I’m a regular reader of a few of the productivity blogs out there (though I’d hesitate to describe myself as a model of efficiency), so this recent Lifehacker post about Jerry Seinfeld and his writing habits caught my eye. The entry relates Seinfeld’s advice to Brad Issac, at the time an aspiring comic. Issac describes Seinfeld’s lesson as not only applying to stand-up, but for life in general. Here it is:
(Seinfeld) had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself - even when you don’t feel like it.
He then revealed a unique calendar system he was using pressure himself to write.
Here’s how it worked.
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.
The great thing about it is that it’s not about some quick fix. It’s about creating a new habit - substantial life change. I like the idea quite a bit and have a couple of things that I’m going to apply it to. And if you’re into to digitizing your productivity, some enterprising programmers built a web-based “Senfeldian Chain” calendar for you to mark off your progress.
But there’s a bit more to Seinfeld’s work habits that I can detail from other sources. In an interview he did in Franklyn Ajaye’s book “Comic Insights”, he mentions how he considers his writing time his sit time. Without distractions like music or TV, Jerry Seinfeld would say “I’m going to sit for an hour.” Eventually his mind would take over and he would write. It reads to me that sometimes the ability to mark an X on Seinfeld’s chain wasn’t dependent on filling a sheet on the paper, but on the fact that he sat down and made an honest attempt to fill a sheet of paper. It makes something that sounds strict also sound flexible. So you don’t go breaking a chain if you have a bad writing day.
Not that it was easy even if it was flexible. Another detail he relates in the book is how he’d trick himself to write:
Sometimes I’d put the cookies by my notebook. It’s like a mousetrap—I’d go eat the cookies, then I look in the notebook, and the next thing I know, I’m writing.
Of course, if you want more specific stand-up related thoughts of Seinfeld, there’s the excellent “Jerry Seinfeld on Comedy” CD, which comics such as Mike Birbiglia swear upon. The interview touches upon more specific things about performance, include an insight of how he might spend an hour of sit time. At one point he mentions spending an hour trying to winnow an eight-word joke to five words.
With a focus on little details like that, Seinfeld is almost a patron saint of productivity.