In the early 1990s, a young comic named Brad Isaac ran into Jerry Seinfeld at a comedy club.
Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Isaac asked Seinfeld what advice he’d give to someone just starting out in the business. Seinfeld’s reply outlined one of the most effective productivity strategies in existence. As a writer, I use it to make this blog happen twice a week. As a musician, I’ve used it to practice trumpet for the last 450 days in a row, a streak I never approached while in music school or while working as a freelance musician.
“Don’t break the chain.”
Don’t break the chain? A little context, please?
As Isaac detailed in an article for Lifehacker, Seinfeld began by stating the obvious: To be a better comic, you need to write better jokes. To write better jokes, you need to write every day.
Writing every day, of course, is easier said than done. Here’s where the “chain” concept comes in.
Seinfeld suggested hanging a large calendar on the wall and drawing a red X on each day during which a writing session occurred.
After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.
Like most good advice, “don’t break the chain” is simple, elegant, and applicable to a wide range of activities. In fact, you can apply it to anything you’d like to do on a daily basis:
- writing poetry
- practicing guitar
- learning Ruby on Rails
- learning Italian
- reading nonfiction
The specifics don’t really matter. If it’s hard and you want to do it daily, this technique will help you.
So why does this work so well?
Why it works
Simply put, it changes the vague into the specific and the long-term into the short-term.
Say you want to become a better writer (hey, me too!). You know you need to write often, so you decide to write every day.
For a couple of weeks, you do write every day. But eventually, you miss a day. You get back on the horse, but things get crazy at work and you soon miss a couple more days. Three months later, you’ve basically abandoned your goal, and you feel a pang of guilt every time you think about it. Eventually, you resolve to give writing another shot, and the cycle begins again.
The “don’t break the chain” method allows you to sidestep all this. It substitutes a highly specific, immediate goal (avoid the psychological pain of seeing the chain broken) for a vague, long-term goal (develop a new skill or habit). The longer the chain, the more pain you associate with breaking it (and the easier it becomes to do the work each day).
This method works so well that I’ve only found one way to improve it.
Add a pinch of accountability
If you visit my Now page (a summary of what I’ve been up to in the last month), you’ll see the following line:
Practicing trumpet every day, no exceptions (last missed day was 12/23/15)
This date substitutes for a paper calendar, in my case. If I break the chain of practice days, I have to change that date. In front of everyone, so to speak.
I ain’t breaking that chain.
How to do it
If you’re trying to build a skill or establish a new habit, try building a 30-day chain. After the 30-day mark, you can decide whether to continue.
- Choose a habit or skill you’d like to build.
- Set the bar, and set it low at first. Want to build a writing habit? Go for 100 words a day. Working on mindfulness meditation? How about 2 minutes daily?
- Try it for 30 days. If you don’t have easy access to a paper calendar, here’s a printable one courtesy of blogger Karen Kavett.
- If you want some accountability, let me know in the comments and I’ll email you in a month to check in.
This is one of the best strategies out there for habit- and skill-building. If you’ve been struggling to do a hard thing more consistently, you need to try this.