[Workflow Guide] Accomplish Your Big Goals With Don’t Break the Chain
Build a productivity streak one day at a time (with monthly and annual calendar templates to help)
Don’t Break the Chain (or The Seinfeld Method) is a productivity strategy coined after comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Curiously, he’s claimed to have no part in its inception.
The productivity method commits you to completing a daily goal for an extended period of time. Each day that you complete your daily goal, you add an “x” to a calendar. Eventually, you build a chain of x’s that extends days, weeks, or months. This streak of accomplishments is increasingly rewarding and dissuades you from breaking the chain. Eventually you’re able to build a long-term habit like daily journaling or morning stretching.
Each “x” on your calendar represents a step towards your future self. Every workout you mark on the calendar is a commitment to becoming a stronger version of you. The consecutive evenings spent studying guarantee your academic success in the future.
The Don’t Break the Chain Method is particularly helpful for those who:
- Like a pen and paper approach to getting things done
- Want a simple and streamlined productivity method
- Tend to set big audacious goals but fail to follow through
- Want to build good habits for the long-term (no quick fixes here!)
- Feel inexplicably satisfied by visually crossing things off a list
- Enjoy a little gamification to their productivity
Why 'Don’t Break the Chain' is powerful for building habits
If you’ve ever set a goal, you might be familiar with this three day arc:
Day One is easy. Motivated by a new beginning and resolute in your goal, the first 24 hours of making a change are manageable. You pack a lunch to work and feel satisfied eating a healthy meal.
Day Two gets harder. You’re not quite adjusting to your new reality as well as you’d hoped. The road ahead seems bleak and your optimism fades. Your meal prep doesn’t taste as good as it did yesterday.
Day Three falls apart. You barely remember why you set your goal in the first place. Besides, you haven’t tried the new Mexican place yet, and it’s calling your name.
Whether it’s three days or three weeks, eventually you fall back into bad habits, resolving to do better on Monday. The cycle repeats itself ad nauseam. Many of us don’t give ourselves the time required for a new behavior to become a habit. This is where Don’t Break the Chain presents a practical solution.
It’s extremely simple. You either complete your goal for the day or you don’t, continuing your streak with an “x” or breaking it. While there are apps that you can use for building streaks (see the "Choosing the Right Tools" section), a pen and a paper calendar is all you need.
It activates your brain’s reward system. Building a new habit is hard and, at least in the short-term, unrewarding. Our initial motivation subsides and we eventually go back to the activities that give our brains an immediate dopamine hit, like playing video games. Following Don’t Break the Chain harnesses the science of addictive game design. Parts of our brain get habituated to the feeling of marking off “September 1”, “September 2”, “September 3”, and so forth, on our calendar. Video game designers and social networks understand the science of streaks and use it to keep users playing their games and using their platforms. You can apply this science yourself to make a positive change in your own behavior.
You make tangible progress. Adding a new “x” to your calendar each day is concrete and visible. All too often with productivity, it's hard to measure progress. Even though you’ve worked hard, you may end the day without anything to show for it. This method gives you a clear marker for success each day — either you did it or you didn't. No grey area.
It forces you to focus on today. With Don’t Break the Chain, all you have to do is complete your daily habit. You don't have to think about tomorrow or a year from now. Instead, you just have to add one more day to your streak. You earn short-term rewards for behaviors with long-term payoffs. This method focuses on the immediate action you have full control over rather than a far-off goal with many other factors at play. You have the freedom to focus on inputs over outcomes (e.g. "code for 30 min every day" versus "become an expert software developer").
You harness the power of small wins. Making incremental progress and experiencing intermittent success boosts how we feel in work and life. A survey of 12,000 people found that on days they made progress, they experienced more positive emotions. Each “x” you add to your calendar after completing your daily goal is a small win that builds happiness and confidence.
You’re more realistic about your goals. While having a big overarching goal at the back of your mind is important, this productivity method forces you to think small but realistic on a daily basis. Our goals often fail because they're too big. Maybe we can keep it up for a week or two, but when a habit requires too much energy, our old habits kick in eventually. An “x” represents what we can realistically accomplish in a day to make our dreams a reality in the long run.
