Don’t Break the Chain

Dissertation work has been going swimmingly, thanks for asking.  If we’re connected on Facebook or Twitter you are probably sick of me posting about the minutiae of my progress each day, and you’ve also seen me hashtag my Tweets #dontbreakthechain.

The idea of “don’t break the chain” comes from an article I’ve seen pop up several times over the last few years but to which I never gave much thought until now.  This 2007 article from Lifehacker outlines Jerry Seinfeld’s clever method of motivating himself to continue writing new material:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “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,” he said again for emphasis.

Did Seinfeld actually say this?  Who knows.  The Internet is rife with stories attributing profound ideas or sayings to celebrities that may or may not be true.  The principle behind it, however, is one that I’ve actually used before, although not deliberately, in setting and meeting goals:

  • Whenever I do my 365 Picture-A-Day projects, seeing the daily photos and dates lining up one after the other motivates me to not “break the chain”.
  • The “Archives” list in this blog’s sidebar motivates me to blog at least once per month in order to not “break the chain” of months (if you actually care to look, you’ll see I’ve only missed one month in seven years).
  • I have to lift weights three times per week in order to not “break the chain” of steady progression.

I’m now applying that principle to my dissertation work.  I returned home from vacation on 11 July 2014, so 12 July was my first day on the chain.   Since then, I have made a concerted effort to work on some aspect of my dissertation every day.  Sometimes it’s for 30-45 minutes, sometimes it’s 4 hours.  The point is, as long as I put some work in, I mark the day off.

You can use any kind of calendar, physical or digital, for this task.  I’m using a website called (of course) Don’t Break the Chain; they have a Chrome plugin that allows me to see and update my calendar right from the browser:

dontbreakthechainI’ve only been at it for about two weeks now so it remains to be seen if this will help me maintain productivity in the long run, but I can say that chipping away at this monumental task little by little every day has helped me to stave off the feelings of self-doubt and paralysis I’ve written about previously.  With deadlines fast approaching (I need to have Chapter Four done and submitted by 1 Sept if I have any hope of defending in November), I’ll use any trick and take any advantage I can get.

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