Break the Chain: Productivity Needs Goals

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chain-metal-iron-links-of-the-chain-connectionThe story goes that in the early 90s, Jerry Seinfeld gave some advice on how to become a better comedian to software developer Brad Issac, who proceeded to share that information with Lifehacker in 2007. Seinfeld’s advice? To become a better comedian, you must create better jokes. How do you create better jokes? Write every day. Seinfeld told Isaac to do as he did, to purchase a large calendar with every day of the year on it, and for every day you write, put a big “X” in the day. After a while, you have created a chain of days. Then there is one goal:

Don’t break the chain.

We have been inundated with productivity techniques ranging from using a Pomodoro timer, to Inbox Zero, to Getting Things Done, and far more varied approaches. We all want to be able to do what we do better and faster, cutting down our workloads so that we can produce great results while still having the time to enjoy what truly matters to us. The impetus behind the idea of not breaking a chain is not strictly one of productivity, but forming new habits. When you do the same thing every day, it is bound to get easier and eventually will become part of your daily routine.

In typical fashion, I took this concept to its logical extreme.

In September 2015, I launched my freelancing website, where I aimed to write every day. In order to better facilitate this process, I didn’t want to stop myself from writing about any specific topic; I covered ideas as diverse as how team dynamics in MOBAs could translate into real world situations, lessons in office culture gleaned from watching five weeks of horror movies, and the innate power of language. In many ways, my blog served a journal, a place to hone my skills on a smaller scale.

In the beginning, I found it was actually easier to make myself write consistently every day.  However, given that I was unemployed at the time, I didn’t have much else to occupy myself outside of constant job searching. When I found a job in January, things changed immeasurably. While an argument could be made that the skills that I had honed through this habit of mine are what got me the position, I found myself with less and less time to create, with new posts more often than not being written on the same day they went up after I got home from work, not really in the mood to do much of anything.

This is where things bottlenecked for me, so I’m going to jump back into the past for a moment. In October, I got an Apple Watch which, as you likely know, boasts a suite of fitness-tracking features and notifications. I have not had the most healthy or active lifestyle, so I wanted to make a genuine attempt to consistently hit my fitness goals. Up until December, this wasn’t particularly challenging; it took some effort, but nothing that an hour or two a day couldn’t resolve.

As one of my goals for the new year, I decided that I wanted to try to read more, as well. You can probably see where this is going. Things progressed smoothly for a while, but around the middle of February, I started having genuine trouble trying to juggle all of these chains that I had formed in the five hours I had between when I got home from work and when I went to bed.

Seinfeld had only one chain, and that’s the way it should be

They were all important to me for their own reasons, but there was no way to reconcile which was actually the most important. I came to realize that enough was enough and that the seven-month chain that I had been proudly building and maintaining had started to wrap itself around my neck. So I did something that Seinfeld and all the other proponents of the strategy may have found blasphemous:

I willingly broke one of my chains.

We all want to be able to do a lot of new things, whether that’s reading more or learning a new language, but the overlooked issue with the chain method is that trying to keep too many going at once is not sustainable. The old adage “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind; by trying to juggle too many things at once, you can’t sufficiently focus on what should be the most important.

When the chain was broken, my blog had 231 pieces of content on it. I had been maintaining the chain only to keep it running; I had no plan, no goal in mind to justify my continued commitment. Even if I write every day for years, I’m probably not going to become Seinfeld. Trying to start a new habit by keeping a chain going is a sustainable practice, but there should be a reason or point to it, with a tangible endpoint. Otherwise, you’re hustling just to hustle.

If you want to build your own chain, start with something simple that you’re sure you can accomplish every single day. Measure your progress over time, deciding if you’d like to scale back or be more aggressive with your efforts. Ultimately, chains aren’t meant to be sustained forever, but you can look at what you’ve accomplished and be inspired to start on the next chain. Just don’t expect to be awesome at everything you want to do overnight.

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