Don't Break the Chain--or the Jerry Seinfeld Way to Establish a Habit

February 17, 2017

Photo courtesy Doru Lupeanu

Here’s the story as I’ve heard it: many years ago, Brad Isaac was hanging around comedy clubs and doing open mic nights, and had the chance to ask Jerry Seinfeld, who was performing in the same club, for his advice for a young comic. Seinfeld replied that the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes. The way to create better jokes was to write every day. Get yourself a large, year-at-a-glance calendar, Seinfeld advised. Write some new material every day, and when you do, mark the day on the calendar with a big red X. “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 next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.” 

Don’t break the chain.

Recently, I’ve put this idea into practice, with good results. For years I’ve been saying I want to sketch more, and now I have a compelling reason to hone my skills. I’m preparing to join Laure Ferlita’s Blue Walk tour in England in August, and I want to be able to sketch what I see. Back in January of 2015 I challenged myself to sketch for 31 days straight, and saw a vast improvement, so I decided to try sketching every day again. I started Sept. 26, 2016, and I’m still going.

Of course, you can apply “don’t break the chain” thinking to any habit or practice you’re serious about continuing:
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Meditation
  • Healthy habits like drinking enough water or getting a certain number of hours of sleep a night
  • Writing 500 words a day
  • [Insert your habit here]

It’s a remarkably effective technique, but it can seem a little intimidating to commit to doing something every day. Here are a few things that made the process easier for me:

Make it small

My goal was so small it felt ridiculous not to meet it: five minutes of sketching every day. Most days, I spend more than five minutes, but having such a small, and very, very achievable goal makes me pick up my pencil and sketchbook. Even when I’m tired, distracted or simply “don’t wanna,” five minutes is still doable.

Write it down

Every day in my calendar I’ve written the word “sketch,” so every time I check my to-do list I’m reminded of the habit I’m building.

Make it easy

Place whatever you need for your habit in a prominent place. I store my sketching things next to my favorite chair in our family room, and I carry a small sketch kit in my purse.

Make it visible

Use a visual tracking system so you can see the chain. Mark the calendar day with a big red X, as Seinfeld suggested, or print out this free “Don’t’ Break the Chain” calendar. There are also “Don’t Break the Chain” apps for both Apple and Android.

Keep it interesting

When I tire of sketching items in my family room, I take my sketchbook to the backyard, the barn, or a coffee shop. I’ve sketched from photos and from life. I’ve tried pencil, pen, and watercolor. I’ve worked on larger sketches for more than one day.

Creating helpful and positive habits can make us happier. I know I’m happier when I actually do the things I say I want to do, and the technique of “Don’t Break the Chain” has helped me establish a regular habit of sketching. Not only do my sketches look better, I’m also less afraid to sketch in the first place, since now it’s just something I do.

How about you? What habit could you develop by using the “Don’t Break the Chain” technique?

One of my favorite sketches

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  1. Excellent advice. And I love your flower sketch. I can see why it's one of your favorites. I wish I was going to England with you, but I'm going to France in September and I just can't do both. I hope Laure does more of these trips so I can join her again.

  2. Thank you, Cheryl. I am so sorry you won't be on the England trip. It won't be the same without you. Hopefully she will be able to do more trips in the future and we can all get together again. Hope you have a wonderful time in France.