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Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret (lifehacker.com)
283 points by shawndumas on Feb 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments

Coincidentally, fellow HNers rguzman, peng and I recently built a simple web app which was inspired by this article.

It's called http://idonethis.com.

We email you on a daily basis asking you what you got done today. We put your email response into a calendar and check off the day. Look at your calendar to see your streak from yesterday to motivate you today.

We posted the site on HN back in January and got some great feedback which we incorporated (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2064038) along with some nice press coverage (http://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2011/01/03/idonethis-have-yo...). We're at a few hundred users, a good proportion of whom email us on a daily basis and tell us that that the site is helping their productivity, helping them quit smoking, reminding them to exercise & diet, etc.

My chain of thought while reading this article:

1. "It would be cool if I had a web app for this."

2. "Hey, I can build a web app for this."

3. "There must already be an app like this"

4. "In fact, I bet someone has already commented on HN about having built an app inspired by this."

I couldn't have been the only one with similar chain of thoughts, right?

Here's the one for programmers:


btw, it seems universal in tech that the first to make something doesn't always win the market. E.g. search engines, or even angry birds, even Jerry wasn't the first comedian. Sometimes, many many people have a go, getting little traction, until someone finally cracks it (due to increase in platform install-base, change in tastes, formation of niches, change in market, better marketing, scientific insight, better implementation, longer commitment, or luck).

Also true for your first version.

For what it's worth, http://screencast.com/t/s8okyRVDbaT8 the back icon doesn't render properly using Chrome 9.0.597.102 on OSX 10.5.8. I also tried incognito mode, with no luck. It does render properly in Firefox 3.6.13 on the same system, for what it's worth.

Also, there's a FB "like" icon on the landing page, but once I've logged in, it's gone. I don't know about others, but I'm more likely to like it once I've tried it! This is true both in Firefox and Chrome.

Good point on the like button. Going to make this change.

Thanks for the heads up on the back icon. I'll look into the issue.

Thanks, I just signed up. Loved your "inch by inch" tagline; I use a similar one on my site.

I'll be using iDoneThis to keep me motivated to write everyday ... hopefully it'll really keep me at it :) Is there any way to change the time zone so it'll email me at the end of my day? I'm in Thailand; GMT+7.

Awesome. Email us to let us know how it goes for you. Unfortunately, there's no way to change the time zone right now. But stick with us, as we're going to fix this in the near future.

Awesome. I just signed up. Could I make a small suggestion though? A time-zone/location setting, as the end of the day server time is probably the middle of the day for me in Australia.

Great suggestion, and we've been hearing that from a bunch of folks overseas. We hear you, and we're going to fix this. Unfortunately, the way we process the emails makes this take more work than it should -- but we're going to get this done.

You can still use us! The timings may just be off by one day.

Right next to my monitor in plain sight is my dedicated low tech $8.95 yearly wall calendar like this one


I color every day either black (1 or more things completed) or red (0 things completed). Then I have to look at it all day every day for the rest of the year. Very humbling.

[EDIT: A monthly calendar doesn't work as well. Redemption comes too soon. I need to suffer much longer to affect my long term work habits.]

What do you count as a "thing" completed?

In dividing up complex overwhelming tasks into small doable tasks, they can become quite small - where do you draw the line, for what counts? Do you also include things from different projects or categories, or from all aspects of your life? as an extreme example, do you include daily chores?

Maybe making it as broad as possible would be effective, because completing anything gets you started, and into a productive frame of mind.

What do you count as a "thing" completed?


It could be anything from "Add one comment line to function x" to "Read Chapter 7" to "Get sorting in Module 17 working".

Obviously, I like breaking up tasks into smaller and smaller doable pieces, doable in hours, not days, weeks, or months. The entire point is the binaryness of it all. Finishing a one hour task completely is better than finishing a one month task 50% (which really means that 90% is still left).

I learned this approach years ago from my hero of project management, Tom DeMarco


Every task is either complete or not complete. In spite of what many bosses of mine have thought, there is no such thing as "partially complete".

Even when I break things down like this, I still have many "red days". Amazing how easy it is to go through a whole day and achieve nothing. That is the outcome that each of us should be trying to avoid.

> Every task is either complete or not complete.

Say you task yourself to "fix the leaky pipe under the sink." You get down there with some pliers, check it off, and then the pipe starts leaking again. That probably means you didn't "fix" it. Do you avoid that by only using definitionally-finite verbs (e.g. "tighten the leaky pipe under the sink") or can some days retroactively go from black to red?

Its about putting effort into something of worth. The act of putting effort into something and maintaining discipline, even if you stretch the definition a bit, is what counts.

Even Seinfeld doesn't write a good joke everyday the point is to at least take a shot at writing a good joke everyday. You know how we procrastinate from exercising by saying - I don't feel like doing a full hour workout. Doesn't matter you can go and do it for 30 minutes or even only 5. Not feeling like doing what you "should" be doing is normal. Nobody is on top of their game 24/7. But you should prevent yourself from quitting by putting in some effort while waiting for good wind to return.

The size of daily goals depend mostly on individual long term strategy and ambition.

I think you're kinda overthinking things, dude. The calendar doesn't track solved problems--it just tracks stuff you did.

I imagine that the effort counts more than whether the task was completed in the retrospective absolute sense.

You're training yourself to put consistent effort into things that are important to you but probably unpleasant compared to playing Minecraft.

This system works best when the action is repeatable, e.g. going to the gym or getting to work before 11 or something like that.

I've tried it before after I first read that article, and it is quite effective.

This is the best way to do it. I've been trying out several other apps, such as idonethis and "Epic Win!" but they all fail the visibility aspect of a wall calendar: not using an app hides away the shame of not using it. I know that idonethis uses a daily reminder email, but they generally get trashed: a wall calendar has physical presence.

