Don't Don't Break the Chain... Make the Chain!

Make the chain!
(source: Wikipedia)
One of the worst productivity tips I've ever heard came from Jerry Seinfeld.  Here's the "tip": never skip a day of work.  Specifically, as a comedian-writer Seinfeld's goal was to write as much as possible.  To this end, he marked a calendar with a big red "X" for every day he worked.  After a few days of this, a chain of X's would form.  Then came the productivity goal: "Don't break the chain."

I've tried this trick for some activities and I've found it to be a terrible piece of advice.  Here's why: I always failed.  Eventually, I broke the chain.  Eventually, life reared up and made it impossible to stick with a habit.  Something always comes up: illness, events, deadlines, fatigue.  And guess what?  Failing sucks!

The problem with "Don't Break the Chain" is that it is an avoidance goal: it frames a goal or habit as something not to do.  The problem with this is that doesn't describe the behavior that one should be doing and leaves too much room for failure, as I've described.

Instead, I propose the following counter to Seinfeld's tip: "Make a chain."  Track every time you do something.  Make a check mark. Stick a sticker.  Put a coin in a jar. Whatever.  Just give yourself credit for every time you do it right and keep track of how many times you did it.  In this case, it doesn't matter if you skip a day.  Pick up the next day, or the next.  Or the next week.  Small failures don't matter if your goal is to make a huge chain; just pick up where you left off.

This has worked great for me while I've taken up running.  At first, I got all bummed out when I missed a day of my running plan: I broke the chain.  But then I reframed the goal as "make the chain" and now I can never fail.  If I miss a day, I just pick up where I left off.  Each workout I complete, I cross it off.  I see a permanent record of my progress that cannot be taken away.

Stay happy :)

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