Improving your health usually requires ditching old habits and creating new ones. That can be tough. Your physical therapist can recommend that you work out three times a week, but she isn’t going to drive you to the gym. Your doctor may ask you to cut out refined sugar, but she won’t be there to dive between you and your friend’s birthday cake. It’s up to you to make those changes.
Luckily, there are all kinds of tips and tools out there to help you establish new, healthy habits. One of the most effective tools is something I call the “Don’t Break the Chain” Incentive System.
Productivity experts often cite Jerry Seinfeld’s purported time management secret called “Don’t Break the Chain.” Seinfeld allegedly once told a new comic that he should hone his art by writing every day. Seinfeld then described the system he used to ensure that he did his daily writing. He puts a wall calendar up and marks every day that he writes with a big red ‘X.’ After a few days he has a chain of X’s and doesn’t want to break that chain. That motivates him to keep the chain going. Seinfeld is said to have explained, “Your only job next is not to break the chain.”
When I first heard of this little trick, I thought it sounded like a great idea. I immediately tried it out with a couple of habits that I was trying to adopt, like daily exercise or avoiding sugar. My problem was this: I didn’t care about the chain. I would stick to my habit for a few days, get some nice fat X’s up there, fall off the wagon and just not care that I broke the chain.
When I tried this system with clients in my coaching practice, I discovered that the same was true for many of them as well. Some people are motivated by the chain; by its sign of a commitment kept and good work done. But, many of us are not. We need juicier, more immediate incentives to keep us going when the going gets tough. So, if that is the case for you, you can create an incentive chart by adding an enticing reward every ten days into your “Don’t Break the Chain” effort. Immediate rewards? Now we’re talking.
The “Don’t Break the Chain” Incentive System
works like this:
Step 1. Choose a daily habit that you want to adopt, like a morning walk or eating a fresh salad for lunch.
Step 2. Choose a significant number of days for which you want to do this habit in a row. I recommend 40. It’s popular in the three big Western religions (Ramadan, Lent, and Moses on Mt. Sinai) and it’s a long chunk of time. It has been said that you need to do something for three weeks to make it a habit, but I’ve seen plenty of people fall off the wagon as soon as those three weeks are over. If you do something every day for 40 days, you’ve really begun to establish a practice and have a better chance of keeping it up.
Step 3. Choose four rewards for yourself that you would not give yourself otherwise, in increasing size and value to you. Examples might be: dinner out, a concert, new clothes, binge-watch a tv show, a massage, or a sporting event. The rewards should be something you really enjoy, and something you wouldn’t do on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money on your rewards. It will probably still be cheaper than a life coach, therapist, or personal trainer, who would all charge you to help you establish this habit.
Step 4. Make a list of numbers from 1 to 40 (or use a wall calendar) and write down one of each of the rewards you chose in step 3 on days 10, 20, 30 and 40. This way, you get a great, celebratory reward every ten days, as long as you don’t break the chain.
Step 5. Post the list or calendar in a place where your family or friends will see it and tell them about your effort. Accountability always helps.
Step 6. Cross off each day as you successfully stick to your habit and enjoy your rewards as you get to each one.
The practice I am pursuing now with the “Don’t Break the Chain” incentive system is getting in bed by 10pm every night. I have a bad habit of staying up late, doing a combination of working and watching Netflix or Youtube. It wreaks havoc on my health and productivity. So, I’ve committed to going to bed at 10pm every night for 40 days, unless I am socializing with family or friends. My rewards are: At 10 days – A movie in the theater; at 20 days: two new items of clothing; at 30 days: sushi dinner with my sons; and at 40 days: dinner out with my husband at our favorite restaurant. I fell off the wagon after Day 6 and had to start all over again, but now I am one night away from going out to a movie, and the circles under my eyes, foggy mind and body aches I get from sleep deprivation are all starting to fade after nine days of early bedtimes.
What about you? What habit do you want to pick up? What rewards could you use? How could this nifty tool change your life?
Janette Hillis-Jaffe combines her personal experience as a patient with her background as a public health professional to help others chart a course out of illness into health. Janette is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and coach, with a master’s in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health. She has spent thousands of hours studying counseling, nutrition, the mind-body connection, and the U.S. healthcare system during her successful effort to heal from her own six-year long, debilitating autoimmune disorder. For more information, please go to healforrealnow.com.