Tortoises, Seinfeld and Productivity: How to Use the Chain System

Jerry Seinfeld by Alan Light

Jerry Seinfeld knows a thing or to about being consistently productive.

Yesterday I introduced my latest challenge, attempting to change my productivity style from oscillating between frantic productive bursts and long depressive periods of idleness to a nice steady stream of consistent if small accomplishments.

As I explained in the other article, I’d like to go from being a hare (someone who sprints through tasks in bursts then goes through an extended cooldown period) to a tortoise (someone who works consistently on tasks for an extended period of time). To get used to working as a tortoise I’m challenging myself to go 330 consecutive days writing one article, learning 15 new words and mobilizing my ankle for 4 minutes every single day. So how am I going to pull it off?

That’s where Jerry Seinfeld comes in.

The Seinfeld Method

Or, more specifically, where Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method comes in.

The Seinfeld method goes by a bunch of names including the Chain System and “Don’t Break the Chain”. It’s impossible to say if Jerry Seinfeld can be credited for inventing the system, but honestly it doesn’t matter if he did or not. When you look at the sheer volume of consistent work Jerry Seinfeld has produced over his extensive career it’s clear he’s doing something right.

As the story goes a young comedian was performing in a club when he met Seinfeld and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a bit of advice from someone who’s regarded by many as one of the greatest comedians of our time. Jerry Seinfeld told him that the secret was to write something everyday, whether it was good or not was irrelevant – just sit down and get something on paper every single day.

To make sure that you do it everyday, he told the young comedian, get a year calendar and put a check mark on it everyday you write. After a while you wind up with a long chain of check marks and it creates a psychological pressure to not break that chain. Hence the other names.

I intend to use the Seinfeld method for my challenge using a big chart I’ve made with 330 squares on it. I’ve marked off some important milestones as well, such as the 100 day marks and where I’ll have hit 1,000 words, so that I have some short term goal posts to aim for outside of the end of the 330 days. Since I’m grouping all tasks together I’ll be using checks instead of lines (which we’ll get to in a moment).

How to Use the Seinfeld / Chain Method for Productivity

Want to give this system a try yourself or follow along with your own challenge? Here are the basics of how to set it up along with a few modifications for different situations.

  1. Choose Your Timeframe – The first thing to do is to choose how long you’re going to apply the Seinfeld Method. That’s not to say that you have to have a limit, you can set off to do it indefinitely, but having some target date to shoot for I think provides a little extra motivation. People like finish lines. The trick is to pick something far enough away to be effective (over 30 days) but not so far as to be potentially discouraging (over 2 years).
  2. Choose Your Task(s) – You can pick one task or many, it’s up to you, although I would advise against starting with too much. The goal is definitely not to overwhelm yourself here. You want to choose a task or tasks that will help you toward some goal but are simple enough to complete without too much struggle. Run 5 miles is probably a bad choice. Run one mile is better. Go for a run is best. Similarly write 30 pages is not so good, but write 500 – 1,000 words is. The idea is for each day’s task to be small, relatively insignificant accomplishments that will add up to something great when compounded over a great deal of time.

    A slight word of caution though, try to avoid time limits. Set minimums instead. If you make your goal ‘write for 1 hour’ then spend most of that hour screwing around and getting distracted it just wastes your time. There can be exceptions (my own stretching goal being one) but in general it’s better to set a minimum accomplishment like a word count.

  3. Get a Calendar, App or Chart – Depending on your personal style you can go as digital or analog as your heart desires. There are lots of apps out there that you can use specifically for this method, Goal Streaks and Way of Life being to for iPhone at least that are decent. Personally, I tend to like to make a big chart since it invests a little of me in the project. Alternatively you can always go the traditional route and just buy a year calendar. Find what you like and go with it.
  4. Get Started – Start that day or the next day. Don’t put it off – the longer you wait the less likely you are to really get into it. Dive in while you’re pumped and use that momentum to keep you going through the first stretch. If you’re going with a single task you can choose whatever symbol you want to mark off your successes, a check mark, a big green circle, a smiley face, whatever.

    If you’ve chosen multiple things to track you can use this method as well, or you can use the line method instead. To do it that way you’ll need one color marker for each task you’ve selected. Then you just make a long connected line through each day you’ve completed that task with its respective color. Before long you’ve got a rainbow of success streaking across your calendar and you won’t want to stop.

  5. Make a Provision for Speedbumps – Eventually, something will come up completely outside of your control that prohibits you from completing your task. If you get food poisoning for instance, you’re not likely to be going for a run that day. Now it would be wrong to mark that day with a check since you didn’t actually do your task. Conversely it hardly seems fair to have a break in your glorious chain just because some moron didn’t cook your chicken right.

    The solution in my opinion is to have a ‘N/A’ mark to indicate that day was neither a success nor a failure. You could even put a big ‘S’ for ‘Sick’ on there. The point is just to have some kind of alternative ready for the unavoidable consequences of life. Just don’t use those an excuse to slack off without feeling guilty.

You’ll quickly find using this method that once you get rolling it really is hard to stop. In terms of psychology the fear of loss is much, much stronger than the anticipation of gain. I suspect it’s that fact that makes it so difficult to look at a long chain of successes and allow yourself to break that chain and lose your long streak of accomplishments.

Have you ever used the Seinfeld Method? Have any tips or suggestions to make it more efficient or effective? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Alan Light

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com