How to Form a Daily Habit: Don’t Break the Chain

Seinfeld Calendar MarchMy junior year in college, I started scribbling each day’s to-do list the night before. I’d always include “wake up” so that I would have the pleasure of marking off one item first thing in the morning: a visual sign of accomplishment.

I’ve always joked about how pathetic it was to include “wake up,” but I needed to see that I made progress.

Decades later, I want to establish some habits, to have a rut to run in, but I’m still the same at my core: I need to see that I’ve made progress Over the years I’ve continued using to-do lists to keep track of tasks, and you’d think that adding daily habits to the to-do list (so I can cross them off each day) would lock them in, but for some reason it doesn’t work.

Since January, I’ve been testing a habit-forming concept that marks progress visually: Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret, also known as “Don’t Break the Chain.” Before recommending it to my blog friends or writing coach clients, I’ve been waiting to see how it works for me, given that forming habits is such a personal struggle.

Seinfeld Calendar JanuaryGuess what? It works.

At least, it works for me. And I heartily recommend it to anyone who struggles with how to form a daily habit.

In a complex, high-tech world, the simplicity of Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” approach offers a refreshing alternative to buzzers and gadgets (though supporting apps are available). With this concept in place, I wake up motivated to follow through with the habit and feel pleasantly affirmed once I do.

What’s Seinfeld’s Secret?

Software developer Brad Isaac explains via Lifehacker that Seinfeld shared the idea of “Don’t Break the Chain” with him years ago when they met briefly at a comedy club. Brad asked for some tips, and Seinfield told him his system for ensuring he writes new material every day. A second, more in-depth article offers an explanation for how it’s done. Here’s how I understand it:

  1. Pick a Habit: Decide on a habit you’d like to establish. Something simple. Something you want to do daily. Something you can actually accomplish every day. I recommend absolutely no more than two habits when starting out. Better to attend to one or two and really lock those in than to try four, feel overwhelmed, and give up. Let’s say you want to write 500 words every day. That’s doable.
  2. Calendar: Purchase or print off a one-year calendar for that habit (or download a supporting app, though visual people will benefit from having the calendar posted where they can see it as a reminder). One calendar per habit. Print one for your 500 words and write that at the top.
  3. Post the Calendar: Hang up your calendar where you see it, as a reminder to follow through with the habit by end of day. You can see why the app may not work as well—out of sight, out of mind.
  4. Marker: Buy a big marker in a color of your choice (Seinfeld recommended red, but anything bold would work). If you’re using an app, you won’t need the marker. Also, the app may come in handy if you travel a lot.
  5. Daily X: When you complete the habit, mark a big X on that day. The next day, be sure the tips of the X touch the previous day’s X. After two days—certainly by day four or five—you’ll start to create a satisfying chain effect.
  6. Don’t Break the Chain: Now your goal is to mark an X every single day, so you don’t break the chain of X’s. Something about seeing that continuous chain offers visual and internal satisfaction, reinforcing the habit.

“Don’t Break the Chain” Resources

February Seinfeld CalendarConsider developing a system for marking sick days or vacations when a habit like “Wipe kitchen counters” will not be performed. Perhaps you’ll draw an outline around the calendar’s box so that you still create connections to the X. Or you could draw an “A” for “absent” and let the bottom of the A touch the bottom of the X. In any case, it’s smart to build in a plan that accommodates real life.

Someday you won’t be sick or on vacation…someday you’ll feel ornery or overwhelmed and fail to do the thing you set out to do. Someday you’ll get busy and just plain forget about it. On that day, you won’t outline the box or draw an A for “absent.” On that day, you’ll leave that square blank and the chain will show a gap.

On that day, you’ll break the chain.

But you know, it’s human to feel ornery, overwhelmed, busy and forgetful. And it’ll be a break, but it’s not the end. Don’t stare at that broken chain and feel like you’ve failed. Don’t rip down the calendar and give up.

Instead, pick up the habit again the next day and start a new chain. See if you can create a longer streak than before. You can see from my calendars that I’ve done that. A new day can be the start of a new chain, and I still find satisfaction looking back at those long stretches before I missed a day.

If habits are hard for you to form, give the Seinfeld Secret a try. Pick a habit, maybe two (but no more than two until you establish a solid month of X’s) and then Don’t Break the Chain.

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  • Comments

    1. I’ve already printed out my calendars and am trying to decide exactly which areas (besides writing) I need to include. I think perhaps household tasks would be a good one. Thanks so much for sharing this Ann. It makes something really big seem manageable.

