7 min

GTD - Don't break the chain - Seinfeld productivity tip

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Hacker News:

Excerpts from the 2007 Lifehacker article:

I had to ask Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic. He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here's how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you'll have a chain. 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," he said again for emphasis.

Over the years I've used his technique in many different areas. I've used it for exercise, to learn programming, to learn network administration, to build successful websites and build successful businesses.

Daily action builds habits. It gives you practice and will make you an expert in a short time. If you don't break the chain, you'll start to spot opportunities you otherwise wouldn't. Small improvements accumulate into large improvements rapidly because daily action provides "compounding interest."

Skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next.

I've often said I'd rather have someone who will take action—even if small—every day as opposed to someone who swings hard once or twice a week. Seinfeld understands that daily action yields greater benefits than sitting down and trying to knock out 1000 jokes in one day.

In my one-day mountain dulcimer class taught in September 2007 by someone affiliated with the Collingwood Arts Center, the teacher advised us that it's better to practice five minutes a day, every day than it is to practice for an hour one day a week.

In April 2008, I began walking for exercise. My "goal" then was to still be doing it five years later. No weight loss goals or anything like that. The main objective was to exercise nearly every day with no long, multi-week or multi-month layoffs. Be consistent. I've done that. I walk on the treadmill in our basement or outside. I rarely miss a day. The longest layoffs were for a few days from being ill or being on vacation, although I managed walks while on vacation.


Excerpts from the 2012 Lifehacker article:

I decided to start with three goals to try it out and so I put three calendars on the wall for the month of December. I marked one Writing, one Exercise, and one Cleaning. After a week I'd written about 30 pages, done 700 push ups and 980 sit ups, jogged several miles, and my apartment was as clean as a catalog photo. Everything was easy, my progress was visible, and my tasks started to become addictive.

The entire process is remarkably easy and you can get everything ready in about 15 to 30 minutes.

  1. Figure out your goals. Start with no more than three, and add a fourth goal after three weeks if you can handle it.
  2. Set daily minimums for each goal. Things like "I will run one mile" or "I will put away 10 stray items" work better than setting a time limit.
  3. Set your boundaries and rules. Because this process expects you to work every single day, you have to figure out what you're going to do when you're sick, on vacation, or just find yourself in a situation where you won't be accomplishing your goal that day but don't deserve the punishment of a broken chain.
  4. Print out a calendar for each goal and label it with that goal. I prefer a series of monthly calendars because there's more room to make a big X, but traditionally "Don't Break the Chain" uses one year-long calendar. Either way, put these calendars up on your wall where you'll see them regularly.
  5. Buy a fat red marker, or any marker—the fat ones just make bigger and more rewarding Xs.
  • Cleaning: Do one chore per day. For example, put away 10 stray items, vacuum, take out the trash and put in a new trash bag, clean the counter tops, and so on. Pick one, do it.
  • Exercise: Do a portion of your exercise routine each day. Go for a jog or walk, plus push ups, sit ups, free weights, or another targeted exercise. Do as many repetitions as possible and take no breaks. (This amounts to 15-20 minutes of exercise, which is really all you need to get reasonably fit.)
  • Writing: Write one page per day, or revise three pages of existing writing.
  • Development: Complete one specific task on your development list. This may mean styling an element in CSS, writing a new function, or fixing a bug.


HN comment:

I really like the Seinfeld method. It works surprisingly well for me.

I first came across it when I started using 750words.com, a journaling website. The website prominently displays your streak at the top of every page, and there are achievements and rewards for building up longer and longer streaks. At the moment my streak is at 572 days, which is testament to the effectiveness of the method.

Unfortunately, the Seinfeld method, in my experience, isn’t perfect.
For me, it’s only really good for small activities that can be done daily for small amounts of time. I’ve tried using it for work projects on several occasions (for example, doing 2 hours of extra work a day) and I’ve failed every time.
I recently came across a fix, though - http://beeminder.com

Beeminder is essentially a more configurable version of the Seinfeld method. I first tested it on a goal that I’ve tried (and failed) to do several times before - ‘read and make notes on business books for one hour a day, six days a week’. Not that hard, but for some reason, I’ve always fallen off the wagon with this particular goal.

With Beeminder, I found it effortless. There’s something strangely satisfying about adding data onto the website. I ended up completing 30 days without much difficulty.

Since then, I’ve added a ton of extra goals with Beeminder, and I’ve been accomplishing them surprisingly easily. I’ve been gradually ratcheting up the difficulty on each goal (for example: I recently started with the goal of ‘spend 3 hours working on own projects every week’, and I slowly increased the goal requirements at a rate of 3 hours extra per week; currently, I’m doing an extra 24 hours a week without much difficulty on my part), which I find works really well.

I’ve also started using Beeminder for other goals like ‘meditate for 5 minutes every morning’, ‘go to the gym 3 times a week’, ‘cook at least 5 new recipes every week’, 'spend 30 minutes cleaning the apartment 3 times a week', and it’s worked incredibly well for each of them.

Beeminder has inspired a massive change in me in a surprisingly short amount of time. I’ve always thought I had a procrastination problem, or that I’m simply lazy, but Beeminder is showing me that this isn’t the case. I recommend giving it a go.

#gtd - #blog_jr

By JR - 1265 words
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