Don’t Break the Chain

My oldest brother gave me a small golden retriever puppy calendar for Christmas. So thoughtful. When I opened it I thought my brother either wants me to always know what day it is or finally adopt a dog. Or he forgot to get me a gift so he scrambled and grabbed this at the checkout line.

But luckily the calendar wasn’t the real gift; it’s what I’m supposed to do with it. My brother recently came across Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy for productivity, the “don’t break the chain” approach. This is what it is: take a calendar (puppies not required, but highly recommended) and lay each month out on your wall so you see every day of the entire year. Next find something you want to do or improve about yourself, for Seinfeld it was writing jokes. So he would write one joke every day. That was his goal, one joke. And every day he wrote he put a red X on that day on the calendar to have a physical representation of his completing the daily task.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld once told blogger and comedy writer Brad Isaac. “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.”

Don’t break the chain. That’s the key. And it’s important to set a manageable goal so as not to get overwhelmed, something you can do every day. Both of my brothers are doing this too. My oldest brother, the gift-giver, is a lawyer and he has a backlog of cases he needs to tidy up so every day he gets one case completely done. My other brother wants to exercise more so every day he does a certain number of push-ups or sit-ups or bikes. For me, I want to become a better writer, which is too vague for a daily goal. But to do that I have decided to read or sit down to write for at least one half hour every day. That’s not much, but it’s a start.

Great writers have often spoken to the virtues of habit. In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes, “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words…but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.” Ernest Hemingway had a more modest goal of 500 words every day. Kurt Vonnegut set aside time each morning during which he was not to be disturbed so he could write.

These writers and others wouldn’t falter, wouldn’t skip a day, because it became part of a routine, a habit. A friend of mine once quit smoking and he said the hardest part wasn’t craving the chemicals, but rather doing things and being places where he would normally smoke, like driving his car or sitting around a campfire. It was moments like these that were tough because his habit for so long was to smoke a cigarette; it became so natural he didn’t even think about it until he stopped.

And that is the point of Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” strategy, to develop a habit, but unlike cigarettes, a habit worth keeping. Great writers get in a writing mindset every day by sitting down, or standing up if that’s their preference, and actively trying to put words down. Maybe they’ll stare at the blinking cursor of a blank Word document for an hour, but they at least tried to write, which is most of the battle. And that is my goal for 2016, to develop a healthy writing habit.

And now that we are a few months into 2016, it’s a good time to assess our resolutions. And this is where the chain is so helpful because it gives me a tangible evaluation of my progress, or stagnancy. When I complete a task I color the day green and if I don’t I color that day black. I have to admit that my chain isn’t complete from January 1 to now. There are more than a few missing links and those skipped days stand out like black gopher holes in a green field of progress. And because of this, after each break, the next chain gets a little longer than the previous one. So I am making progress. And I am writing more than I did last year, which is all I really wanted to do. My brothers are closing cases and shedding pounds and I’m sure Jerry Seinfeld is writing jokes. It’s an effective strategy so if there is something you want to accomplish, start with small daily goals and keep track of your progress with physical marks on a puppy calendar, or kitty calendar if that’s more your thing. Just don’t break the chain.

Nate King

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