How the top 1% actually makes progress (aka the Seinfeld Solution)

Productivity sucks.

For one, it’s hard. I mean, let’s face it – every single time I sit down to “get something done”, it almost never happens. At first, I thought it was just me. I thought that maybe there was some malfunction in my brain that made it physically impossible for me to focus on important tasks when the sweet, sweet Facebook newsfeed is only a click away. It’s sad, actually. The F key on my Macbook is starting to fade out. What’s even sadder is that oftentimes I don’t even WANT to be on Facebook (or insert your poison of choice). I just feel drawn to the distraction like a moth drawn to light. Don’t even get me started on Netflix. I’ve literally watched over 5 years of Weeds this week alone.

photo credit: Flickr/dm74

photo credit: Flickr/dm74

What am I doing with my life?

That’s why I always laugh when I see more of these “productivity” apps come out every month. Who needs another app? I don’t need another piece of digital pocket change jangling around in my already crowded brain? How is another set of clicks, swipes and scrolls actually going to help me get anything else done? I already have enough to do.

Sometimes I think I’m going nuts with all the things I have to think about at the same time.

So, in a moment of desperation a few months ago, I started asking you (tribe members) if you were having trouble getting things done in your life too. Mostly, I just wanted to make sure completely I wasn’t batshit crazy. Here’s what some of you had to say (don’t feel like screenshotting the emails and blurring the names right now so I’m just copy/pasting – work with me):

“Sometimes, I have so many things swirling around in my head that I just get confused and as a reflex, I do nothing.”

“I spend so much time thinking about how to get things done that I don’t actually get anything done. It’s like spending hours drawing up a map, then never using it.”

“I’m always trying to make progress in work/life, but I constantly find myself stopping and starting…so I never really get any traction.”

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

You have no idea how gratifying it was to hear this stuff. I mean, honestly.

Now I know it’s not just me. You’re batshit crazy too! I can relate to all three of these, especially the last one.

I often find myself starting a new project, idea or pursuit then somehow, someway….letting it fade into the mist. Until eventually, it’s no longer part of my life. I treat it like a dead child and mourn for it…but rarely speak of it. Countless times I have tried to get something done and for whatever reason…just couldn’t. I couldn’t really put my finger on it…but it seemed like more than pure lack of willpower was at play here.

Not being able to follow through on the things we want to do sucks.

It sucks if you want to launch a successful startup. In fact, it sucks if you just want to improve your life in any way at all.

So, I took a hard look at my habits and my interactions with the people and things that I deemed important to me.

I discovered something very interesting. Something that has been a HUGE factor in me starting 3 profitable businesses in the last 12 months and ejecting myself out of 9-to-5 misery.

Here’s what I’ve been doing. Let me know what you think.

Maybe it’s not about willpower?

You can’t “will” yourself to be more productive with your time.

You’re not a lemon. You can’t just squeeze more juice out. It doesn’t work like that, young padawan.

To be honest, I don’t even think I have what most people would call “willpower”. If you’re talking about mental fortitude, well I probably use 60% of my energy just getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe 70% on days where I have something un-fun to do. Yes, I made that word up.

If I had to use willpower to be productive, I’d never get anything done.

I legitimately don’t have the wherewithal to combat the temptations of all the fun things I’d rather do (instead of bootstrapping these businesses) on a daily basis. I like having fun, training and “chilling” too much.

But therein lies the problem. On the one hand, I don’t want to do anything but things that excite and inspire me. On the other hand, in order to EVENTUALLY have the ability to only do what I want, I have to make some serious moves now. Moves that require me to be extremely productive.

So I had to find a way.

I’d always thought that the reason elite performers in the top 1% of their disciplines were able to do so much more than me was because they had some sort of x-factor that allowed them to work harder, longer and better than me. Or, I made up all these limiting self-beliefs that they had unfair advantages that I’d never have (“of course he’s more productive than me…he has a personal chef to cook for him while he’s working”). All that is BS, naturally.

Then it occurred to me – maybe it’s not willpower at work here. Maybe these people aren’t “forcing” themselves to get stronger, faster, smarter or more successful.

Maybe it goes much deeper.

