Don’t Break the Chain


An old friend of mine shared this article from lifehacker. It’s describes Seinfeld’s productivity secret and describes an implementation of it.

If you don’t know, Jerry Seinfeld is a successful comic and TV actor. He rose to fame in the 90s. To stay creative and always be current, he would write his material and jokes every day. His secret to staying productive was to use a paper wall calendar as a way of motivating himself. After every writing session for the day was complete, he would go to his calendar and take a giant red marker and draw a big red X over that day. After awhile, this accumulates on the calendar. And he would see a chain of days that was productive and his goal from then on was to never break the chain. Once he skipped a day, he didn’t receive an X for that day and the chain would be broken.

The LifeHacker article describes an implementation of Seinfeld’s idea. I read this article 3 weeks ago and immediately tried my own version. Everything I did is pretty much the same, the only difference is that I decided to have only one calendar for all 3 tasks I want to do everyday. Whereas the author describes having a separate calendar for each task. For me, I didn’t like the idea of having to manage multiple calendars. So, if I did my 3 tasks for the day, that’s when I get to X my calendar. Also, I chose a green marker instead of red.

My three tasks to do everyday were (1) to practice piano, (2) code my personal project, and (3) write in my journal. My first attempt was on a Thursday, the day after reading the article. Thursday went fine. Friday went fine. But then the weekend came and I derailed. Then on Monday, I focused myself on recommitting to doing this. So far it’s stuck.

It’s crazy. Once you get a chain going, you never want to break it. I’ll be relaxing at the end of a long work day, on my couch, waiting to go to bed. And then it hits me that none of my tasks have been done. I’ll stop whatever it is I’m doing at the time and go get it done.

So far, my piano playing has improved. I’ve already noticed that I learn new tunes faster when I work on them everyday and not every other day. Or waiting for the weekend to hammer through the new music. As for my personal project, it is ahead of schedule. I even decided to put in extra features because of it.

This is the most productive I’ve felt in a long time and my chain is only two weeks long. I would suggest to anyone trying to work on some personal improvement to adopt this strategy in some form and see where it takes them.

Don’t break the chain…

Update March 13, 2012

One of the questions I’ve gotten about “don’t break the chain” is what to do when you’re traveling and one of your tasks is not possible? Do you break the chain or give yourself a reasonable “out” like the LifeHacker author describes.

I think this is where one has to modify the concept for their own needs and what they feel comfortable with doing.

For me, I’m currently traveling for work and how do I do practice my piano. Well like I said, I don’t want to break chain for anything if I can help it and I don’t want to use a vacation X when I don’t think of the time away from home as a vacation.

What I’ve done is packed up my sheet music and every night I do mental practice. In my hotel room or when during down time, I open to the songs I’m learning and slowly and methodically mentally work through the music. Imagining my hands touching the appropriate keys at the right time. Spelling out the chord notes to myself. Trying to go through the motions in my mind. Since this is all mental practice, it’s important to work through the music at slower tempo than what the performance speed is. I read through the music about half the speed I would normally play and sometimes slower if its a complete new piece.

For now, I’ll see what happens when I’m back home and find out if my jazz piano instructor notices a difference.

Anyway, this demonstrate the minimum that I’m comfortable with in not breaking the chain. For you and your daily tasks, it might be different.

Update 2, March 18, 2012

Well, I’m back home and had my piano lesson yesterday and it was the best one I’ve had in a long time. My piano instructor noticed marked improvement, despite the fact I only physically touched the piano 3 days of the week. The other four days was all mental practice. So for those four days I was away, I still earned my calendar X’s.

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73 Responses to Don’t Break the Chain

  1. So earning your “X”s is almost like earning stars in elementary school? I love that idea — I think we need more shiny stars in life…

    Fun post. Who knew Seinfeld could provide such inspiration?

    šŸ™‚

  2. Wow. What a great method. I am definitely going to try to implement this into my daily routine. It is really easy to just want to “veg” out and not do anything productive at the end of the work day, but this definitely gives me the motivation to continue to practice and do music. Thank you for the inspiration to be more productive.