    2. Wonderful! I found it kind of fun to think through what habits I wanted to establish and then prioritize, since I knew I needed to limit them. Hope you find this helps you in some way, Linda!

    3. This is interesting. It tells me why my crazy system works, which is to write things in empty calendars. (I have different ones for different things.) Also, I do a couple of weird things that help me. 1) I start my week on Wednesdays. And 2) I do three-week calendars.

      • Megan, do you mean that you write what you accomplished *after* you do it, as opposed to writing what you intend to do? If so, that seems like an analog version of the idonethis.com idea. It’s a way to acknowledge and record what you accomplish.

        I’d also like to hear why you start your week on Wednesdays. I love hearing about other people’s approaches.

    4. I’m glad you didn’t follow Kramer and take your lettuce to the shower… ;-)

      Since I’m old school with my big ole desk top computer and no other portable electro-devices with apps (or flaps or batteries or gizmo-gadgets), I use generic single page calendars that I print for each month — one for personal and one for homeschool. Is it true that it takes 21 days to form a new habit? Once you have the routine, do you still use the calendar?

      (BTW, your new site looks terrifical!)

      Blessings.

      • Thanks for the compliment on the site! And I like the Seinfeld reference. :)

        It takes me WAY longer than 21 days to form a new habit, but if you establish one within the 21 days, that’s a good time to pull out another calendar and introduce another habit–but it would be interesting to be sure you can keep the other one going while trying out the new one. Sometimes it’s tempting to drop one to make room for the new.

        You may have a personality better suited to establishing habits than what I’m working with. I resist. This has helped. And I’d keep a calendar going for an entire year. Plus, it’s fun to look back and see that you pulled it off. AND, if you break the chain, I think you have to restart the 21-day clock. :)

    5. Wonderful advice. I pretty much do this, but not to the extent you advocate. I should, however. Right now, I am suffering through a block that has lasted about two months. Any suggestions on how to get “back on the horse?”
      Thanks for the article. It’s terrific advice!

      • So good to see you here, Joe! To make progress despite that block, establishing or re-establishing a daily word count habit might help you make incremental progress until something clicks in that helps you move into a more productive stage. You could give yourself assignments for each day, as if from a creative writing teacher, generating a series of “what-if’s” and write them up as flash-fiction, just to be exploring some story potential. Maybe a character will arise out of that who can serve as a protagonist of a longer work? Maybe pieces of a plot emerge to be recycled into a chapter of a book? I’m only guessing at the kind of writing you want to be doing, assuming fiction, but if you’re writing nonfiction, you could respond to current events or write an essay about the discouragement and frustration of writer’s block. If you like the writer’s block piece, submit it to Writer’s Digest Magazine, because heaven knows you’re not alone.

        And maybe…just an idea, but maybe you should hire a writing coach to get you past this wall? http://annkroeker.com/writing-coach/

    6. Thanks, Ann :)

    7. Way behind on my blog reading and what a fun post to discover, a week late! Interesting idea and I just may try it! Thank you.

      • Diana, I think from getting to know you, we might have similar habit-resistant personalities (maybe; I could certainly be wrong). I’d love to hear how this does or doesn’t work for you.

    8. I’m picking up the habit tomorrow and starting a new chain.

    9. Oh I needed this (even though I know it). To see it in black and white is oh so helpful! I think I need you too Ann….I am going to start following your blog and Lord willing, I may just talk with you about coaching once I decide I am good and ready. So glad I hopped over today. Thank you!

      • Kelly, I’m so glad you slipped by, and I hope we get better acquainted here, as bloggers, writers and friends, and perhaps in the future with me helping you meet some of your writing goals! Thank you for being here. :)

    10. I too believe there is great value in repetiton. I meet so many people who call themselves writers, but they aren’t writing. It doesn’t matter if you have a market or a platform, just start writing for crying out loud!

      love your heart here and excited to see you expanded possiblities.

      • David, you are a great model of the faithfulness of showing up at the desk and doing the work of a writer. And it has paid off not only in the quality of your work but also in the opportunities coming along. Indeed, those who want to write, must write. But of course the habit-forming system can be used for anything, even to remind someone to take a multivitamin each morning…. :)

      • Oh, and thank you so much for the encouragement–yet another thing you do so well.

    11. Fyi – http://www.pdfcalendar.com/ is a good resource for printable calendars. :)

    12. I love this! My husband keeps trying to convert me to digital calendars and such, and I keep dropping the ball. I love the idea of a visual chain, a string of accomplishments. Thanks for this, Ann:)

    13. OK. I’m giving this a try. (And printing off a few for folks in our family to try as well.) Thanks, Ann!

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