Maybe the reason that the world’s most productive people ARE so productive is because they have their entire life designed to get better at their work.

The Seinfeld Solution

In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld made $267 million dollars from the 9th and final season of his hit show Seinfeld. Yes, thats a quarter billiondollars. No, that’s not a typo. NBC begged him to do a 10th season to the tune of $5M per episode for 22 episodes (WTF?!). He declined. Needless to say, it was a great decade for him. But the 2000′s have been quite good to him as well – deals from syndication of his now classic show bring in a steady paycheck of about $85 million per year. Not bad, Jerry. Not bad at all.

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photo credit: Lifehacker

But let’s take it back. Back, before he was a borderline billionaire comedian. Back before he was even a household name.

How does one amass the talent, skill and productivity to write joke after joke, show after show, year after year at such a high level?

In an interview with Lifehacker, comedian Brad Isaac shares the story of a chance encounter he had with Seinfeld backstage. He asked Jerry if he had any “tips for a young comic”.

Here’s how Brad describes the conversation:

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

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 is to not break the chain.”

 

Take note here. You’ll notice Jerry didn’t mention anything about having good jokes. He didn’t even mention how long the activity had to last. The task is very simple: write something every day, put an X on the calendar and don’t break the chain.

Using your brain’s programming against itself

It’s almost simple enough to be counterintuitive – but let’s think about what’s happening here. There are a few very sophisticated processes going on. Think about how you could use this model with the skill or process you’re trying to become more productive with:

  • The act of doing something every day programs you to make it a default behavior. Most of us don’t have to force ourselves to brush our teeth in the morning. There’s no mental strain or cognitive dissonance with brushing your teeth. You just do it…because that’s who you are. You are a person who likes clean teeth and fresh breath. Seinfeld managed to integrate writing jokes into his daily routine day after day. Over time, he associated his identity with the writing and from there, it’s much easier to follow through.
  • Default behaviors, repeated day in and day out become habits. Habitual pursuits almost ALWAYS improve because of sheer frequency. In Jerry’s case, writing every day ensures that he’s bound to stumble on some funny material. 365 days of straight writing guarantees some nuggets of wisdom just by the sheer volume of material he’ll have created over time.

In effect, you’re using your own human tendency for habit creation to work AGAINST your natural tendency to procrastinate, stall and be otherwise unproductive. Rather than setting nebulous goals and hoping that you have the power to push through, you are actively installing new software (aka habit) in your brain’s computer to ensure that the program (aka goal) gets run. With enough consistency over time, the new software WILL get installed. You literally will not have a choice but to complete the habit every day. From there, success is on cruise control.

The only thing you have to do is NOT break the chain.

How to use this (and how it’s worked for me)

I’ve had great success with hardwiring new habits into my daily rituals. The best part about creating a new habit is that after a while, you forget that it’s a “new” habit. It becomes so natural that you no longer even need to keep track. It’s just what you do. I’ve done this with a few different things that used to be a struggle for me to do consistently, and now I manage to do them every day without even a second thought:

  • Making my bed (was at a 67 day streak before I stopped tracking. My mom would be SHOCKED)
  • Meditating (was at a 70+ day streak before I didn’t need to track anymore)
  • Reading (40+ days and counting)
  • and 4 or 5 other habits

But here’s the catch…

Some days I was only able to throw the bed together.

Sometimes my meditation wasn’t good.

Often I only read a few pages.

But none of that matters because above all, I did it every single day. Consistently. And I haven’t stopped.

These may not seem like huge challenges, but imagine what it’s like to string together weeks and weeks of things you previously struggled with. Like compound interest, effort over time adds up to create something much bigger than the sum of its parts.

This is the secret sauce. This is how the top 1% of all performers are productive at a level that seems impossible to us earthlings.

Before Michael Phelps won the most gold medals in history, he was on a 10+ year hot streak of not missing a single planned day of training. Don’t be fooled, some of the days his training wasn’t good. But he still showed up. It’s that simple.

Don’t break the chain.

