I did say that I got a lot of my productivity tips while reading Lifehacker, right?
This technique goes back to 2007 I read the article there writing by developer Brad Isaac, where he related some some productivity advice he received from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a good read, and I recommend it if you want to see another application of this technique.
But I’m going to talk about it a little differently. It’s called Don’t Break the Chain and I’ve seen it make several reappearances as people re-popularize it.
How to Use
Don’t Break the Chain is about setting up a routine that you repeat everyday, and the focus really is on EVERY DAY.
Here’s how it works. You take a year calendar, one with a whole year on a single page, and place it on the wall with a big red marker next to it. For each day that you complete your task (whatever that might be, though for Jerry, Brad, and myself, that’s writing), you put a big red X through that day. And once you’ve done this for a few days, you have a chain of day. And the goal is don’t break the chain. Don’t miss.
That’s it. The idea is that as the chain grows, the pressure of having all those days chained together pushes you through the days when you don’t want to do the task, even if the only reason for that day is just to prevent yourself from breaking the chain.
My Usage in Writing Fiction
Here’s where I get to reveal my deep, dark secret. I HATE this technique. I’ve tried several times to implement it over the 10 years since I first read about it and each time it was an abject, miserable failure that left me feeling worthless and useless with each attempt. So why share it with you?
Because it maybe the technique that works best for you.
The thing that I have loved most about learning about personal productivity is that it is, indeed, personal. Something that doesn’t work for me may be the best thing ever for you. And with time management, the changing times might make a once-failed technique into you most prized bit of knowledge.
Even though I don’t like this approach, I think you should know about it and try it for yourself.
So, I don’t use this technique at all in writing fiction. Or in any other facet of life.
Why Didn’t I Like It
For me, it became a metaphorical chain weighing me down – the constant nagging feeling that I was eventually going to screw up and break it became self-fulfilling prophecy. Children would get sick, work would go long, church obligations would rear up, friends would need help – inevitably something more important than my writing that one day would come up and I would end up breaking the chain.
I played with all sorts of “rules” that would still allow me to meet my goal while not actually getting anything done and that was where it really got to me.
If the chain became more important than the actual content of what I was producing, what good was the chain? Why bother keeping up a fake goal if I wasn’t actually making any progress on what I had set out to do.
In the time since trying it, I’ve learned that my particular style of work doesn’t benefit from having an outward scoring system. There are lots of new tools and apps out there which “gamify” life – giving points for making habits, dropping “life” if you screw up, leveling up with awards, etc. Turns out, those don’t make me want to do better in my actual daily life because they become too much to keep up with.
But maybe your life might benefit.
Applications and Apps
Because I haven’t been actively using it, I can’t say what phone or computer apps a would be useful for tracking a “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar if you wanted digital over paper. I know there is a website of that name that appears to let you track things over time, but I haven’t used it.
As for applications, I can think of tons. NaNoWriMo is a similar implementation of the same idea – though only over the course of 30 days. Write every day. That’s the basic idea.
Most habits are formed the same way – work on the item in question 30-60 days and eventually, a new habit will start to be formed.
Drafting, revision, character sketches, sending queries, pitching, personal branding and marketing, blogging – any of these could benefit from Don’t Break the Chain as a tool for encouraging work, to keep going through moments of lower motivation.
The other big way that something like Don’t Break the Chain can help is that by forcing yourself to work on something everyday, you clear away the low hanging fruit fast. It’s easy to keep reworking the same scene over and over if you only touch it once every two weeks because you’ve had all that time to think it over. But when you have to draft a new scene each day? You have to work smarter and develop better focus during the rest of the day so that your well is full when you sit down to create. That intentional focus, day after day, can be even more useful than the resultant product that you make.
So, am I wrong to hate Don’t Break the Chain? Have you used it or something similar? Do I need to take another look?
Also, I moving up my posting day for this series from Friday to Thursday. Let me know if you like the change.
I’d love to hear your comments.