An amateur comedian attended a Jerry Seinfeld show, where he caught Jerry offstage. Thrilled at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he asked Seinfeld a question:
“Do you have any advice for an up-and-coming comedian like myself?"
Jerry Seinfeld smiled, then told him a simple answer. He said write one joke per day. Just one. Then each day you write a new joke, put a red X on your calendar.
But here is the key....
Do not break the chain of red X’s.
You know what... Seinfeld was right. This is a shockingly powerful exercise. Because once we get on a roll, it's unsettling to ruin a successful streak. And when I hear habit-forming advice from someone worth $820 million, I listen.
For example, I'm currently on a 42-day streak for meditating every morning. And I can attest that come hell or high water, I will NOT miss a day, simply because I don't want to break the chain.
Yet, creating a habit chain wasn't enough. I wanted to understand why this works. So I gathered some psychological data which explains the reasoning.
Before we explain the science...
....Wanna create your own "don't break the chain" habit calendar?
It's easy. Just do these two steps:
1. Print a calendar (here is one), buy a red marker, and write an X on every day you do a "tiny habit."
2. Read this post, where a Stanford psychologist explains how to build "tiny habits."
Now let's understand how it all works. There are three psychological components which make the "don't break the chain" process work, so I'll explain them one at a time.
First, our brain releases dopamine when accomplishing tasks.
Few will argue, it feels good to cross a task off our to-do list. The same logic applies writing an X on the calendar after doing that day's habit.
After an accomplishment, our brain releases dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure), which normalizes our brain to desire the action again.
In other words, our brain "rewards" us for accomplishments by releasing dopamine, which make us feel good.
And as any human being knows, if it feels good we will do it again. This dopamine feedback loop is how all habits (both good and bad) get formed.
How it's relevant:In a strange way, writing the red X feels like an addiction in itself, because of the dopamine released after accomplishing that day's tiny habit.
Second, we decrease the "Ahhh screw it, just this once" effect.
Similarly, the most common problem when trying to build a habit is the "ahhh screw it, just this once" effect. This is when you don't feel like going to the gym, so you stop going "just this once," which inevitably spirals into multiple times again.
Or when you want to stop eating sweets, but it's your brother's best friend's birthday party (nice excuse) and that tray of brownies is staring you down. So you eat "just one," which turns into a dozen, as you regrettably trudge home with love handles drooping over your chocolate-stained Levi's.
This happens when self-control is at its lowest point (also called ego depletion), which is when we're most vulnerable.
How it's relevant:By not breaking the chain, I found "ahhh screw it" excuses disappear because the 42-day chain of red X’s felt like it was taunting me by saying, “You’ve made it 42 consecutive days and now you’re going to give up?”
Third, we leverage "loss aversion."
Imagine your boss just unexpectedly offered you a monthly salary raise of $1,000. How would you feel? Surprised? Thrilled? Excited?
Now imagine your boss just unexpectedly cut your monthly salary by $1,000. How would you feel? Angry? Shocked? Furious?
If you're like most people, as research has shown, losing $1,000 is a more powerful motivator than gaining $1,000. This is a psychological phenomenon called "loss aversion," which explains people would rather avoid a loss than acquire something new.
How it's relevant:Not breaking the chain validates this concept. Since I'm on a 42-day meditation streak, I'm less likely to break the chain, because I want to avoid the loss and self-defeat of ruining my streak.
Forming sticky habits cannot be done if we don't hold ourselves accountable. This method, which leverages psychological principles, keeps us focused on sticking to our original goals.
Just remember, whatever you do ...
Don't break the chain.
Originally published Mar 26, 2015 2:59:00 AM, updated June 15 2021