Let’s say you want to learn programming for your startup, but are completely overwhelmed by what you need to know. That’s fine, and it’s perfectly normal. Start with small bites. If you learn programming, rain or shine, hell or high water, for 365 days in a row without breaking the chain, you will make progress. Period. Even if you consider yourself way below average at the beginning. At just an hour per day, that’s almost 400 hours of consistent programming after a year. How good could you get at something with 400 hours?

Look at Karen, who taught herself to dance in one year using the Seinfeld Solution:

Check out more of her story here: Dance in a Year

Karen proves that even over a year’s time, you can make remarkable progress in things that at first seemed near impossible to tackle. If you put in the time in little bite-sized chunks without skipping a beat, you can accelerate to advanced levels quickly.

Your only task is….you guessed it….don’t break the chain.

It doesn’t matter what the field, pursuit or project is. Consistency over time is mastery. To track my progress with new habits I’m working on, I often use the habit-building app Lift as my digital calendar to track my “chain”. It’s one of the few worthwhile productivity/lifestyle apps out there.

What new habits are you planning to integrate on a daily basis to help you become more productive and advanced in your career and life?

Leave me a comment below. Let me know!

Later,

Daniel

PS – this is a good wall calendar to use for tracking the chain. It’s an affiliate link – but the commission is super tiny (less than $2). I recommend it because it’s a product I’ve actually used.

 

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193 comments
kaustin52094
kaustin52094

Very inspirational, I guess now I just have to stop procrastinating and actually do the things that I tell myself I want to do.

humbirduk
humbirduk

My  research indicates that it is not just that Seinfeld did write everyday its that the more ideas you have more you have ..


I call this Parallel leverage  ..The brain works by association ....It is stimulated by original ideas & by emotion .Most so called genius's were very eclectic  Leonardo is one of the finest examples think of all the ideas he had quite a few unfinished !

Einstein worked ina patent office for some years . His wife did the Math  he did the imagining  ..


Your right Daniel dont break the chain ..You can extend your reach by delegating but thats another story !


  Thank  you              Ian

Ask
Ask

Thank you, this really got me thinking. Next step, actually do this!

Bill F
Bill F

Hi Daniel,


Right on...I have been investing too much time making a living and helping other people get wealthy. I have found, just like you state, that "showing up" is 90% of the process. I just have not been using the chain to build my own wealth. I make a very fine income but it takes so much time that I do not have the energy to build a chain that works for me. I look forward to being a tribe member.


Bill F.

Wanda
Wanda

Thanks for sharing! The video of the young lady learning to dance was very helpful.  It gave me hope even though I am not 20 something! :)

Benita
Benita

Daniel, thanks for providing a strategy for turning my laziness into productivity. I'm currently trying to come up with a business idea and learn web design (which has turned out to be a bit harder than I thought).  But after I get home from work and tutoring or working out, I find it so hard to get motivated to do anything else.  I'll give the Seinfeld solution a try and let you know how it works.  

Looking forward to reading your other articles!

Kalina
Kalina

Thank you for a very insightful article Daniel! I'm currently working on a project with my partner and I'm having trouble with reporting my progress regularly. I know that it is crucial that I inform my partner about what the progress on my side so that we could decide on the next steps together, I just seem to forget to do this on a regular basis. Your article encouraged me to be more consistent in everything that influences the development of my business.

However, while reading, I couldn't stop thinking that maybe sometimes breaking the chain can actually help... I'm explaining: when I started to learn programming last year , there were moments that it was too difficult, I was frustrated and I just HAD TO take a day or two off and do something else. And actually it worked! After a day or two I got back to work with new energy, clear mind and a fresh take on things! So... I agree that we need to be consistent and we need to work regularly, but maybe sometimes we should break the chain if we feel the need to do so. What we need afterwards is simply enough motivation and willpower to get back on track after a break. What do you think? 

Dale1954
Dale1954

Inch by inch, anything's a cinch???

Aashiana
Aashiana

Keep working....everyday. Even if it's a small amount just do SOMETHING.

What you've written makes so much sense but I honestly don't think I've ever seen it explained in such a way.

Thanks.

andre16
andre16

Consistency is key.. hard work beats talent when talent doesnt work hard

Vitanus
Vitanus

Wow! This is just an incredible write up..... Daniel, you just expose the whole naked truth in this post. One challenge I have been battling if finance to do things am suppose to get done and thus it's making me lazy now.

