In his younger years, software developer Brad Isaac tried his hand at stand-up comedy. He practiced jokes by getting up on stage at open mic nights. After one of these shows, he met comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
"What's your best advice to a young comedian?" Isaac asked Seinfeld.
Seinfeld didn't reveal the secret structure of his best jokes. Nor did he explain how to combat stage fright, or deal with hecklers. Instead he told Isaac that his only secret was hard work. Seinfeld's "secret" was sitting down to write every day, without fail. And Seinfeld gave Isaac a tool to make that happen.
Before digging into Seinfeld's method, let's look at how FarmVille keeps users coming back again and again.
FarmVille is an incredibly addictive game where users manage their own farm. There are many reasons FarmVille is so addictive. From a productivity point-of-view, the following are the most significant:
- You're rewarded for coming back repeatedly to check on your farm. Checking up on your farm regularly to harvest and plant crops earns you virtual coins so you can buy more crops to plant, expand your farm, and buy animals.
- You're given immediate, visual feedback on how you're doing. If you check up on your farm frequently, you'll have healthy crops and livestock. If you don't, your animals will go hungry and your crops with wither away.
- You make an active choice of when you'll return to your farm (but you don't get to choose whether you'll return to your farm, unless you want your farm to go to waste). In other words you "choose" which crops to plant based on when they'll need harvesting (be it in 2 days time or 2 hours time). Because you make this active choice, you feel responsible for seeing it through.
FarmVille isn't alone in being addictive. In fact, games are deliberately set up to keep players engaged. Game designers know they can manipulate players to keep playing by giving out the right rewards at the right time. These designers have the instincts of Goldilocks, looking for the perfect balance between rewards, game difficulty and time played. If rewards are too easy to get, players will lose interest. Likewise if rewards are difficult, or are given out too infrequently. It's about finding the level of rewards that's just right.
As Microsoft games researcher John Hopson writes, within computer games:
Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players.
The reward systems used by game creators to keep players hooked are increasingly being used in non-game applications. Facebook notifications are a prime example of this. It's a simple "reward" system for using Facebook regularly and getting lots of likes and comments from your friends.
DuoLingo's streak feature is particularly effective at keeping users learning every day. The streak increases by one point on every day that a user practices their language skills. But it resets to zero if they miss a day. As such, the desire to maintain a streak can help users get addicted to learning. One DuoLingo user explains:
I wanted to keep my streak, so I kept doing exercises every day. No other method can keep me motivated for so long.
FarmVille keeps users hooked to managing a virtual farm. DuoLingo uses gamification to help users learn a language.
So the question is, could you gamify your work processes to boost your productivity? If your task list provided you with the right kind of rewards, could it keep you hooked to getting things done?
Using Jerry Seinfeld's productivity method, that just might be possible. Remember Seinfeld's advice to Brad Isaac to write every day? Here's how Isaac recounts his meeting with Seinfeld:
[Seinfeld] 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.
Seinfeld is a comedian. To earn a living, he has to be a playful, fun guy. So it makes sense that he'd turn productivity into a game.
Using Seinfeld's Don't Break the Chain game is great for your productivity because:
- You get daily, visual feedback on how you're doing.
- You're motivated by a simple reward system that keeps you doing the work. This stops you fretting over whether your work will be good enough. Only a tiny percentage of jokes that stand-up comedians write ever make it into their regular routine. Yet Seinfeld knows that he must keep writing every day to have a chance of sometimes writing a successful gag.
- You're making an active choice to work because you want to keep your chain in-tact, rather than feeling that you should work.
Since Isaac reported on his meeting with Seinfeld, the Don't Break the Chain technique has been developed into a full-blown productivity system. Let's take a look at how you can apply it.
Step One: Find Your Problem Points
The Don't Break the Chain method is great for building new habits, and for dealing with productivity issues that nag at the back of your mind.
In particular, it's best applied to to:
- Tasks that you put off, such as cleaning your desk or organizing your computer files.
- Tasks that you'd like to become a daily habit, such as exercise, reading, or learning a language.
- Tasks that are part of a big, seemingly insurmountable project, such as writing a novel or developing a product.
Once you've found your pain points, choose one that you want to tackle over the next month. You're going to aim for a thirty day chain.
