This is a Great Time to Start Your “Don’t Break the Chain” Routine

I looked up at my 2020 CQ Roll Call congressional calendar printout that I have pinned on my wall the other day and felt incredibly accomplished. No, not because Congress has been doing a lot,1It hasn’t… but that’s probably for the best, all things considered. or because I met some major professional goal already, but because every single day this year so far had a big “X” through it.

I draw a big ol’ X through every day in which I accomplish at least one of four daily goals that I set at the beginning of each year. These are daily goals that take energy and focus, or at least some self-control, but can also be traded off so accomplishing one feels like a net positive day even when I fail to accomplish another. For me, in 2020, those four goals have been: read for at least 30 minutes, work out, eat fewer than 400 calories before 4:30 PM (an intermittent fasting thing), and don’t drink alcohol (not because I have a problem or anything, more for budget reasons and for staying productive during the week. It’s a nice supplement during workdays where I may be too tired to get home and read or work out, but can easily just not grab a beer during dinner). If I work out in the morning or read a book on the bus on the way to work, terrific, I can do basically whatever I want the rest of the day. Then, the next day, I keep it going — I don’t stop, get one of these daily goals every day and don’t break the chain! 

This “don’t break the chain” productivity technique was actually inspired by a Lifehacker article from well over a decade ago that advocated for this system, which is derived from Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method. The legend goes that in order to hone his comedic skills, Seinfeld would spend time writing one joke a day, and would put a big red X on each day of his giant wall calendar that he did so. Before long, Seinfeld had weeks of X’s, and not wanting to break the chain became incentive enough for him to keep up his daily joke writing routine. Making it a daily requirement to get one of those X’s on the calendar uses the power of “compounding interest,” to solve the problem wherein “skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next,” and forbids cheat days. You have to have done something every day to keep the chain going.

I’ve tweaked it a bit for my purposes; instead of pursuing one definitive goal, I pursue a tiny set of them. This is because working out every single day is very difficult when you have a job and a social life and muscles that get tired after multiple workouts in a row, and because I like to have breakfast sometimes, and throw a Bloody Mary in there if it’s brunch! So I set four broader goals to give myself a bit of flexibility while also keying into several places I want to improve myself.

Given that recent events have necessitated that we cut down on the time most of us spend commuting and socializing and left us stuck in the house, I’ve found it significantly easier to get these goals knocked out, to the point where I’m regularly hitting two or three of them a day instead of just one. And I get them done early during a morning workout or by reading when I wake up, alleviating the pressure to get something done later in the day, which is harder to avoid during a regular schedule. This adds up to weeks of X’s on my coveted congressional calendar, and what is, so far, a perfect year. It also encourages me to keep going lest I break what is now a four-months-long chain! 

So if you’re also stuck at home, now’s a great time to start implementing this system if you’re interested in picking up a self-improvement goal or two. So that by the time this is all over, you’ve got a good chain going that you’re encouraged to keep up even when society reverts to as close to normal as it can ever be again. And this doesn’t just have to apply if things are boring and you’re anxious to get back to your usual routine; what you define as a goal that takes effort is up to you. If you were laid off during the crisis, a goal could be spending 30 minutes a day looking into new career opportunities; or you could set a daily goal to not text your ex; or a goal to speak with a loved one for at least 30 minutes on the phone.

I’ve found what works for me is four to five goals a year. Here are some suggestions as to where you may want to get started:

  • Health and fitness goals. Working out, not eating junk, not drinking, etc. I once even toyed with the idea of throwing flossing on there but decided that was too easy to warrant me being able to count a whole day as “accomplished” even though all I did was floss.
  • A daily but somewhat difficult budgetary goal: if you get takeout a lot, “not dining or ordering out” might be an option; maybe “not buying anything” is a reasonable goal in this category too; or if you have a habit of going to the fancy coffee shop every morning and should probably just be making coffee at home, chock that up to a goal.
  • Professional or developmental goals: reading, writing an article, practicing an instrument for 30 minutes.
  • Social or “better you” goals: do you have habits that you don’t like but wish you had the energy for or incentive to change? Maybe you’re a messy person and could set a 15 minute cleaning goal. Maybe you want to spend less time playing video games. Or perhaps you want to get into a habit of being in bed by 11 PM.

The goals should be achievable by self-control or within 30-60 minutes of your time each day. Otherwise, you’ll get discouraged and the chain will break more often than not. But they should also be difficult enough that you can’t just cruise through your regular daily routine and somehow still do a couple of them; you should choose things you want to change about yourself and become better at. This is just a method that may work for you and encourage you to keep going. If it doesn’t work for you, find something that does.

This is a unique time in human history and many of us who are fortunate to be healthy have found ourselves with a surplus of spare time and idle hands. If months from now you look back and wonder what you did with all those months stuck inside and feel like you wasted a year, you can just look up at all those X’s on your calendar and know that you improved yourself every day.