From Nigeria

Sam
Sam

Great read !!! Time to get a move on and start taking action! Thank you

siri
siri

Great post. Having a home office means I tend to slack off on responsibilities aroudn the house. Im de ffinately going to use this and things cracking around here.

SJekabs
SJekabs

Great post! Being a bit lazy and undisciplined was something i came aware of lately and I'm definitely in to try!! Got to be exciting! 

OLIDURR
OLIDURR

First read on your site and I'm looking forward to reading more..

Arckine
Arckine

I love this. thank you very much. This is going to help immensely for me on getting things going and becoming regularly productive.

TB3andJoe
TB3andJoe

I highly recommend two great books on the subject.

The Will Power Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

and

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I listened to the audio versions since I am such a slow reader and I find it difficult to read while I'm driving.

general_havoc
general_havoc

Hahahaha. So true. For something so simple yet effective, it's easy to miss this technique and simply drop the ball.

jbvictorino1
jbvictorino1

THANK YOU SO MUCH. This will help me to not procrastinate with my sales pitches. Or exercising. :) 

jaffac
jaffac

Awesome post Daniel. I know I can do stuff but am largely lazy and undisciplined. I love this idea because my alter OCD ego, will simply not tolerate a break in the chain! Watch this space!

BenAustinBlog
BenAustinBlog

First of all, the Learn to dance in a year vid was fantastic. That is really a great anchor for the lesson of this post which has to do with the power of habit.




About a year ago I started tracking my daily habits in an excel sheet. I gave myself a 1 if I did the habit or a 0 if I failed to do it. Doing it this way helped me take willpower out of the equation. It was already on the list, so I just had to do it. I was able to free my mind and start working on other long term projects. 


A strange thing happened after a while.... I was able to get even more done in a day and I was able to add other habits to the list. The actions that once seemed impossible, were now just part of an average day. 


I'm currently up 23 daily habits, some of which include writing, reading, exercise, eating right, meditation etc.  The more I continue to push myself and get shit done, the more energy I have to focus on the things that are really going to help me long term. 



IndrekStern
IndrekStern

A habit that I should really start video documenting is expanding my skull and increasing pressurization of all internal cavities for better posture, power output and to look good naked.


JaydeGilmore
JaydeGilmore

Thanks for the tip about Lift, I'll look into it. Having that visual chain sounds like an awesome prompt. I also like keeping numbers on a white board - every time I do it, the number goes up. Every time I skip, I erase the numbers and start over from 1 the next time.

ChristyCakes
ChristyCakes

This makes a lot of sense. I think everyone starts here. Everyone who has the potential to make it. The web is so big, it's its own shiny object of endless opportunity! Not everyone will catch a wave, though. This is good stuff! I love your style! Hits home, great post! ;)

DenlynSuccessBlake
DenlynSuccessBlake

Awesome indeed Daniel wow! Beautifully put together. I just found your blog today and I am definitely drawn in by all the value and real life storytelling style. I definitely can relate this to internet marketing industry its not an easy field but the repeated small efforts can have a tremendous effect on your business and your level of influence. Take a look at John Lee Dumas from Entrepreneurs on Fire he produced a podcast consistently everyday makes over 100K monthly after launching 18 months ago! Thank you so much to share you wisdom with us

Superstar
Superstar

All I have to say is this shit works. Even if you do break the chain, as long as you have way more red Xs than not, you're winning. Show up and do the work. Every day. Greatness follows.

MajorT0M
MajorT0M

This goes right to the heart of the idea that it takes10,000 hours to fully master a field of study. The hard part is having the discipline to put in the hours. Making it a habit (and knowing how to make it a habit) are key. Thanks, Daniel.

metgot_i_chamorro
metgot_i_chamorro

Failing foward... It's not even trying, one would have failed before, they have yet, TO BECOME! Ignorance is our enemy. It robs one of the many what if, possibilities. We have to learn to block out the noise, the naysayers, what do they have to show? Exactly! NOTHING! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I refuse to let my dreams die! I truly believe deep w/in my heart and w/in my very soul. I CAN AND WILL SUCCEED! Thanks for the enlightenment, friend!

