After all the productivity books and strategies that I’ve read, I’m amazed that what actually works best for me is childishly simple. But I shouldn’t be surprised since I’ve learned over the past two years that simplicity is something you can aim for in any part of life.
The Simplest Way to Feel Motivated to do a Thing:
The basic idea is to work on your Important Thing for at least a minimum amount of time every single day, and mark off each day you work the minimum with a big X on a calendar.
Get a calendar, hang it up somewhere visible, and put a big X through each day you do your thing.
The calendar is the key element to leveraging this simple idea as a way to feel motivated to continue working on your Important Thing every day in the future.
Don’t Break the Chain
Once you’ve got several Xs in a row, you start to feel really good when you look at the chain they make. Motivation will come from an intense desire to not break the chain.
Set Your Minimum
The small amount of time it takes to earn your X for the day could be 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even an hour, but smaller is better at first. We perceive an hour as way harder and more intimidating than a mere 15 minutes. Sometimes the hardest part of doing something is just making yourself start. Once you start, momentum can carry you further than you expect.
You might have heard of this tactic before. Apparently, the internet learned this trick from a software developer who said he learned it from Jerry Seinfeld.
From what I can tell, this lifehacker article is how Jerry’s tip made its internet debut.
My Results So Far:
This method might be so simple that it sounds dumb. But it has been working wonders for me the past few weeks. The image at the top of this post is my Don’t Break the Chain exercise calendar. Each X represents, at the very minimum, a 30 minute brisk walk.
As you can see, I actually ended up breaking my chain. The X with the colored bottom was an hour long Zumba class that I decided to try. The class was exhausting for me. I would have quit halfway through if the room wasn’t filled with 20-something other people who weren’t quitting. Over the next two days, I waddled like a penguin because I was so sore. On the third day, I started my chain right back up again.
I plan to go back to the Zumba class soon, and I hope that next time, I can shorten or eliminate the gap in my chain.
After I first accumulated a chain of 4 Xs, the calendar became something I felt inordinately proud of when I looked at it.
After a full 7 days of not breaking the chain, even though walking for thirty minutes made me think “meh whhyyyy I don’t waaanna,” I still got up and did it of my own free will.
The idea of not breaking the chain now keeps me exercising. No matter how silly this idea might be, I really don’t want to talk myself out of it. I’m doing something that needs to be done for a happy and healthy life.
I’m really surprised I didn’t figure this method out on my own. When I’m in the middle of typing a piece of writing, all the words that are already in the word processor are so satisfying to look at. Scrolling up up up, look at all that I’ve already done! If I can write all that, I can definitely write a bit more.
But the simple concept of not breaking the chain doesn’t just work for me. It worked for Jerry Seinfeld, the programmer from that lifehacker article, Charlie McDonnell, and the countless people who made the lifehacker article so popular.