It’s fair to say Jerry Seinfeld has achieved a modicum of success over his decades-long career. And while he’s best known as a comedian or actor, his oeuvre is really rooted in writing: as a stand-up comic, as one of the creative minds behind Seinfeld, and as the leading voice for other TV and film works. He also offers some sage advice that writers (or anyone, really) can apply to bolster their productivity and dedication-a method he calls “don’t break the chain.”
As a young comic eager for his big break, Seinfeld worked to improve his craft by forcing himself to write each day. At the end of the day, if he had managed write something (anything), he marked off the calendar square with a big red X, and after many days of maintaining this practice, the X’s grew into a long, satisfying sequence-visual evidence of his daily dedication. “Don’t break the chain” means “no matter what, set aside time to write even if it’s just half an hour, even if it’s a few minutes“ (for as we all know, sometimes, just getting started is half the battle). Even when you’re stretched thin, when you’re exhausted, when you “don’t have time.” Make time. Put another X.
The power behind this technique touches on the question of “discipline versus motivation.” Simply put, motivation is the stimulus or impetus to engage in some activity; discipline is one’s general capacity for self-regulation or self-direction. Writers thrive on both, but it’s really discipline that is your bread and butter, the less sexy but ultimately more dependable quality that will help you cultivate consistency, regularity, and persistence on the long road to becoming a better writer. Motivation is great, but it’s fickle and flighty; sometimes you feel that internal, dopaminergic force pushing your pen across the page (or fingers across the keyboard, as it were)-the creative wind behind your sails. Other days, it seems that no amount of coffee can spark enough desire to put down even a single sentence. You’re “just not feeling it”-you put it off until tomorrow, hoping the motivation will come then.
Discipline, on the other hand, is something that you can utilize independent of the caprices of your current emotional or cognitive state. It comes from regularity, consistency, and practice. We can assume that there were many days when Seinfeld didn’t “feel like” writing, when the desire simply wasn’t there. (After all, if he felt constantly, irrepressibly “motivated,” he would have never had a need to come up with the calendar chain method in the first place.) Doing something every day, even if you have to force yourself to do it because your mind recoils at the thought and the little homunculus in your consciousness cries out for more immediately gratifying pleasures, is the key to cultivating discipline, to churning out words on the page but also making it easier to engage your mind to churn out words on the page because things that you do habitually will become easier.
Writing is uniquely difficult, one of those human activities that often brings pleasure and pain in equal measure (sometimes, the pleasure is the pain, but that’s a blog entry for another day). Excelling at it requires consistent, persistent self-application over the long run, and, like any worthwhile pursuit, the gratification is often delayed. When motivation strikes-when you can’t seem to write fast enough and your ideas pour forth in a starburst of inspiration-run with it, savor it, get the most out of it. But don’t rely on it. Build a strong self-discipline by writing each day, even just for a few minutes and even if progress is incremental, and you’ll be on the right track. Put an X on the calendar. And don’t break the chain.