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Jerry Seinfeld might not be the first person you think of when you’re trying to be productive or stick to a habit, but he has shared some advice that has inspired many people to keep working toward their goals, despite any obstacles they’re facing.
And, while Seinfeld’s advice pertained to those in the entertainment industry, the message can be applied universally.
When talking to a rookie comedian who wanted to make it to the top, Seinfeld told him that in order to be successful, he should spend some time every single day developing new material, even if he wasn’t feeling up to it one day. The important thing was to never miss a day–never break the chain–in order to continue improving.
While you may not be a budding comedian, think about how this practice could help you achieve your goals. Not only will this trick make you stick to a habit (or break a bad habit), it can also help you stop procrastinating and start seeing results pertaining to your goals.
I have first-hand experience to show you that this works.
When I took up running, one thing I was often lacking first thing in the morning when my alarm went off was willpower. On one hand, I could struggle to get up, get dressed, and go out in the cold and exert energy…and on the other, I could stay warm and give in to my lethargy.
Often, the easy choice was to lay right back down and stay cozy. But, once I started a chain for myself, which gave me a visual representation of my efforts and progress, I had the willpower each morning to get up and go. And there is a lot to be said for that at 4:30 on a January morning.
In this article, I am going to talk about how this practice can help you stick to any habit. I will also offer you some tips and tools for how you can create and maintain your chain.
Let’s get started.
What Does “Don’t Break the Chain” Mean?
This motivating leverage technique will help you work on whatever habit you’re aiming to adopt every day. When you’re trying to start a new habit, it’s often easy to do it for a week and then stop. In fact, research has shown this to be true. Physicians have admitted to avoiding taking the time or going through the trouble to even suggest or explain small lifestyle changes that could greatly benefit their patients.
This is because the strategies that they would offer to patients (such as starting a daily exercise routine or reducing fast food intake) don’t have any built-in systems for maintenance. Physicians have found that patients may or may not even begin the new habit, and if they do, it doesn’t last long.
This is where Seinfeld’s advice comes in. When he was trying to make it in the world of comedy, Seinfeld put a big calendar up in his apartment and vowed to write at least one joke every day. After he completed this task, he would put a red X over the day.
Soon after, he had started a chain of red Xs that served as a visual reminder of the consistency of the work he was doing.
So how can you apply this to your life? Let’s look at a few tips to help you avoid breaking your own chain.
How to Make Your Chain
You will first want to decide what habit you want to start (or what bad habit you want to stop). Then get a calendar that you can put somewhere that you will see–somewhere you can’t avoid coming across it every day. Once you begin your chain and start to see the benefits of your efforts, you will be motivated to not break the chain of your line of Xs.
An endless number of studies have shown the relationship between inertia and habit change. Inertia is a scientific term that simply says any object that is not in motion will stay that way unless it is altered by a force. Additionally, any object that is in motion will stay in motion until forces work against it to stop it.
The same goes for habit change. Once you start a habit and stick to it, you will keep going. If you are used to grabbing fast food on your way home from work, you will continue to do so, as it is a part of your routine. The initial force of changing your habit is the main obstacle to making a change.
For example, let’s say you want to start a meditation habit by using the method of not breaking the chain. In this instance, you would find a calendar that you wanted to use, and on the back of it, write down a few reasons you want to create this habit. What is your ultimate goal and what are the benefits that meditation will bring to your life? These ultimate purposes will not only be there in case you need a boost, they will also help you measure your progress as you’re creating and building your chain.
For example, before you start your habit of meditation, you may write that one of your purposes is to feel less stressed out so you stop taking things out on your spouse. After several weeks, you may refer to this purpose and realize that you haven’t fought with your spouse in over a week. This progress will serve as motivation to continue your habit of meditation.
Make sure to start small. In fact, start so small that there is no excuse that could stand in your way of achieving your goal for the first day. Just like Seinfeld said to this new comedian, you only have to do one thing each day. Write one joke or do any small task that is related to your ultimate goal. Small wins accumulate into major improvements quickly, as consistent action will result in compounding interest.
So, don’t try to start meditating for 30 minutes per day. Instead start with just five. Then next week, increase your practice to seven minutes per day. You can set aside this small amount of time to get your habit going. Doing this will prevent you from exhausting your willpower at the very beginning of this practice.
The next step is to start today. Don’t put this trick off until tomorrow–that defeats one of its main purposes of reducing your procrastination. If you can start today–or right now–do it.
The next step is to take pleasure in drawing a large X over today on your calendar. As you’re doing it, think about what it means–you made some progress. You took a step toward your ultimate goal. You started the inertia.
And the next step is simple…it is called day 2. And the longer you go without breaking the chain, the easier it will be for you to keep getting to the next day. It will become a part of your routine and therefore you won’t be able to avoid gaining the benefits from it.
So what happens when you’re on day 25 and it’s 11:00 at night and you haven’t completed your task? Turn over your calendar and read the reasons you originally wrote for wanting to start this habit. Look to your original motivation to help you keep moving forward. Then look at your chain and see how much progress you’ve made so far. Doing this will help you maintain that motivation and complete the task.
While you’re using this trick, only aim to improve at a trajectory that you’re confident you can maintain. If you go too fast, you will risk experiencing burn out and possibly want to quit. Go at a pace that seems reasonable and sustainable.
There are some tools out there that can help support you in not breaking your chain. Let’s take a look at them.
Tools to Help Your Never Break the Chain
Following through with this advice requires some tools, and while you will want to find the ones that work best for you, I’m going to suggest some basic options that you can start with. First, you will need a calendar. You can use the same calendar that you use for your family’s schedule, or get an individual wall calendar to start documenting your chain.
You will also want to get a red marker (or a color of your choice) so your Xs can stand out to you each day and your chain ends up being a bright visual reminder for you.
If you want to use an app, something like Evernote can help you keep track of your chain, or there is actually an app called Chains CC that is made specifically for helping you keep your chain going. Or, if you already use a habit tracker that works well for you, keep using it and start your chain there.
No matter what tools you determine will help you the most, make sure that they’re easily accessible so you will be reminded each day about your chain.
People often think that success requires one huge effort and goals are only accomplished using an unreachable amount of willpower and self-motivation. However, the truth is, the only thing that you need to reach your goals is dedication to consistency.
Because we know that small habits can have a huge impact on your life, it’s clear to see why this method is effective. This little habit is sure to gain momentum, which will eventually urge you to prioritize your task each day in your schedule.
The purpose behind not breaking your chain is to get rid of the excuses that you once had that caused you to procrastinate. Sure, you’re tired, you have too much going on, you can start your task on another day, but if you keep telling yourself these excuses, you’ll keep making it easier to let every day pass you by without even drawing that first X.
As soon as you start to see a chain form, you will feel the motivation to keep it going, which will help you continue to grow your habit and reap the benefits. This process is effective because it helps build positive habits, it doesn't require you to do too much, it gives you a visual representation of your progress each day, and it makes you feel accomplished and productive, even if you only did a small amount of work one day.
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.