I've long been overwhelmed by an unwieldy list of goals that would sit, unaccomplished, in a long-term to-do list year after year. Then I came across a simple trick that solved my chronic problem. As gimmicky as it may sound, I'm now accomplishing everything I'd been putting off in just an hour a day. Here's how you can, too.
I exercise every day. My apartment is always neat and tidy. I've finished more projects in the last 60 days than I have in the entirety of 2011. I did all of this with very little effort. How? I finally decided to give Jerry Seinfeld's productivity secret a try.
It's more commonly known as "Don't Break the Chain," and the concept is simple: spend a fixed amount of time doing a desired activity every day and, when you do, cross off that day on a calendar. This creates a chain of Xs showing your progress. If you don't do your specified task on one day, you don't get an X and that chain is broken. It seems almost too simple to work, but it has allowed me to accomplish so much more than I ever thought possible.
That said, the concept wasn't perfect for me and it didn't account for things like sick days and vacations. The trick assumes you have one goal and never take a break. I wanted to exercise, keep my apartment clean, handle chores more responsibly, work on various development projects, and write screenplays, but not every single day for the rest of my life. Originally, I looked at my schedule and realised there was only about an hour per day I could devote to any of these tasks while still enjoying a social life and maintaining my sanity. That did not seem like enough time to do anything, so I gave up.
Then, for no readily apparent reason, "Don't Break the Chain" started inadvertently appearing in web searches and email messages. I'd heard about it but never really bothered to find out what it was or how it worked. When I finally looked, I realised that if I devoted 15 minutes per day to each one of my desired tasks I'd make some progress, and that would be better than no progress at all. Besides, practising multiple skills at once is supposed to be good for you. I figured: what's the harm?
I decided to start with three goals to try it out, and so I put three calendars on the wall for the month of December. I marked one Writing, one Exercise, and one Cleaning. After a week I'd written about 30 pages, done 700 push ups and 980 sit ups, jogged several miles, and my apartment was as clean as a catalogue photo. Everything was easy, my progress was visible, and my tasks started to become addictive.
Now that you know the broad story and what can be accomplished, let's talk about how this works.
The Process, Step By Step
The entire process is remarkably easy and you can get everything ready in about 15 to 30 minutes. We'll go over each step in detail, but here's the general outline:
- Figure out your goals. Start with no more than three, and add a fourth goal after three weeks if you can handle it.
- Set daily minimums for each goal. Things like "I will run one mile" or "I will put away 10 stray items" work better than setting a time limit.
- Set your boundaries and rules. Because this process expects you to work every single day, you have to figure out what you're going to do when you're sick, on vacation, or just find yourself in a situation where you won't be accomplishing your goal that day but don't deserve the punishment of a broken chain.
- Print out a calendar for each goal and label it with that goal. I prefer a series of monthly calendars because there's more room to make a big X, but traditionally "Don't Break the Chain" uses one year-long calendar. Either way, put these calendars up on your wall where you'll see them regularly.
- Buy a fat red marker, or any marker -- the fat ones just make bigger and more rewarding crosses.
Step One: Choose Your Goals
When you're selecting your goals, I've found it helps to start broadly. When I first began I wanted to write a very specific screenplay, but I knew I'd finish it and move on to something else. As a result, I simply made writing a goal. Additionally, your exercise routine shouldn't be the same every day or you won't get enough variation, so I made exercise another broad goal. Basically, don't be too specific when you're deciding what you want to do. You can define your projects as you go.
The important thing is that you pick categories that includes many projects so you always have something to do. I found that I ran out of cleaning tasks very quickly, so I needed to expand my cleaning goal to chores in general. Everything is up to you, so you can adjust your process as needed.
Step Two: Set Your Minimums
Now that you have goals, you need to figure out the minimum amount of work you're required to accomplish each day in order to earn your X on the calendar. Because I only had an hour to spare, I had to keep my tasks to 15 minutes each. Telling yourself you have 15 minutes to work on something doesn't provide you with tangible accomplishments, however, so I recommend setting very simple goals that seem like a little but add up to a lot very quickly. Here's what I came up with:
- Cleaning: Do one chore per day. For example, put away 10 stray items, vacuum, take out the trash and put in a new trash bag, clean the counter tops, and so on. Pick one, do it.
