It’s that time again when we make those same old annual resolutions… the ones we have broken so often that even I know the whole thing is pointless. In fact, several years ago I just gave it up and didn’t even bother to go through the motions. Turned out it wasn’t such a bad idea. Certainly more efficient than wasting time making lists, checking them twice, and agonizing over breaking the resolution with that first loss of temper or that second cup of cappuccino. So I’m the last one who should preach about the topic, but this year I’d like to make a suggestion. And it involves trying just one more time.
A couple of years ago, I ran across a kind of brain hack that actually worked for me. And it’s so simple that I can’t believe it’s been hidden out there all this time.
I’ve seen it called “The Seinfeld Strategy.” The story, maybe apocryphal, goes that Jerry Seinfeld shared the idea with another comedian who asked for the secret to his success as a standup comedian. Seinfeld told him that the secret was to write comedy every single day. The trick, of course, was how to force yourself to form the habit, that is to perform the desired action every day. Seinfeld told the other comedian that he forced himself to write every day by making up a calendar devoted to developing this habit and marking with a big red X each day that he spent time writing jokes. He marked the days off, day after day, with a bright red marker until he had a chain of at least several days. The longer the chain got, the more reason he had to not break the chain.
And it does work. There is something about the idea of already having a specific number of days invested that acts as a motivation for you to not “break the chain.” And once you have a large number of days invested, you will go to a great deal of trouble to keep the chain intact.
Some people like to use an actual, paper wall calendar. They’ll hang it in a visible location where it is a constant reminder of how well they are doing. Some might keep their record private in a small pocket calendar. The important thing is to have a method of marking the chain and being able to keep track of the results. When you’ve got a streak of 25 days going, then you make a mistake and break the chain, it will hurt. But that’s the point. You do develop an emotional investment in that list and the fact that you’ve broken a string of 25 days. But you’ll start over, remember how it made you mad to break the chain, and push it to a lot more days the next time. Eventually it will grow into a habit you interrupt for only the gravest of emergencies.
The Habit Streak App is my method of applying the “chain” method. Download it to your phone. Phrase your goal in a positive way. “Did you spend at least five minutes in meditation yesterday?” “Did you practice your Spanish for at least fifteen minutes?” If your resolution is a negative, something you are going to avoid, try to phrase it in a positive way. “Did you succeed in avoiding smoking yesterday?” “Did you stay off Facebook until after dinner?” Then program “Habit Streak” to ask how you’re doing at a specific time each day.
My best example is a little personal, so you’ll have to excuse my combination of admitting a weakness and bragging about mostly overcoming that problem. For years I was the world’s worst flosser. That’s dumb, I know, but every six months my dentist would ask, “Do you floss?” And every six months, I would answer, “Usually,” knowing that the dentist knew better. The evidence was being examined at the moment. I would resolve to do better, floss that night, and then discover the next day that nobody died if I skipped just one night. And then one more night, and another, and another. You get the idea.
The “Don’t break the chain” approach is the only thing that has ever worked. I know the time will come when something comes up, and one night I will forget to floss. It’s inevitable. I’ve done it before. But so far, so good on the latest chain. The motivator is the fact that I really, really, do not want to break that 498 day chain. One miss and the whole record goes down the drain. For me, that’s a pretty strong motivator. Way better than any pressure I might feel about the dentist questioning me three months down the road.
Give it one more try with “Don’t Break the Chain.” Whether you want to quit smoking, drink less, start a savings program, lose weight, manage stress better, learn a new skill, or run a marathon; starting a chain of small actions, and letting it grow into a chain you are loath to break, is a simple way to apply positive pressure to maintain a good habit.