The Seinfeld Hack; or, Don’t Break The Chain

Monday, June 29, 2015
By dreeves

Connoisseurs of productivity porn, which we’re afraid to say this blog may count as, probably know about the Seinfeld Hack, also known as Don’t Break The Chain. The idea’s so simple (in a good way) that you don’t even need to follow the link to LifeHacker where the idea originated. It’s merely the psychological trick of getting yourself to do something every day by looking at the chain of X’s for the days in a row you’ve done it so far. If you build up a nice streak then it would feel like a shame to break it. So you don’t.

We agree that Don’t Break The Chain can be remarkably powerful — but only once you have a long chain to not break. Until then there’s a catch-22: you can sometimes keep failing again and again indefinitely, never building up the motivating chain. And that problem repeats every time the chain breaks. So you’re always in a precarious situation where one bad day can precipitate many more bad days, where you go down a slippery slope of “one more day won’t hurt; I’ll get a new chain started tomorrow”.

The Seinfeld hack’s greatest strength is also its fatal flaw. Once you do break the chain, all the motivation it provided bursts like a bubble.

There’s also the problem of inflexibility. What if you need to do something consistently but not literally daily? At least one Don’t Break The Chain app we know of mitigates this problem by letting you specify days of the week that don’t count and showing you your chain as unbroken as long as you do the thing on all the days that do count.

Beeminder simultaneously turns the flexibility to 11 and magnifies the subtle psychological pull of the Seinfeld hack into raw unassailable motivation.

With Beeminder you can commit to maintaining a certain average, like 3.5 workouts per week (or 3 blog posts per month — see the sidebar of this blog). It doesn’t matter what days of the week, and, critically, you can build up a safety buffer and then take some time off, without the danger that that will lead you down a slippery slope of sloth. With Beeminder’s yellow brick road you’ve precommitted to not let your overall average dip too far. (If you do, we literally charge your credit card. [1])

If the rate you want to maintain is exactly 7 per week — 6.9 is unacceptable — and if you can sustain that long term, then Don’t Break The Chain may be perfect. Everything else you should beemind!

Footnote

[1] Did you just mouth “what??” and rush to this footnote to see if we’re serious? Then welcome, Newbee, to the Beeminder blog. We’re totally serious! Although you don’t have to put in a credit card until the first time you fail to keep all your datapoints on the yellow brick road to your goal. For some people, avoiding giving Beeminder their credit card is itself powerful motivation. That’s fine with us. If Beeminder is as life-changing for you as it is for some of our users we figure you’ll find a way to pay us eventually. Probably by beeminding more and more things more and more ambitiously, to the point where occasional derailments are no big deal and are worth it.

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• Geoff

Anecdata: Ending my initial Duolingo streak was really demotivating to me & I nearly stopped, but I’d set up a Beeminder goal for it as well and I was well above the road. (Yay for Duolingo integration.) Philip reminded me I was ahead of where I could have been which consoled me, so I continued. I’ve broken a few more Duolingo streaks since then, but I’ve kept on going because the Beeminder way doesn’t penalise me for having one hectic / forgetful / sick day.

• nadyadeangelis

Mixed feelings here. I agree about the problem with the chain – once you break it, the motivation to continue is kind of damaged. But there’s another side: habits make our lives so much more enjoyable, because they don’t require any willpower (as read in this book http://goo.gl/aru1uZ). Therefore after some time It becomes easier to do things (blog, walk, study etc.) every single day, than on bi-weekly schedule. Maybe it is even more true about not doing things, like not smoking and not drinking.

• http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

Agreed! Note my concession in the last paragraph about things that you want to do (or as you point out, not do) exactly 7 days a week. Related to a point I often make about Beeminder being the nuclear option. http://blog.beeminder.com/burnout/

You also bring up the fascinating question of willpower. I’d argue that at worst Beeminder gives you an agonizing choice about whether you’d rather, say, pay $5 or drag yourself to the gym today like you said you wanted to. Once it’s, say,$90 to not go to the gym there just isn’t a question. You’re going. Related thoughts from Bethany: http://blog.beeminder.com/beenice

• Lillian Karabaic

I had a 531 day duolingo streak break due to a timezone difference and it killed all motivation for me.

• http://www.alexcallahan.com/ Alex Callahan

I wasn’t sure if Beeminder would actually hep me with getting my wordcount in every day.
That was until I reached the orange. Blue or bust, no procrastinating, no delaying, I had to get the words in before work. I’ll probably try to get back into the green in the evening. The anxiety just won’t let me go to sleep.
So, you know, Thanks!