- Exercise: Do a portion of your exercise routine each day. Go for a jog or walk, plus push ups, sit ups, free weights, or another targeted exercise. Do as many repetitions as possible and take no breaks. (This amounts to 15-20 minutes of exercise, which is really all you need to get reasonably fit.)
- Writing: Write one page per day, or revise three pages of existing writing.
- Development: Complete one specific task on your development list. This may mean styling an element in CSS, writing a new function, or fixing a bug.
The idea is to essentially capture a task that you can easily accomplish within a given time frame. With things like exercise, you'll probably always use up the total allotted time because as you get stronger and faster you'll need to work harder to continue to get better. With things like cleaning, however, taking out the trash only takes a few minutes and scrubbing the toilet can take a bit longer. Some days may be a little longer and some a little shorter, but it all evens out in the end.
Step Three: Set Your Boundaries
It's unrealistic to expect yourself to work on all your goals every day for the rest of your life. Sometimes you get sick and sometimes you need a break. That said, it just feels wrong to put an X on a day where you did nothing. It also feels wrong to break the chain for a reason beyond your control or for a hard-earned vacation. If you think of this process like a mini-job, however, the solution is simple: time-off benefits.
When you're sick and can't perform your duties, put an S instead of an X on that day. If you're on vacation and cannot or do not want to perform you duties, put a V on that day. How many days do you get off? I use the same rules as my job: three weeks per year including sick days. (Oz editor note: Obviously, we do better in this department!
You can follow the same benefits you get at work or just use the standard allotment. Your days off get reset at the end of every year, and if you start after the first of the year you should pro-rate the number. As for weekends, you can decide if you want to take those off or not. Personally, I find the weekends to be the best days to work because I have so much time. I prefer to work every day because the commitment is so small and it helps build better habits, but you should set rules for yourself that work best for your life.
Since starting this process, I've taken one trip, gotten something like the flu, and hurt my arm. None of these problems prevented me from working on my goals every single day. When I was on the trip I couldn't clean my house so instead I cleaned where I was staying to help out. I also spent one day sorting the mail and another day getting my car washed. When I hurt my arm, I simply did other exercises until it felt better. When I was under the weather, I just sucked it up and worked anyway. I don't necessarily recommend this, but I've come to love this process so much that I wasn't going to let fatigue and difficulty breathing stop me from getting things done. (I wish I was kidding.)
Step Four: Print Your Calendars
Once you've got a plan together, you're going to need calendars to keep track of your progress. You can buy one, or you can just print them for free. I used iCal to print mine because I like the way they look, but you can easily grab free, printable calendars from Print Free. Monthly calendars take up a lot of room on the wall, so you may prefer to print out a year instead. "Don't Break the Chain" traditionally uses a single page year-long calendar, but I like seeing my progress in large form. Choose the type that works best for you.
Step Five: Get A Big, Fat Marker
Silly, yes, but this is also the fun part. Getting a big, fat marker doesn't require much additional explanation, but there are a couple of things to add. First, you want to avoid anything that's going to run through paper so permanent markers are not a good choice. Instead, I recommend picking up a pack of Crayola Broad Point Markers. You get eight for less than the cost of a permanent marker. Also, you may want to pick up some Industrial Strength Adhesive Velcro. Velcro comes in handy in many ways (especially for tablet owners) and it's a simple way to stick your marker on the wall besides your calendars so it's always available to cross off a day.
Ready, Set, Go!
You're done getting everything together and you can start right now. But if not right now, then tomorrow. Whatever you do, don't plan to start on a distant day. Your plan should be so easy that very little can get in the way of your daily progress, so if you're not ready to start tomorrow then you need to go back and figure out how to make your plan simple enough to do so. This process works because it creates good work habits, doesn't require much of you, demonstrates your progress visually every day, and makes you feel incredibly accomplished and productive despite only working for a short period of time. It's easy, it's fun, and if it's something you want to do you should do it now. There's no reason to wait.