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Don't Break the Chain says Seinfeld


2012-10-26

Not too long after starting Tiny Habits, I decided to re-visit a productivity technique that I had read about a while ago, but never gave too much thought to. It’s called “Don’t Break the Chain” and it’s attributed to comedian Jerry Seinfeld. I’m sure he wasn’t the first person to do something like this, but it might be thanks to him that the name of it proliferated. Who knows?

Don’t break the chain - Explained

The idea is extremely simple. Have some sort of task/activity (large or small) that you want to progress on and make sure you set aside time to do it every day (at the end of this post, I list my current chains and results). After successful completion of the day’s task, put a large, satisfying ‘X’ down on your calendar for the day. After a few days, you’ll have a running chain of ‘X’s. The idea is that the longer the chain of ’X’s you have, the more motivated you will be to continue doing your task. Hence, you’re trying to not ’break the chain’, meaning you’re more likely to progress on your tasks and projects.

Don’t break the chain - My version

I’d tried something like this in the past (before I had heard of Seinfeld’s version). It was one of my New Month’s resolutions in 2010. I tried to turn January into a ‘month of health’ where I would not eat certain types of food (largely junk food, pop, and fast food). I made up a calendar by hand, but instead of just putting down ’X’s for the days where I didn’t eat anything bad, I allotted weekly allowances for how much bad food I could eat.

Alongside the idea that we have a limited supply of willpower, I knew that I couldn’t just cut out all my cravings cold turkey. So, per week, I allotted myself a very small amount of pop/junk food/fast food I could eat. Each day, before getting into bed, I would go over to the calendar on my wall and note that day’s consumption. At the end of the week I had a column where I would tally up that week’s ‘sins’ to see if I went over my allowance.

Now, here’s the fun part: Instead of just having a fixed weekly allowance that, if I went over, I would just go into some sort of shame spiral - I added a twist. I put a ‘punishment’ on going over the allowance. For every 1 ‘unit’ that I went over my allowance, I would have to do something like 100 push-ups  or run a kilometre, or similar. I wasn’t trying to equate caloric consumption and expenditure or anything crazy, but I just wanted to make sure I had to work for my junk food.

I stayed within my desired allowances for the first week, and then for the next 3 weeks I didn’t touch a single piece of ‘bad’ food. For each of those junk-free days, I put a giant X on my calendar. What I found is that my cravings for sweets went away after 4-5 days without any sugar-rich foods. Also, even though I basically ended up going cold turkey on the bad food, it never felt like it because I always had that allowance in my pocket. And then, even with that allowance (which I dipped into twice), I never felt guilty because I knew that if I did go over it, I could make up for it by doing something physical.

The only real downside of my old technique is that it took a decent amount of time to plan exactly what I would cut out, my allowances, and my punishments. The reason it took so long is because they all had to be reasonable, realistic, and manageable with regards to the rest of my life (I think I was going into exam time, which is typically a junk food-ridden period).

Back to Seinfeld

So, back to the matter at hand… Don’t break the chain. I’ve started up on this to see how I do (writing this entry is actually allowing me to put an ‘X’ on one of my chains!). I have 5 chains going, totaling only about an hour of my day. Much like with the Tiny Habits, I’m more likely to follow through with these things while in my familiar habitat. The issue I run into is that I don’t yet have a ‘spot’ where I work consistently, so I can’t post my calendars in constant view. They are currently on the wall next to my bed, so I see them before I go to sleep, but by then it’s usually too late to do that day’s task.

While you can use any calendar, or make your own, or go digital, I’ve downloaded these ones and printed them out. After I get a bit more setup, I might try to find one place to work and stick them up right behind my laptop, so I can’t avoid seeing them. The other option is to make them into a live wallpaper for my desktop. Also, if I keep this technique going until next year, I’ll probably make a larger calendar so that my ’X’s feel more satisfying (they’re a little small right now and hard to see from far away).

My current chains

  • Exercise - at least 30 minutes of exercise of any intensity. This just gets me up and out of the house, which is key when you work out of a home office.
  • Creative - I need something that gets my mind away from engineering and programming, so last month I allotted time to learn 3D modelling in Blender. Very tough for me, but probably a good hobby to have. I also use this chain to include these blog posts, even though they’re not very ‘creative’. My hope is that writing posts will eventually lead to breakthroughs in other things I’m doing. Not sure how, but still…
  • Coding - Since I’ve changed jobs from being a software developer to a business analyst, this chain will help keep my programming skills sharp. Also, it’s a good way to force me to progress on some of my side projects.
  • Professional development - This keeps my career-oriented skills up-to-date. Recently, this chain has been dedicated to improving skills I would use in consulting.
  • Healthy eating - This month was no fast food. I don’t eat fast food THAT much as it is, but arguably, any amount is too much.

My results

Simply put, I’ve made more headway on my long-standing projects (like this website) in the past month, than I have in the past year! If you combine “Don’t Break the Chain” with GTD, you’ll be a productivity machine (or, well, a machine)!

As this post has gone on long enough, I’ll leave it at that. If anyone has tried the “Don’t Break the Chain” productivity technique, I’d love to hear about their experiences!