Step 2: Choose Your Daily Task
Your next step is to turn the problem you've chosen into a task.
For example, if a messy desk is your problem, then your task would be cleaning. If not exercising is your problem, then your task is exercise. If your problem is getting your novel finished, then your task would be writing.
Note that these tasks are broad. You're not setting a specific goal of doing ten pushups, or of completely tidying your desk. That's because broad categories give you a better chance of maintaining your chain.
Step 3: Set Your "Winner's Minimum"
Your winner's minimum is what you must do to add an X to your chain.
Habit building expert James Clear advises that the task should be "meaningful enough to make a difference, but simple enough to get it done." Clear explains:
It would be wonderful if you could write 10 pages a day for your book, but that’s not a sustainable chain to build. Similarly, it sounds great in theory to be able to deadlift like a maniac every day, but in practice you’ll probably be overtrained and burnt out.
I'd go a step further than Clear and recommend setting the bar as low as you can. Here are some examples of small tasks you could commit to:
- Clearing one item from your desk each day.
- Writing one sentence for your novel.
- Exercising for two minutes.
Why set yourself such low standards? Three reasons. First, it maximizes your chances of maintaining the chain. Even if you're having an off day, you can get the tiny task done. And as the chain grows, you'll grow in motivation. Second, no matter how small your task is, you're developing the habit of working on that task every day. Creating a habit is invaluable, no matter how small you start. Third, you can (and often will) do more than the minimum. As all procrastinators know, the key difficulty is getting started. So the smaller your daily task, the more likely you are to get started. And it's only by getting started that you can continue.
Psychology professor BJ Fogg calls this the "floss one tooth" approach. He points out that to build the habit of flossing your teeth, it's best to start with just one tooth per day. Fogg explains:
Successfully flossing one tooth changes how you see yourself. Each day, as you watch yourself floss, you give yourself evidence that you are the type of person who cares for your health. You also see you’re a person who can change, who can bring new habits into your life. As a result of this evidence, part of your identity shifts.
Professional organizer Margaret Lukens decided to literally test this approach. She started flossing one tooth per day. Here's what she discovered:
Don’t try to cajole yourself into action by saying that you’re going to do one tooth then do them all. Just floss one. Do it every day. And watch what happens. I can tell you what happened to me – one day, about three weeks in, I had an itch for completion. I wanted, needed to floss them all. I wasn’t even particularly aware of the change, which seemed natural and unconscious. And now I can’t not floss. Mission accomplished.
When setting your winner's minimum, you also need to decide what you'll do about sick days, weekends and vacations. Do you want to continue the chain whatever you're doing, or however your feel? As long as you set the bar low, this should be possible. For example, if cleaning is one of your tasks, even on vacation you can do a cleaning task each day, such as making your bed. Likewise if writing is your goal, you can take a notepad with you on vacation to make sure you write your daily sentence.
Another approach is to allow yourself alternative chain links. These allow you to complete the chain on special days, even without doing the task. For example, on vacation days you can continue the chain by writing a letter "V" on your calendar, and on sick days you can write a letter "S".
Now you've set your winner's minimum you're ready to get started with the Don't Break the Chain system.
Step 4: Create Your Calendar
The calendar is central to the Don't Break the Chain technique. You've got a number of options:
- Buy a calendar from a store.
- Print a calendar yourself (we've made a 90 day calendar for you).
- Use an app. For iOS users there's the Streaks app. Android users can install Habit Streak Plan. You can also track yourself online at dontbreakthechain.com and Joe's Goals.
The important thing is that your calendar is:
- Visible. If you're using a physical calendar, put it on up a wall where you'll see it every day.
- Accessible. If you're successful, you'll be adding to your calendar daily. So make sure you can reach it. Have a red pen that you keep beside your calendar to fill it in.
- Fun to fill in. Jerry Seinfeld filled his calendar with a red "X" for each day when he continued the chain. If yellow smiley faces work better for you, use those.
Step 5: Don't Break the Chain!
You're ready to go. As you've set yourself such a small task, there's no reason you can't start tomorrow.
So print yourself a copy of our calendar, put it up on your wall, and get started.
Complete the task you've set for yourself daily, and do your best to not break the chain.
You'll be amazed at how far you get taking tiny steps every day.