BeMaJ
BeMaJ

I'm a fantastic chain maker until about week two.

Denitsa
Denitsa

I love this! It's one of those things that are so simple, they somehow click in your head and you intuitively know it'll work... I'm starting this today!

OliviaMatsch
OliviaMatsch

I am definitely guilty of making goals in my head and even writing them down sometimes and expecting that willpower will just somehow magically step in and i'll reach them. I just started in real estate last year and have been debating quitting for the last couple of months.. I think I can implement the Seinfeld Solution to help me.

Olivia
Olivia

I am definitely guilty of making goals in my head and even writing them down sometimes and expecting that willpower will just somehow magically step in and i'll reach them. I just started in real estate last year and have been debating quitting for the last couple of months.. I think I can implement the Seinfeld Solution to help me.

ShaneLarson
ShaneLarson

Dude!  thanks!  Lovin your style! 

NaraLinard
NaraLinard

I guess I knew that "not breaking the chain" was key, but the way you put it really made me get it! Great blog! I'm excited to keep up with it. :)

wilblz
wilblz

Being consistent is key to being successful at anything... just keep doing it and it'll happen. That's something I've certainly learned in the business world. 


great read! 

James Poulitot
James Poulitot

It's funny when you talk about Jerry writing jokes everyday because that is what I do with photography. I take photos every day so that photography becomes a part of my identity. My partner thinks I'm strange because I just take a photo of a glass of wine, or a perfume bottle. However, if you always take photos, you will eventually get some really freaking awesome ones, and that feels great. Also, your ability to consistently produce good ones increases substantially. 

Tim
Tim

Great article Daniel, used this idea in a few areas of my life but ready to push it a bit further.

Arckine
Arckine

“Sometimes, I have so many things swirling around in my head that I just get confused and as a reflex, I do nothing.”

“I spend so much time thinking about how to get things done that I don’t actually get anything done. It’s like spending hours drawing up a map, then never using it.”

All too accurate for me...

Rich20Something
Rich20Something moderator

@jaffac  Excellent! What's your alter OCD ego's name?


You should let him take over for a bit :)

TB3andJoe
TB3andJoe

So if you know that, your challenge is half over. The key to changing a habit is to identify it. Once you understand what needs to change then that becomes the focus. Your challenge is to Make it past week three!

MajorT0M
MajorT0M

@BeMaJ Another utility for developing habits is habitforge.com. (I have no affiliation with it, but I have used it and it worked for me.) It's simple. You specify the action you want to make a habit, plug in your email address, and every day for 21 days you will get an email asking you if you performed the action the previous day. If you click "yes", you keep going until you have done it 21 days in a row. If you click "no" it starts you over at day 1. No one is looking over your shoulder. It's between you and you. Trust me, after having to start over 2 or 3 times, you will make it through the 21 days, at which point the new action  should be established as a new habit. I think it's free the first time you use it, and there is a charge thereafter. It's been a while since I used it, so I'm a little fuzzy on how it works. I do know I didn't pay to use it once, so unless they've changed the policy it should be good for at least one freebie. Good luck with developing the habit(s) you want to establish.

ShaneLarson
ShaneLarson

Also, thanks for this article!  I decided to open up a job on Elance to see what kind of proposals you get. I received 20+ proposals within one hour.  Over 80% were canned responses.  I doubt the freelancer had even looked at the proposal.  They probably just have an API interface with Elance's back-end api that allows them to bulk propose.

Also, I sent a lot of questions to some of the freelancers who replied to by job.  Most of them didn't reply to my questions at all!  I was able to narrow it down to one freelancer pretty quickly.

Also, I noticed that even some of the offshore coders were asking way too much money for what the project was worth,   I am no longer afraid to just ask for the rate that I want when I bid on Elance.

Thanks for the awesome article.

Rich20Something
Rich20Something moderator

@wilblz  Consistency is huge - but also consistency at the RIGHT thing, you know?

Rich20Something
Rich20Something moderator

@James Poulitot  For sure- but creativity is such an uphill battle at times. What do you do to get yourself to create when you don't feel like it?