Simon Willison’s Weblog


Tom Scott, and the formidable power of escalating streaks

2nd January 2024

Ten years ago yesterday, Tom Scott posted this video to YouTube about “Special Crossings For Horses In Britain”. It was the first in his Things You Might Not Know series, but more importantly it was the start of a streak.

Tom maintained a streak of posting a video approximately once a week for the next ten years.

Yesterday, he ended that streak with After ten years, it’s time to stop making videos. He’s not done with YouTube, but he’s no longer holding himself to that intimidating weekly schedule.

I strongly recommend watching his final video. There’s a moment when you realize what he’s up to in it which is quite delightful.

I’ve known Tom for a long time. I made an appearance in the 11th “Things You Might Not Know” video, A Zeppelin, A Cat, and The World’s First In-Flight Radio Message, two weeks into his streak (he was doing one a day at first), filmed at our leaving-the-UK-for-the-USA party in January 2014.

Watching from afar has been somewhat surreal. I didn’t watch every video, but every now and then I’d see that Tom was flying with the Red Arrows, or visiting yet another nuclear reactor site, or overcoming his fear of rollercoasters. And then I’d notice that he’d picked up another million subscribers.

Hanging out with Tom was fun because he would inevitably be recognised by someone. 6.3 million subscribers is a lot of people!

Tom’s success on YouTube comes down to a whole bunch of different factors. He was already a talented public speaker, a skilled researcher, had a brief stint as TV presenter and deep understanding of the viral internet.

Experienced YouTubers will tell you that frequency is key to success on that platform. YouTube’s audience (and maybe their opaque algorithm) rewards consistency: publishing regularly is a crucial part of building an audience.

Tom is also incredibly conscientious about the content he produces. Take a look at his corrections and clarifications page to see how much effort he puts into getting things right: 25 detailed corrections across over 500 videos. See also his recent video Every mistake I’ve made since 2014.

His most significant correction became a whole new video clarifying how London fire brigades handled uninsured buildings in the 18th century, backed by two weeks of paid research by an archives and heritage research consultant. His commitment to accessibility is inspiring as well.

And then there was the streak.

Escalating streaks

The best way to get really good at anything is to do that thing on a regular basis, thoughtfully, and with the goal of doing it slightly better every time.

Tom’s streak publishing a video to YouTube once a week for ten years is the single best illustration I’ve ever seen of that principle in action.

His initial videos were interesting, educational and had his signature enthusiastic energy, but they weren’t exactly high budget affairs.

As he iterated on the format, he started to figure out what worked. His scripts got tighter, his research deeper and he started working with professionals to improve his production values.

He also learned to use his growing audience to gain access to a dizzying array of fascinating locations, experts and experiences.

The amount of work he invested in this project is staggering. The research, logistics, travel, writing, filming, editing and community management involved are hard for me to even comprehend.

The end result is something truly extraordinary. What a legacy! That final video has over 42,000 comments already, overwhelmingly thankful and positive.

Streaks can be insidious

In Tom’s closing video he says:

So now it’s time to take a breather. I can’t keep this up. This is my dream job, and I have a lot of fun doing it. I know I’m incredibly lucky. But a dream job is still a job. And it’s a job that keeps getting bigger and more complicated and I am so tired! There’s nothing in my life right now except work. I did get close to burning out, but fortunately I always knew when to step back from the brink.

Streaks are a powerful psychological tool. Once Tom got to nine years, there was no way he wasn’t going to push through to ten. I’m glad for his sake that in hitting that final milestone he’s finally able to take a break!

My own experience with streaks

I’ve found great benefit from streaks myself. I’m on day 1,826 (that’s 5 years yesterday) of a Duolingo streak, primarily learning Spanish. It’s kind of working—from an investment of less than 15 minutes a day I’m now able to understand ~90% of news articles written in that language.

Duolingo screenshot: Streak Society - 1826 day streak! You've extended your streak 2 more times before noon this week

There are certainly more effective ways to learn a language, but I’ve tried different approaches in the past and nothing ever stuck for me to the point that I made real progress.

It turns out the streak mechanism was exactly what I needed. That tiny piece of effort, repeated every day over multiple years, really does add up.

I’m also 172 entries into my streak of publishing weeknotes—not-quite-weekly (more at-least-monthly) posts about what I’ve been doing, which I use mainly as an accountability tool to keep myself on track despite working independently without any form of boss.

A few years ago I started a website about tiny museums I have been to. I used streak pressure to bootstrap the site: I added a museum once a day for a hundred days, digging through old photos and memories.

My streaks are noway near the same league as Tom’s. That’s why I introduced the term escalating streaks earlier in this post—to emphasize that the true magic comes when you mindfully improve with every iteration.

I did however notice that by the end of my 100 day museum streak I was writing significantly higher quality articles than when I first started.

Flexibility and forgiveness is crucial

Streaks have multiple dangers. At one extreme, they can take over your life, forcing you to leave home behind and spend a decade traveling the world making increasingly brilliant YouTube videos.

The other challenge is what happens when you accidentally break them.

In the past, I’ve tried my hand at strict streaks... and then found that 100 days in I miss a day, and suddenly I’m reset to zero and I lose all motivation to continue.

The solution here is to build in some flexibility. I started a new streak recently to reply to at least one email every day, to encourage me to spend more time in my inbox. My goal for this is four out of seven days, so I can miss three days a week and still keep the streak going.

Duolingo has a “streak freeze” mechanism which can be used to forgive the occasional mishap, which I’m happy to take advantage of.

Initially I felt like this was “cheating”, but it really isn’t. Streaks are a powerful motivational tool if you figure out the best way to apply them.

The Tom Scott Streak

Three of my biggest inspirations in life are these:

  • The movie Into the Spider-Verse, demonstrating what happens when a group of creative people get together, rewrite the rules and elevate the quality bar for an entire industry.
  • Tom Holland’s “Umbrella” performance on Lip Sync Battle, showing what happens when someone takes an opportunity and executes it with such skill, enthusiasm and panache that people are still talking about it six years later.
  • Ray Bandar’s Basement Full of Skulls, a 60-year project resulting in 7,000+ meticulously preserved animal skulls, leading me to ask “what’s MY basement full of skulls going to be?”

Today I’m adding a fourth thing to that list: the Tom Scott Streak.

This is Tom Scott, and the formidable power of escalating streaks by Simon Willison, posted on 2nd January 2024.

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