Don’t Break the Chain

by Site Author

It’s natural to search for shortcuts. I’m as guilty of that as anyone else. I’ve skimmed research on creativity and deliberate practice hoping to find shortcuts for myself.

But, of course, there are no shortcuts. To create something, you just need hours of hard work.

Take, for instance, Jerry Seinfeld starting out as a comedian. He spent hours writing jokes. And much of writing is really a grind. For instance, it took Seinfeld two years to write a single joke about pop-tarts.

When Seinfeld was first starting out, he kept a calendar above his desk. He would put a red X on the calendar for each day that he wrote comedy. After a few days in a row, the X‘s piled up. The chain of X‘s on the calendar would motivate him. Don’t break the chain, he would tell himself.

These days, there are smartphone apps that replicate Seinfeld’s method. A screenshot from one of those apps is below.

Habit List Screenshot

The lesson I take from Seinfeld’s story is not only that persistence is important. It is also that extraordinarily difficult tasks can be manageable when taken a bit at a time. There is an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” That’s what Seinfeld did, sitting down and writing every single day.

I thought of this when a friend told me about a statistician he knew who just wrote a textbook. I’ve always wondered how people take on the enormous task of writing a book. The statistician devoted two hours—no more, no less—each morning to writing. After a year, he had a rough draft.