    As a side note, I definitely can see how this would work. We are surely creatures of habit and so if we can make doing certain things habitual, we will naturally want to avoid breaking that chain. I am definitely going to try this out.

  3. I love this idea. Can see how one wouldn’t want to break the chain once it gets going. I’ll have to try this! Thanks for this fun Friday post!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  4. lovescomida says:

    This is such a great idea! I’m currently working on writing my dissertation for my Ph.D. (2 more chapters to go!) and I think I’m going to try this method. I find that there are days when I skip writing and it makes it more difficult to start back up again than when I write for continuous block. I think I will try purple Xs. Thanks for the tip code cheese!

  5. I am a HUGE Seinfeld fan, and I didn’t realise that Jerry Seinfeld did this to motivate himself…clearly, it worked! Brilliant idea!

  6. larrie269 says:

    “Mental” piano practicing? Interesting idea. I remember my piano teacher having me workout my pinky when I was away from the piano, dropping it down on my other hand without letting it bend to strengthen the muscle. It made for a better tone when I was at the piano but people looked at me funny. My piano teacher actually tested the strength of that muscle on the outsides of my hands… I was totally buff… for a skinny, 13-year old girl.
    Keep up the good work.

  7. Pingback: Crazy. Insane. Holy Cow. | Code Cheese

  8. Ryan Sprout says:

    You’ve got a good practice going! Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. Fleetwood SMACK this a good idea!

  10. The Guat says:

    I love Seinfeld, thanks for posting the article on his creative insights…as a writer I feel I always need the practice. Thanks, gonna get a calendar…

  11. Good idea!… so we should definitely apply this to blogging. And reading. I would love to read more. Will give the chain theory a whirl šŸ™‚

  12. rayannsom says:

    Ahh.. I shall try this! so many times I try to start new life-enhancing habit to no avail. I think having the x’s as a visual reminder.. big and bold! it could help. Thanks!

  13. rayannsom says:

    just a question – what kind of project did you code??

  14. Cherrie Zell says:

    I suppose there is a limit to how many tasks to attach to the X. Too many, and there is a greater risk of breaking the chain. But there are so many things to choose from. I might try working it in categories – something creative, something for study and something to keep the writing progressing. For this week, the creative activity could be editing a video. Next week, it could be making more pinch pots. The week after, getting outside with the stills camera. Then back to the video …

    Where shall I hang the calender?

  15. Joe says:

    Thanks for passing along this idea from Seinfeld. I am doing something similar with my blog right here on WordPress, taking advantage of the 365 project, and posting every single day! So far I have not missed a day on either of my two blogs, which feels like a great accomplishment.

    BTW, before I went on vacation, I created eight days worth of posts ahead of time for each blog and scheduled them to load every day that I was gone. I realize that’s not practical for some folks, but, like you, I didn’t want to break the chain unless it was absolutely, positively necessary!

    Good luck with your chain.

  16. jensine says:

    I love the idea… but can my chain be made of daisies šŸ™‚ ?

    • viewpacific says:

      Ha! That’s motivating and smells good, too! I like Mikalee Byerman’s idea above about little stars, too.

  17. Samantha says:

    I love this, and definitely would like to try it out.

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  18. This is terrific! My personal goal for when I retire at the end of next week, is: research at least one topic per week, post the info I learned, then separately post my reflections on the topic(s). I’ll look at the calendar on my homepage with a whole new perspective,

    Thanks for this – and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  19. blackshepherd says:

    thanks!

  20. Sarah says:

    I will have to try this. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Sarah D. says:

    You’ve convinced me. I’m going out to buy another calendar. I think I’ll color code it.

  22. Grumpa Joe says:

    What a great idea. I will try it.

  23. Sheree says:

    This is an excellent idea. I’ve heard a number of times that people who excel (for example, golfers) mentally go through their practice and picture every stroke and what to do in different situations. I didn’t know that worked with piano, but that’s excellent. I think I’ll give this a try. I’ve been looking for ways to make sure that I’m more productive and there are always certain activities that I just can’t fit in. Maybe this will help me prioritize those activities. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  24. Kristen Joy says:

    Awesome idea! How do you pick just three things though? I think I usually get derailed by attempting too many things.

