The unbroken chain method

by Admin
Updated: July 15, 2018

The unbroken chain method leverages the desire for completion to maintain productivity

“Don’t break the chain” is a productivity method popularly attributed to Jerry Seinfeld based on the idea that consistency is the key to accomplishment and can be strongly supported by our innate desire to see things complete.

Most of us have a positive emotional response to things that are complete and a negative one when things are incomplete.

You see a jigsaw puzzle with one piece left to place - what do you want to do? You had a complete collection and now one piece has gone missing - how do you feel?

The unbroken chain method leverages this desire for completion against procrastination.

Limitations

This process is about maintaining productivity at some arbitrary level for the sake of consistency. It doesn’t involve any requirements for quality or quantity.

Benefits

There are two key benefits from the consistent practice that this method encourages.

  1. Improved ability
  2. Accumulated accomplishment

#1 almost alway applies, but #2 may not, e.g. developing a skill.

These benefits should naturally overcome the limitation given sufficient time.

Why it works

The unbroken chain method only works if the chain is obvious and you care about not breaking it. So sometimes it doesn’t work.

This is rooted in a sense of completing something for it’s own sake which, of course, doesn’t apply to everyone or everything.

The Ovsiankina Effect describes the observation that we tend to develop a psychological need to finish something we’ve started and I believe this is an evolved psychological trait whereby recognizing missing things was linked to survival.

But whether we are sufficiently motivated to do so or not depends on other factors - a subconscious cost-benefit analysis - and the perceived cost of adding another link must be lower than the perceived cost of breaking the chain.

Visual feedback

Illustrating the chain helps to translate the consciously decided value of not breaking the chain with a more primitive emotional motivation.

We might decide something is important, but unless we feel it, we’ll be more motivated to do other things that seem more rewarding.

Setup for success

Three steps to prepare:

  1. Define what constitutes a link
  2. Create a buffer before you start counting
  3. Choose a visual feedback system that works

Setting a link size that is too big makes the process unsustainable, which is going to feel like failure even if a lot actually got achieved. But making it too small can mean the process never adds up to much. Modifying the link as you go along is not cheating but it is a distraction. Better to get it right at the beginning.

Life happens. Sooner or later you’ll be under pressure to miss a link. Stress from a system you created for yourself is seriously counterproductive. Having a bunch of almost-finished links protects you against this kind of lose-lose scenario.

The physical act of marking an achievement can also contribute healthy positive feedback. I maintain charts on my computer because I travel a lot, but I know I would get more satisfaction from checking off successful days on a giant wall calendar with a big red marker (which also has the not-to-be-underestimated value of being visible to others).

More info

“How Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret Fixed My Procrastination Problem” (2012 article) at lifehacker.com (includes link to original 2007 article).

You know is works, but...

The Ovsiankina Effect is an observation, not an explanation. “Die Wiederaufnahme unterbrochener Handlungen” (The resumption of interrupted actions) - Maria Ovsiankina’s original 1928 paper in German: Ovsiankina-PF28.pdf (PDF, 5.8 kB).

“Completion principle” at changingminds.org describes additional details but does not comment on causation.

Theories about why people like to complete things are mostly concerned with collecting behavior and control (leading to conditions such as OCD).

Internal links

Micro tasks Eliminate procrastination Opportunity cost Go to Articles
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