Jerry Seinfeld on Behavior Change: Don’t Break the Chain

A post on Lifehacker.com about Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to an aspiring comic created a buzz on the blogosphere in 2007. The anecdote actually demonstrates some sound psychology, including a useful strategy for writers.

The story in brief: Brad Isaac, a software developer, was interested in doing stand-up comedy. One night he introduced himself to Jerry Seinfeld at a comedy club and asked for advice.

Seinfeld said that the key to success as a comedian is better jokes. And the way to get better jokes is to write jokes every day.

Seinfeld also revealed a method for developing a daily writing habit:

  • Get a wall calendar that displays an entire year on one page.
  • Get a red magic marker.
  • Write a big X on the wall calendar for every day that you actually write jokes.

If you actually write every day, you’ll produce a chain of bold, red X’s across that calendar. And if you miss a day, you’ll break the chain.

“Don’t break the chain,” Seinfeld said.

At first I was tempted to brush off this idea. Returning to it, however, I see some juicy benefits:

  • Simplicity—The required tools are easy to acquire and use.
  • Focus—You concentrate on changing one behavior at a time.
  • Feedback—Data about your behavior over time is available at a glance.
  • Closure—Creating a solid chain of X’s offers potent reinforcement.

You can even skip the wall calendar and create your chain online. For an example, see this.

Seinfeld’s method applies to any behavior change. There’s a clear overlap between “don’t break the chain” and this wonderful question from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey:

What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

You can also reverse this idea for an equally useful question about dropping self-defeating behaviors:

What one thing could you stop doing on a regular basis would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

In either case, the “Seinfeld chain” offers a powerful way to track your response.

Photo by John-Morgan, Flickr Creative Commons

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