Don’t break the chain

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

-Jim Ryun, American politician and former Olympian

As kids, we are always encouraged to dream big and have grand ambitions in life. Unfortunately, very rarely are we told how to go about achieving our goals.

While I had always been a ‘dreamer’, senior year of college is when I began to explore ways that would actually help me reach my sky-high aspirations.

One day while (ironically) wasting time on the internet, I came across an old post on Lifehacker detailing how Jerry Seinfeld keeps himself productive. Like many things that cause life-impacting change, it was stupidly simple:

  1. Get a wall calendar. Put it somewhere that you will see it frequently.
  2. For every day you perform the task you are trying to make a habit, mark an X or draw a line.
  3. Don’t break the chain.

That’s it.

Over the past two years this simple trick has helped me turn several activities into daily habits, including reading, meditating, running everyday (before I discovered CrossFit), and writing. It was also the inhibitor that finally helped me quit smoking once and for all.

While Seinfeld only (as far as I know) used this for joke writing, I have expanded it to three activities on my own calendar. This is the magic number for me- new habits are hard to create enough as it is, and anything more would probably be overwhelming.

Again, it’s so simple, but similar to how people can become aggressive over recreational sports, when points, numbers, and streaks get involved, shit gets real. After getting that first run of four or five days going, the possibility of your streak ending suddenly seems like a matter of life or death.

When I was quitting smoking and somebody would offer me a cigarette, the calendar would flash in my head. It was in my conscious, and the calendar was judging my every move. Temporary gratification didn’t seem worth it when it meant that I would have to stare at a gaping hole on my calendar the rest of the month. A symbol of my weakness on display for all to see.

My calendar is always evolving as I get interested and become proficient in new activities, but right now a black line across a day signifies 50 minutes of writing (or two Pomodoros), a green line signifies I read 25 pages that day (sometimes I lessen the amount for more information-dense books), and orange means I completed three Spanish lessons on Duolingo, which usually equates to around 15-20 minutes of practice.

I don’t really need to have writing on the board anymore because it is now so ingrained into my daily routine, but I still like to keep track of it for accountability purposes. For instance:

The numbers atop my calendar are the hours I spent writing that month. In addition to just being a data junkie when it comes to productivity in general, I keep track of this figure because I am curious where I will be in my writing career when I reach the 10,000 hour mark, as made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Basically, the idea is that 10,000 hours of effort at something equals mastery.

I also enjoy seeing my work rate on a month-to-month basis. Like a daily streak ending, seeing this number drop from the month prior is extremely motivating.

It’s amazing how much power that something as simple as a line on paper or a board can have on a person, and how a little marker can make dreams come true.

What keeps you productive?

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