    • It’s really personal decision. I thought of the core of who I am and what I wanted to improve in myself and what I wanted to just get done. The hardest part isn’t selecting what to do, it’s getting started and finding momentum.

  25. About 20 years or so ago (before the days of in-touch anywhere, anytime internet), I had a friend who steadfastly kept a diary/journal. When she travelled or was on vacation, she made jotted notes about things she wanted to include in her diary for each day.

    Once a routine is well established and in focus, it’s almost impossible to break the chain. It’s like having to use the bathroom when you wake up in the morning. Your mind responds to the routine. (I have a six year old son who never pees until he’s been up for 1/2 hour and had a little milk, because that’s how I potty trained him). The human mind absolutely craves routine.

    But, I digress…nevertheless, I hope you stick with the chain. It’s a fantastic idea that helps keep you productive as well as engages your sense of self discipline – a trait that’s all too lacking these days.

  26. I like this concept and will share with my students….however for me the issue is I am always busy organising, planning and doing for others and thus neglect to make time for myself…perhaps my new habit will be 15 minutes dedicated to myself each day …. and I thing my calendar will have smiley faces rather than X’s…… do I start today or tomorrow……

  27. beingjulz says:

    Sweet! Gonna have to figure out what I want to use this on. Glad u shared.

  28. Rai says:

    My chain is being a vegetarian!

  29. shelley says:

    That’s great! Thanks for sharing the idea. I have so many things I want to get done and really should work on them … a little every day. Even trying to blog consistently has been a challenge for me. Perhaps working things into a routine will help me too. I shall have to give it a try.

  30. I’ve been using this same technique for years (except I used a “check mark” instead of an X). If I complete my writing, some reading, and a certain amount of exercise I earn my check for the day. I’ve ended up with a collection of saved calendars loaded with check marks, and if nothing else I know that I’ve been putting the time in.

  31. Brilliant!! I have piano students whose parents can’t afford a piano, so I make them draw out the keyboard on newspaper and practice like that on the dining room table. So far, they’re doing no worse than my other students who do have pianos, and some are doing better! Keep it up! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  32. Your post is highly inspirational and I’ve forwarded it to my students-I think thousands will benefit from this. BTW I used to be a fan of Seinfeld!!

  33. Spoon Feast says:

    Great idea. Being a visual learner, this would help keep me on track. I am going to give it a try for French language study and blog posting. Whether or not I post every day does not matter, but to work on a quality post does. Posting every day isn’t my intention but 2-3 times a week is. Thanks for the great idea.
    French – something every day- anything is better than nothing.
    Your mental piano practice is brilliant. It shows just do something towards the goal. Something is better than nothing.
    Thanks for a great post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  34. that really helps me stay focused and committed to my goals

  35. I heard of an amateur artist who used this idea – she sketched in a page-a-day diary instead of a sketchbook to encourage her to draw every day. It would be really obvious if she missed a day… so she didn’t.

  36. denlyn3 says:

    Great idea, I too sometimes suffer from the weekend and forget to pay attention to my blog and gardening. I am sure this type of system will keep me on track. Thanks for sharing.

  37. Walt Viviers says:

    Thanks Melanio, that’s a great way to keep up a routine. I want to schedule painting, designing, and playing guitar in this fashion, as each requires dedication, and who doesn’t love building chains?

  38. maryfollowsthelamb says:

    I can see how that would be a good motivation. But for me, I’d break the chain to make interesting patterns that month.

    There’s one in every crowd, hey?

  39. Dianna says:

    There is a web site for writers called 750 words a day that does this. I did six months straight without breaking a day, and then I had a really long work day and forgot. It was momentarily devastating. Now I am back on board, kind of. But try the website if your thing is writing. It is very helpful

  40. baddaddvice says:

    Gonna have to pass this along to my followers

  41. Seasonsgirl says:

    Congrats on freshly pressed! I like your blog and this one definitely shows practice makes progress šŸ™‚

  42. Reblogged this on Thinking Environment and commented:
    #DoSomethingDifferent

  43. Mudmap says:

    excellent principles – taking the “thought” out of the decision-making of will I or won’t I do it today means you actually do the work – slow and steady wins the race! I will be thining about how I can apply this in my life.

