magazine? Elia, Elie, Ella, Elle. No love, as of yet, for the social network Ello, which I signed up for in 2014, posted on once, and still receive periodic emails from.

I guess what I’m saying is, I haven’t actually learned anything.

Sure, I’ve picked up some skill at the game. I understand what words are likely to show up, what the subtleties of phrasing in a clue are suggesting, when certain less-common letters can set of a cascade of revelations that break a puzzle wide open. Is it training my brain to be more nimble, keeping me sharp, staving off mental decline? Probably not, and if it does I’m undoing it by opening Twitter right afterwards. Is it teaching me useful knowledge that I can apply in my job, my home life, or my writing? No.

There’s one thing I do think is important about it, though, and it’s the sheer nature of a streak.

I’m not consistent about much. I ran a marathon two years ago (this post is full of humblebrags, sorry) and then I stopped running entirely and gained 25 pounds. That job that sent me to North Dakota changed for the worse, so I left it. Some years I read a lot of books, and some I don’t. Some years I cook a lot, and some I eat a lot of frozen food. Some years I get really into woodworking. (Okay, I haven’t had one of those yet, but I’m thinking about building some shelves. It’s gonna be a disaster.) The challenges of raising two small children change every day — just when I think we’ve got a routine down, something changes. 

Everything changes.

That’s where a seemingly-meaningless streak like this becomes useful. Ten minutes a night, tapping out that crossword puzzle, it’s my check-in. Good days and bad days. The day I went to a baseball game and had a beer. The day my daughter dressed up as a panda for Halloween. The day I rear-ended a guy on the way to work. The day later that week that was much worse, in a way I’m not prepared to discuss. Days with weddings and days with funerals. It’s my little airplane beacon, beeping back a signal to control that contains no message other than “here I am”.

Here I am. Here I am.

One day, probably soon, I’ll slip up and break the streak, if I can ever bear to be away from my phone for a day. Perhaps then I’ll start another streak. I’ll start writing a page a day and finally put together that novel. I’ll run five miles a day and end up one of those effortlessly healthy sixty-year-olds who do things like that. I’ll start something small but productive, and watch the magic of consistency snowball it into something real and substantive, a big project built by placing one brick per day. 

For today, though, I’m going to resist that urge, the urge many of us have everyday to make everything we do productive. Sometimes it’s enough to show up and have one thing be the same when everything else is changing.

Sometimes the streak is the goal itself.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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