By Aytekin Tank
Nov. 28, 2022
Actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld is no stranger to success. An Emmy, a Golden Globe and several Screen Actors Guild Awards are a few of the accomplishments to his name, not to mention one of the most iconic television series in the 20th century.
What's Seinfeld's secret? How did he manage to achieve such sizable goals?
With this simple maxim: Don't break the chain.
Using an old-school wall calendar, Seinfeld started drawing Xs through each day in which he accomplished his goal of joke-writing. As Seinfeld explained to an aspiring comedian:
"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."
Those consecutive Xs lead to momentum: the force that allows something — like motivation — to grow stronger or faster as time passes. Momentum, however, faces an equal and opposite force: friction. In science, friction means the resistance caused when one object moves at a different rate than another.
In our everyday lives, friction means any one of an endless number of possible distractions: long meetings, cluttered inboxes, chatty colleagues, social media and more. Though we can't eliminate those sources of friction entirely, it's crucial to learn how to manage them. Because if you can't manage friction, it will slow your momentum like lead in a balloon. But if you can, you position yourself to achieve your most ambitious business and career goals. And it all comes down to sustaining momentum.
Why sustained momentum pays off (big)
From age 32 to 44, Warren Buffett increased his net worth by 1,257 percent. In the next 12 years, he grew it by 7,268 percent. How did he achieve these extraordinary results? By leveraging an economic phenomenon known as the compound effect, whereby consistent, incremental changes result in fundamental changes over time.
Beginning at age 32, Buffett started building a chain of investments — and he never stopped. This sustained momentum created a compound effect, which for Buffett, yielded massive wealth.
Sure, some people hit it big once. But a more likely route to success is by committing to the long-haul and trusting that things will add up over time. As Gary Keller and Jay Papsan, authors of The One Thing, write:
"Success is sequential, not simultaneous."
This mindset is crucial for building a business, especially if you, like me, choose to go the bootstrapped route. There are also some interesting psychological effects to keep in mind if you want to increase your likelihood of achieving success.
Research shows: Seeing is achieving
Analyzing data from Olympic and Sectional swim competitions, researchers have found that athletes swim faster when swimming toward (versus away from) the end where the finish line is located.
It's because when we can visualize a goal — in the case of competitive swimmers, a finish line — we exert more effort to reach that goal. Experts call this the goal visualization effect. Of particular interest for entrepreneurs, managers can use this effect to enhance consumer goal pursuit and motivate employees to improve performance.
For example, my company, JotForm makes user-friendly online forms. We use demos to show customers how our forms can help them achieve their personal or business goals, and in doing so, we motivate them towards those goals — and to use our products.
Similarly, when we perceive progress toward a goal, we're more likely to complete the goal, and faster. Experts call this the endowed progress effect. To demonstrate, researchers Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Drèze examined how loyalty programs motivate consumers to purchase more.
As a location for this sophisticated experiment, they chose your friendly, neighborhood car wash. Customers were given cards where they would receive a stamp for each car wash. After collecting eight stamps, they could redeem a free sud session. Here's the rub: some cards had spaces for eight stamps and others had spaces for 10, with two spots already stamped.
The researchers found that 34 percent of those with the 10-stamp cards redeemed their ninth free wash, versus 19 percent with the empty, eight-stamp cards. This shows that customers who perceived they were making progress from the get-go were more likely to progress toward their goal — even if it's just a free wash.
With these psychological factors in mind, I've come up with a process for maintaining laser focus and sustaining momentum. It's helped me to grow JotForm to 140 employees and 4.5 million users — without any VC funding. Hopefully, it can help you, too.
1. Develop long-term, goal-supporting habits
Every morning, I start my day by opening a blank document and writing for two hours uninterrupted. No emails, no calls, no alerts — just me, my keyboard and whatever's on my mind. Usually, it begins as barely coherent, stream-of-consciousness prattle. But soon enough, I'm fleshing out recent issues and developing new ideas.
This daily habit has helped me to sustain momentum and continue to work toward my overarching goals — building a company with a healthy culture and offering users a seemingly simple, but game-changing product. Like hitting the gym as soon as I wake up, I do it even when I don't feel like it. And that's the beauty of habits — you don't need motivation to complete them. Regardless of your mindstate on any particular day, you can continue adding to an unbroken chain.
2. Choose tools to keep you on track
If you want to manage friction and sustain your momentum, you'll need some tools to help keep you on track. While Jerry Seinfeld's tool-of-choice was a wall calendar, these days we've got a plethora of handy options to choose from.
For example, you may find that the modern equivalent to Seinfeld's tool — a digital calendar — is useful for sticking with your daily habits. On the other hand, an analog paper planner can offer a range of benefits as well — from increased mindfulness to less device-related distractions.
And if you find yourself unable to overcome the temptation to check your smartphone or browse the internet, first, give yourself a break — you're not alone in this struggle. Then, try downloading a tool like Freedom, which blocks distracting apps and websites so you can get more done.
Whether it's an old-school alarm clock or a new-age productivity app, choose the tools that work best for you.
3. Track progress with outcome-based standards.
Every link you add to your chain should be based on a specific outcome — not just time elapsed.
So, for example, if you're trying to learn a new language, don't count the number of hours you study grammar — instead, focus on the first time you're able to hold your own in a conversation. Because that's how you'll know if you're truly progressing. That's when you'll be able to (metaphorically) mark an X on your calendar.
That said, outcomes aren't the only thing to consider. To the extent possible, you should aim to enjoy the process, too.
4. You're in it for the long-haul, so be reasonable.
If the purpose of our chains is to achieve a lofty goal, then we can think of each link as a sub-goal. It's crucial to give yourself a reasonable amount of time to work through these links.
For starters, maybe your chain is currently your side hustle, in which case the lion's share of your day is dedicated to your day job. Whatever the case, we can't always dedicate a huge portion of our time to completing one goal. That's why your timeline should be reasonable. Otherwise, you're more likely to get discouraged and break the chain.
I'm a big advocate of taking breaks. Whether it's a short walk after lunch or a visit to my family's olive farm, I find myself notably refreshed and motivated after stepping away from the office. I've come up with some of my best ideas during these "down" times.
I wouldn't have been able to build the company as it exists today had I not given myself a reasonable timeline to grow, and progress through each milestone. As Seinfeld's rise shows: you don't go from open mic nights to Emmy winner overnight. It takes time, daily effort and sustained momentum — and a little humor never hurt either.
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