My junior year in college, I started scribbling each day’s to-do list the night before. I’d always include “wake up” so 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.
Guess 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- A young man named Charlie McDonnell created a short video in 2012 explaining how he stays motivated to create a video every day using Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” technique.
- Karen Kavett has designed some nice “Don’t Break the Chain” calendars (here’s a set for 2014, with color options so each habit can have its own color per your whim). I wish hers had squares, though, as it’s easier to make an X in a box.
- At CalendarLabs.com, you can pick your favorite calendar to download and print. Scroll down to find some full-year calendars (and some have the days in boxes).
- Download the extremely simple Android “Seinfeld Calendar” app or iPhone equivalent (such as the Don’t Break the Chain app).
- Chain Calendar and Don’t Break the Chain require signup to track your habits online.
Consider 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.