Is “Don’t Break The Chain” Good Productivity Advice?

Yes. But how long your unbroken chain is matters less than how many days you crossed out in your calendar.

Open any random pop-productivity blog, and it won’t be long before you come across the “don’t break the chain” advice.

Want to get good at something? Develop better habits? Easy! Just buy a big wall calendar and a red marker. For each day you achieve your goal, draw a nice fat red cross on that day. Soon, you’ll get an uninterrupted series of red crosses. That’s a chain. Your only job is to not break the chain.

Productivity lore traces this strategy back to advice comedian Jerry Seinfeld gave productivity enthusiast Brad Issac. Seinfeld’s strategy leverages the true fact that consistency brings results. Stick with something, practice deliberately, seek feedback, and eventually, you’ll get good at it.

Seinfeld’s advice went viral because it works — until it doesn’t.

Don’t break the chain is as powerful as it is fragile. At some point, life will get in the way of your chain. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Real people have kids to look after, chores to run, colleagues to reply to, and bosses to please. Sooner or later, a day is missed. The chain breaks, and there’s no fat red cross on today’s box.

The effect of a broken chain can be catastrophic. Suddenly, all the momentum is lost, and you question whether it’s worth starting again. “I already broke my healthy eating streak with that scone this morning, might as well get cheesecake for afternoon tea.”

The problem with “don’t break the chain” is that it is an all-or-nothing approach. This kind of thinking can quickly degenerate and become counterproductive. Either you do the thing today, and you’re a winner, or you don’t, and you’re a loser.

The Kindle iOS app has an excellent way of mitigating the all-or-nothing thinking effect of measuring progress in terms of streaks. Alongside the daily streak, it also shows your weekly streak.

When, inevitably, life will get in the way, and your daily streak will go back to zero, you’ll still have your weekly streak to remind you of how much progress you made. The weekly streak is a backup chain, much harder to break than the daily one.

Thinking in terms of consecutive weeks rather than days shows the value of shifting your focus to a longer time horizon. It’s a healthier approach to consistency, one that is kinder to yourself.

The weekly streak approach is more robust than “don’t break the chain,” but it suffers from the same flaw. Missing seven days in a row is unlikely, but not impossible.

Case in point: I am hopelessly clumsy and duck-footed. So much so that I often bump into things, like last month, when I hit my couch while casually walking past it. The accident broke my pinky toe and the weekly streak of long walks that I had kept running since February.

The fact that chains will inevitably break doesn’t mean Seinfeld’s advice should be discarded. People put too much emphasis on not breaking the chain today and forget to look at how many crosses they already added to their calendars.

Focus on the calendar as a whole, not on how long the chain is.

Take how GitHub visualizes users’ activity, for example. Every user’s profile page has a grid of gray squares, each representing a day. The days a user has contributed to a repository on GitHub become green, with the color being more intense based on how many contributions there were on that day.

With this kind of visualization, a missed day, or even a missed week, doesn’t look as tragic because it is surrounded by color.

Looking at the calendar as a whole is the ultimate big-picture exercise. It’s a much more robust approach because it doesn’t ask you to be perfect, just good enough to have more colored boxes than gray ones.

Seinfeld’s genius wasn’t in the chain but in how each individual red cross made the whole calendar more colored than white.


Cover image by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash.

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