Setting Goals Like Seinfeld: Don't Break the Chain!

How did Seinfeld get to be hilarious? With a special calendar and a red magic marker. You can use his method for any skill you like, including your memory.

If you want to keep what you learn, you need to get good at setting goals. I used to think of goals as big, vague things. “Remember what I read.” “Get in shape.” “Learn Spanish.” We need those big goals, but, like many other skills, memory work hinges on daily practice. Sporadic effort quickly peters out. To reach your big goal, you need a small goal: do a little memory work every day.

You also need a simple magic trick, attributed to Seinfeld: Don’t break the chain.

An X a Day Makes You an Expert

Supposedly, Seinfeld once told an aspiring comedian that success was simple. If he wanted to get good, he needed to write better jokes. If he wanted to write better jokes, he had to write every day.

And if he wanted to write every day, he had to get a big wall calendar. A calendar that showed a whole year. And a red magic marker.

Every day, if he wrote his jokes, he put a big red “X” on that day. After a few weeks, he’d have a nice, long chain. And he wouldn’t want to break the chain.

Simple. Genius.

The Perfect Tracking Chart

I’ve been using this chart for a few weeks now, and it’s changing how I think about my goals. You need to try this!

I’ve used daily charts before, but they only showed a few weeks. Whenever the weeks passed, I’d start a new chart, and it felt like I was starting over. I kept breaking the chain. This critical mistake deflated my whole effort.

With this new chart, I can see every day I’ve succeeded. Major morale boost. Plus, I’ve got that much more pressure not to skip today.

All that, from a piece of paper and a marker.

Get Your Free Chart Now

You don’t even have to run to the store. I found a web site where you can print off a free calendar with as many weeks as you want. I find I can fit about 6 months (26 weeks) comfortably on a letter-sized piece of paper.

Make sure you hang the calendar in a place with:

  • easy access
  • a place to put the marker right there, so you never have to look for it
  • high visibility, so you keep seeing it by accident

Go print off your free calendar!

Set Your Memory Goal

How will you choose to improve your memory every day? If you’re not already using Anki every day, try that. You’ll review a few flashcards every day. Soon, you’ll remember whole piles of facts that you thought would never stick.

True, flashcards aren’t always the answer. But when you’re starting the habit of developing your memory, reviewing a simple Anki deck every day changes everything.

Read More

You might enjoy the Lifehacker article where I found out about this technique.

However, I would not recommend the “Don’t Break the Chain” web site, where you can log in and track your progress online. I appreciate their effort, but our minds are full of web sites. The whole power of the method rests on constant visibility and zero resistance to using it. Burying it on yet another web site, and having to log in and click, defeats both these purposes.

In particular, it becomes one more thing you have to remember. This is the opposite of a reminder hanging on your wall. Your screen is constantly changing, but your walls stay put.

And you probably have a lot of room. Dedicate a spot to your goals. Start giving yourself those X’s.