You’ll reap the benefits of compounding. Most things in life get easier the more you do them. When you give up prematurely, you never hit that stride where you start getting better, faster, stronger. By continuously extending your streak, you’ll notice that your efforts have a compounding effect — literally, if one of your habits is saving a little money each day in a high interest savings account. But this loosely applies to other habits too. In developing a reading habit, as you read more books there’s an increasing chance of the ideas and information converging into a more complete understanding of a topic. In James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he notes the power of compounding when it comes to habits:
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day, and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”
Implement 'Don’t Break the Chain' in five steps
Here’s how to get started with the Don’t Break the Chain method:
- Think of one of your big overarching goals. This could be getting in shape, mastering software development, or becoming more social.
- Choose one daily goal that supports your big overarching goal. Select a single thing each day you can do to move towards your big overarching goal. You can choose to start a positive habit or to stop a negative habit.
We created two Don’t Break the Chain calendars so you can begin implementing this method today. Print off a monthly calendar or use the annual calendar to get started.
How to use the Monthly Calendar: Write the month at the top of the calendar. Number the calendar with the correct dates using a pen. With a different colored pen, mark each day with an “X” when you accomplish your daily goal. If you are using the Don’t Break the Chain method for multiple daily goals, print multiple calendars and label them with the goal.
How to use the Annual Calendar: This calendar is for 2020. Mark each day with an “X” when you accomplish your daily goal. If you are using the Don’t Break the Chain method for multiple daily goals, print multiple calendars and label them with the goal.
In just 5 steps you’re ready to start the Don’t Break the Chain method! Here are some bonus tips to keep in mind as you start the process:
- Get an accountabilibuddy or streak arbiter. This person will help keep you committed to your chain and vice-versa. This is especially helpful if it’s someone you live with.
- Keep your physical calendar somewhere visible. Having your calendar on your fridge or pinned up in your office will keep your daily goal top of mind.
- Think small. If you’re having a hard time building your chain, think smaller. You can always increase your goal over time, but at first, opt for “exercise 30 minutes a day” instead of “exercise 60 minutes a day”.
- Take advantage of the "fresh start" effect. While every day is a great day to make a positive change, streaks tend to be more successful at the start of something — the beginning of the week, month, or year, for instance.
- Get the timing right. If your daily goal is to do something (versus not do something), do it first thing in the morning before everything else gets in the way. If you can't do it in the morning, try to do it at the same time every day.
Here are a few examples of daily habits you might want to try:
- Meditate for 10 minutes
- Practice Spanish for 20 minutes
- Don’t smoke a cigarette
- Drink only one cup of coffee
- Read for 30 minutes
- Do 20 push ups
- Code for 25 minutes
- Don’t drink sugary beverages
- Take the stairs at work
- Complete at least 5 tasks
Frequently asked questions about 'Don’t Break the Chain'
The rules of Don't Break the Chain are simple enough. However, there are exceptions that we’ll address in this section.
- How long should my streak be? As long as you need to turn your behavior into a habit. 66 days is frequently cited as the average length of time required to create a habit, though the researchers found that it took anywhere between 18 days and 254 days. At minimum, aim for a 30-day streak to start.
- Can I take weekends off? Yes. However, daily streaks are the easiest to implement and continue. Nevertheless, weekday streaks or variable day streaks are acceptable. Feel free to use Don’t Break the Chain for daily goals like “Workout Monday to Friday, rest days on Saturday and Sunday” or “Spend 1 hour learning front-end development on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday”. In these instances, mark an “X” for each day you complete your daily goal, and use a dash “–” for your non-goal days. This continues your chain but distinguishes your goal days and non-goal days.
- What do I do if I break the chain? Don’t Break the Chain is about improvement, not perfection. If you break the chain after completing your daily goal for 3 days, your longest streak is now “3 days”. Start again after breaking your chain, and simply try to beat your record and by aiming for “4 days” and beyond.