  44. AsheX says:

    Love the post. I have been doing something like this very similar. Though I don’t mark X’s but I do make a schedule for myself. However, I like how you imagined yourself playing the keys when travelling. šŸ™‚

  45. thingsiamangryabout says:

    This is great! I’m definitely going to try this (of course the trick will be getting motivated enough to go out and buy a calendar for it). I might try it with some of my piano students too. They are mostly all under 10 years old, but I reckon the same desire to “not break the chain” will be there.

  46. E A M Harris says:

    I’m a To Do lists person and find that helpful, but your idea sounds very useful. Thanks for posting it.

  47. Phil says:

    Along with a number of other things which have coincidentally happened over the last week, I think I am going to take inspiration from your post and employ this tactic. Thank you!

  48. Great idea, I use a whiteboard so that you don’t need to keep printing off blank months. Funny to see lots of cheese inspired blog names!

  49. joyceahood says:

    Mental practice works even for a physical activity like tai chi. When you are sick in bed, you can imagine doing the movements and feel the energy begin to move. As for journaling, it has become so habitual for me that not writing feels painful.

  50. Odhiambo says:

    Its a really great idea. Its just a matter of customizing to cater for ones needs…

  51. Run, Chicky! says:

    Love this idea! And just think, doing something for weeks or a month or two makes it habit.
    I’m incorporating this into my daily routine.
    Thanks,!

  52. I’ve been something similar to this in my Filofax. I have a month on two pages calander where I track my word count for the day. Seeing all those days where I did write something motivates me to keep it up every day.

  53. That’s kind of like on 750words.com. It’s a site that you log on every day and write 750 words, and you have to try to keep going for days in a row. If you get a certain number of days in a row, you get a badge. And nobody can see what you write, only you.

    I haven’t been there since early last month.

  54. Pingback: “don’t break the chain” « thoughtswithoutorder

  55. OperationJA says:

    Just read this awesome post. I like how you posted your updates as you did them. Gonna start one of my own now!

    You rock man! I thank you~

  56. We all need easy ways to keep up our motivation – cheers!

  57. Pingback: cheese and chains « carvingtimefromlife

  58. Mary Pascall says:

    If it’s good enough for Seinfeld….simple, but effective. Will give it a try.

  59. Pingback: Bobbing Along « An Oasis At Home

  60. You found a great work-around for your piano practicing. I am a true believer in “mental practicing”. In fact, my vocal teacher required it. We were to stand in front of a mirror every day and practice “performing” the song without actually making any sound. I also found it very helpful for practicing my staging movements slowly in my mind. Walking mentally through each movement, each gesture – it makes a great way to center myself just before going on stage.

    As for the “unbreakable chain” concept. I love it! It’s very challenging to stay so focused, but as you are finding, it can have fantastic results. They say anything can become a habit once you do it 21 days, so, perhaps you should do a follow-up post after 21 days or 4 weeks or so and let us know if it has gotten easier. Congrats on FP. Well deserved. – MoSop

  61. I definitely NEED to do this. I haven’t been productive for the last month or so.
    Cool that Seinfeld used this approach as well.
    First things first I’ll need one of them calendars…

    Thanks for this post!
    I’m hoping it’ll help me the same way it seems to be helping you.

  62. Reblogged this on stevenwadeedinburgh and commented:
    Steven Wade Edinburgh and Dundee likes this…

  63. Like this, cool.
    Steven Wade Edinburgh and Dundee

  64. Pingback: Set forward to your goal! « Ahkeno’s Blog

  65. Pingback: An extensive documentation of one of my worst personal flaws and how I hope to resolve it | to the neon god they made

  66. Reblogged this on Le Maison Loup and commented:
    On Friday I like to reblog something I came across during the week I really enjoyed. This is a great idea.

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