When someone is successful, there is probably something you can learn from them. No joke.
Even if that person is a comedian like Jerry Seinfeld.
In fact, one of the most useful strategies for sticking with difficult habits comes from this comic genius.
Learn how a calendar and a pen can change your life.
Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most successful and prolific artists of our generation.
In addition to his smash hit “Seinfeld” he also has had a successful stand-up career, written a couple of books, released a couple of albums, and is an auto fanatic with a collection of about 150 cars (with as many as 43 Porsches). (1)
But back when Seinfeld was just a new TV show and he was still touring in clubs, a young comic named Brad Issac cornered him before a show and asked him if he had any tips for a young comic.
Brad says this is the life-changing advice he received.
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”(2)
[It should be noted that on his Reddit Thread Jerry says he did not come up with the idea, revealing “It’s the dumbest non-idea that was not mine, but somehow I am getting credit for it.” But since I (and many of my clients) have found it useful and I like alliteration I will continue to call it the Seinfeld Strategy.]
This simple advice can be used to help you be more consistent with any task that you want to do more consistently. Let's take a moment and break down the components, and how you can use it.
The Visual Reminder
I would argue that the most useful part of this system is the visual reminder to do what you are intending to do.
Often we start out doing something and manage to do it for a few months (or weeks or days), then miss it once.
Which then becomes twice which becomes thrice…
And before we know it we don’t remember when exactly the last time we did it was. With the Seinfeld Strategy that never happens. As long as you mark the days you were successful, you can easily see how long you have let yourself slide. Seeing it reminds you and motivates you to get back on track.
Additionally, it keeps it in your awareness, which can help you avoid that first miss to begin with. Often all that happened on that first miss was getting busy and forgetting. Something might pop up at the usual (or scheduled) time and you tell yourself that you will do it later, and then you forget. The big wall calendar is a good reminder that you need to get it done to keep your streak going.
Who wants a gold star? Me! I want a gold star! Getting points, keeping a streak going–things like that turn the mundane into games.
And games are fun.
Physically marking off things on a calendar helps the experience of the game. And once you have a streak going you want to keep the streak alive. It feels like winning.
And winning is fun.
One of the key nuances of this strategy is keeping the task doable. Seinfeld is alleged to have said, “Just one joke a day.” Often people fail on their consistency because they set a task that is just too difficult to get done consistently, and then they start failing and getting frustrated which only causes them to fail more.
While writing 10 pages a day will get your book done quickly, is that sustainable? If you get one day and miss the next month you might not ever finish. On the other hand, 1 paragraph a day for a year gets you where you want to be. A two-hour workout is great, but it’s time-consuming, and probably not doable on a daily basis. If you only do it once a month, or even once a week, you will not achieve the fitness results you seek.
You can expand the task over time if you choose. But it always needs to feel doable. In my variation of this technique (which I will cover at the end) if I can’t get at least 80% consistency on my tasks, I make them easier. We don’t need you to be perfect to get results but we do need you to be consistent overall.
The task relates to the goal. It is easy to see that if you want to be a successful comedian writing a joke every day gets you there. If you want to get fit, working out every day will get you to your goal. If you want to grow your business, spending time promoting it will (eventually) generate new business.
For this to work you need to know where you are going. So make sure you pick a task that will help you move forward toward your goal. Then employ this system that will help you get there.
Two Ways of Implementation
In my coaching practice, I have found two ways in which this strategy is successful: Classic and Upgraded.
In the Classic method, you are adding one thing and just one thing to your daily life. If you are very busy and want to add more to your life, adding just one thing is the way to go.
Just pick your doable task, buy a large calendar (or print a monthly one) and put it somewhere where you will have to see it constantly.
Do your task, then mark today. That’s it (just remember, “today” changes every day).
Once your streak is going keep it alive.
If you fail, get back on track as soon as possible. That’s it. It sounds too simple to work but trust me it does.
If you have doubts, print out a calendar and prove me wrong. (You won’t!)
This is the version I am personally using at the time of this writing. It is a little more aggressive but it keeps me on track with all my varied interests and responsibilities.
It is really a combination of the key components of the classic method, combined with the Daily Medication strategy from The Do or Die List.
The key components of the Classic Seinfeld strategy are a visual reminder, gamification, and being do-able and meaningful.
The Daily Medication strategy stipulates that daily maintenance tasks should be something you are struggling to do consistently, and either help you maintain order in your life or move you toward a long-term goal. From my experience, most people can handle 3-5 tasks like this in their life.
First, we pick our tasks. Remember the criteria. Something you have been struggling to do, and that will help you maintain order or move toward a long-term goal.
Next, we make a weekly calendar with those tasks, that we can print out, put in a place that gives a good visual reminder, and where we can easily mark off to track progress.
Now you just check the boxes every day. And put a red X in the days you don’t. Or you could even buy a bunch of gold stars, whatever floats your boat.
With either method, you may choose to increase the difficulty of your task at any time (or, if necessary, decrease the difficulty).
I personally have found that keeping an unbroken streak can start to get boring and can feel like I am not progressing. My solution to this is to make my maintenance tasks harder (or different) once I am getting 100% of my tasks done for an extended period of time (I am currently using 2 weeks for that timeframe).
On the other hand, if I am below 80% adherence I make my task easier. I want to be successful, and I don’t need to be perfect.
You can change those numbers if you want–I am just letting you know what works for me.
How you can screw this up
The easiest way to screw this up is simply to forget to track. The simple act of tracking (success and failure) is the key to this system. If you don’t track, this won’t work.
If you have to mark “no” every day for 2 weeks it's not good or bad, it is just information. Information that tells you that either you need to make the task easier so that you can do it, or reevaluate whether or not the thing you want to accomplish really matters to you.
If it matters to you, adjust it so it is easier to do. There is no shame in that–small steps are more important than no steps.
Even a little step every day is all you need to make an amazing amount of progress toward accomplishing long-term goals over time.
While having a visual reminder where you can check boxes and maintain streaks seems like it is too simple to work, it does!
I like to use the example of putting something you don’t want to forget when you leave your house tomorrow blocking your door (like a bag or book).
It may seem silly but when you go to open the door and it is stopped by the bag you will pick it up and bring it with you.
When you constantly can see what tasks are important to get done every day and can see your progress you will start getting them done.