- How do I get back on track after I’ve broken my chain? Breaking a winning streak and starting from scratch is tough. Remind yourself of your big overarching goal and begin with baby steps. After you’ve marked off one “x” and then another, you’ll get back into the swing of things. The important thing is to return to the process rather than giving up. If a broken streak on your calendar reminds you of failure, print off a new one and start from scratch. Today is day one.
- Can I build multiple chains at once? Yes. While you shouldn’t overwhelm yourself with too many daily goals and trying to build several habits at once, building 2-3 chains at a time is manageable. This is particularly the case when your daily goals are related and serve the same big overarching goal.
- Will I need multiple calendars for multiple daily goals? Yes. It is easiest to practice the Don’t Break the Chain method with 1 calendar per daily goal. If you have multiple daily goals, use multiple daily calendars and keep them in the same location. While some opt for one calendar and different symbols for each of their daily goals, this can become complex and can be more discouraging if you break one of your chains.
- What if I go on vacation? If you’re planning a trip and will be unable to stick to your usual routine, that’s okay. Simply add dashes (“–”) through your vacation days so your chain is unbroken but your holiday is distinguished from completing your daily goals with an “x”.
- Should I reward myself if I finish my streak? Yes, if you feel it will help you build your chain and motivate you. Your reward should be conducive to your goals (e.g. don’t reward yourself with a cigarette after a 100 day not-smoking streak). However, the intrinsic pride of completing your daily goal, day in and day out, is often enough of a reward.
Choosing the Right Tools
A variety of tactile and digital tools can help you implement Don’t Break The Chain across goals that span productivity, health and fitness, and mindfulness.
Todoist is a personal task manager where you add your daily tasks as to-dos and organize your life. The app has a “Your Productivity” panel that provides insights on your daily and weekly productivity.
To set daily and monthly productivity goals, navigate to “Karma Goals & Settings”. There, you can set how many tasks you want to complete on a daily and weekly basis. Each day and week you complete your task goal, your streak is extended.
A paper calendar and a pen are tried and true tools for the Don’t Break the Chain productivity method. Opt for a full twelve month calendar, calendar print-offs, or make your own calendar grid in your personal planner or journal.
Nathaniel Drew, a filmmaker and photographer, shared how he uses a journal to track his habits including meditation, exercise, waking up at 7am, and more.
While paper calendars do just fine, you may want to consolidate your tracking into a tool you already use. Create separate categories and track your streaks on apps like Mac Calendar, Google Calendar, or Fantastical.
A habit tracker is specifically designed for tracking your daily habits. It’s a great tool for implementing Don’t Break the Chain, and it’s simple to track multiple habits at once. Apps like Streaks, Productive for iOS, and Habit List are effective for keeping your streak going and analyzing your progress.
Health and Fitness
If you’re tracking your nutritional intake and macronutrients, MyFitnessPal motivates you to keep going by reporting on your daily streak. You’ll get alerts about milestones and for completing a daily food diary entry.
Nike Run Club
Nike Run Club is a personal running trainer in your pocket. You can build customized weekly running programs in the app, whether you're just getting started or training for a marathon. Compete against your friends and join running challenges so you're inspired to get your miles in.
Make meditation part of your daily routine. Headspace, a popular meditation app with delightful English accented narration, tracks your sessions and lets you build a mindfulness streak.
Start a journaling practice with Day One, a digital diary. Each day you jot down your thoughts and ideas, you’ll extend your journaling streak and feel encouraged to continue.
There are a host of online communities with people working on self improvement through the Don’t Break the Chain method...though they go by different names!
- The r/NonZeroDay subreddit brings people from across the world who are practitioners of the No More Zero Days movement. The movement was launched off a single Reddit post and encourages practitioners to not have a single day where they don’t make a small step towards becoming their better self.
These communities can be a strong way to enlist other people on your Don’t Break the Chain journey and make the road to a winning streak feel a whole lot easier.
Progress is made day by day. The Don’t Break the Chain productivity method is ideal for remembering this. Whether you’re aiming to become a better writer or run a little faster, the simple act of putting an "x" on a calendar can be transformative in ways you never imagined.
Fadeke works on Marketing at Doist. She's passionate about telling stories of better ways to live and work. 😌