I have a working solution for idonethis.com, a conceptual solution for "Epic Win!", and an additional insight to add to yours.

The working solution for idonethis.com is to simply set it as your browser's home page. I live on my laptop, and to a significant extent, my web browser as well. For people in this category, a browser's home page may have even more of an unavoidable visible presence than a wall calendar would, not to mention perhaps even a greater frequency of exposure. This also serves as a call to action, meaning that every time that one opens a tab to, for example, read a news site, they'll see their calendar first and have to consider whether reading the news is more important than the goals that they have set out for themselves. As a side-note, I have no bookmarks for any news or related sites, in order to force a view of the calendar.

One thing I can see being a solution for "Epic Win!" would be if it displayed its equivalent of the calendar as the iOS device's lock screen and home screen wallpaper. In this way, you simply can't avoid seeing it.

I've found that the key here is actually not in the unavoidability, the key here is reducing the effort required by greatest extent humanely possible. "Epic Win!", in its current state, fails because it takes effort, no matter how minuscule, to launch the app. Getting an automated reminder is great, but it still requires effort, again no matter how minuscule, to click into the body of the email to see the calendar. Using the browser home screen or iOS wallpaper approach means that you're always seeing your calendar as a side-effect of something that you were already doing, and thus itself requires zero intrinsic or additional effort.

Finally, I think you brought up a great point in that "not using an app hides away the shame of not using it". The practical effect of having to deal with that shame is that it increases the effort required, due to emotional reconciliation, which decreases the likelihood of the app being launched.

When you know that shame is unavoidable (since you'll see it as your wallpaper and/or browser home screen) you can no longer "ignore" the shame (e.g., ignore an email, don't open an app). The only way around not feeling the associated negative emotions is to just ensure that you're executing on the goals that you've set out for yourself.

This approach is also supremely motivational from the "carrot" perspective. Seeing your chain of successes, day after day, is profoundly self-affirming, addictive, and habitualizing. You'll get to the point, in a relatively short period of time, where there is simply no force on the face of the planet that will prevent you from continuing your streak.

I like this but took it one little step further by stacking the months, because that worked even better for my brain. Now time simply goes week by week downwards, rather than down and then up and to the right to start a new month.

Pic: http://blog.calendars.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/aaron_t...

If someone would please print these, I'd love to buy one.

I love this idea and am going to start doing it. Thanks for the tip.

Sweet. My very first LifeHacker "entire site replaced by the homepage" sighting.

As a result of their genius idea to use hashbangs instead of proper URLs, in conjunction with their use of 3rd party (and therefore guaranteed thoroughly debugged and awesome) ad-serving javascript, that link takes me to the LifeHacker homepage with no Seinfeld article in sight.

Opening Chrome's inspector, I see this:

  Unsafe JavaScript attempt to access frame with URL 
  http://uk.lifehacker.com/#!281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret from frame with URL
  Domains, protocols and ports must match.
Note to self: Keep using actual URLs for URLs.

When I clicked the link I saw a indeterminate progress bar which spun (and spun, and spun). Then I recalled this little gem about Gawker's redesign: Remove the hashbang and prepend domain with "ca":


Dunno how long this trick will work... Though if I were them, I'd take the hard-learned lesson and revert.

Yeah, for me it redirects to Lifehacker's Australian domain. Complete web site fail.

Somewhat ironically, the first link that appears on the resulting, incorrect page is "Tip your editors". Unlikely, when I can't even read their content.

for me it works on firefox but not on w3m

Read Stephen King's "On Writing". It'll change your game, even if you don't write.


Speaking of authors on the subject of productivity, one of the most prolific popular writers in history, Isaac Asimov, said that the key to productivity and avoiding writers block was simply to write every day, no matter what. Asimov's autobiography, memoirs, and letters are absolute goldmines of wisdom. And pretty funny, too.

I recently downloaded King's On Writing in audio book form for my next long drive (I travel full-time, so I drive a lot), in hopes that it would offer similar inspiration. Sounds like I made a good choice.

Also, I think writers have a lot in common with programmers, and that's why there's so much overlap in the sorts of tactics that work for each group.

As for books on a similar topic I found Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" both inspiring and enjoyable. Link: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Bird-by-Bird/Anne-Lamott/e/...

I literally just finished reading that book yesterday, and I can't recommend it enough. It taught me to be a better programmer.

Seconded. Great insights from one of the most prolific authors ever.

This has been on HN before. Keep reposting and don't break the chain.

Instead of ordering on Amazon, I just printed my own hardcopy calendar (starting this week) at http://www.pdfcalendar.com/12-weeks/

I set it to start this week and to put the next 6 months on the calendar (I don't need a full year). Mine is now next up to my desk. Thanks! (NB: I have no affiliaton with the site; just found it Googling.)

run "cal 2011" into a file, then print it from your word processor, using a largish fixed pitch font.

If I may, here are my productivity tips:

- find/build a good todo system using GTD (Getting Things Done) methods (capture, organize, review)

- use it to capture all your thoughts and things you have to do. Get it out of your head.

- make weekly and monthly reviews of your work. The things you have accomplished.

- keep a daily log/journal not necessarily of things you have done but make side notes of things that affected you. New articles, a movie that changed your perspective on things, a new idea etc. If it comes back over and over, consider writing more about the subject

- clarify your long term goals vs the short ones. That's the difference between being busy doing client work for money to pay bills and being busy working on projects that will change your life (i.e scratching your own itch)

- track your progress: I track it using three columns. What I have planned for today, what I actually did and what I failed to do. My TODO system automatically assigns a score to that day and reschedules tasks. In my calendar, I do not have "completed" days, I have scores tracking my performance.

- define what is important to you and develop the habits you want to have: Exercise every day? (20 points), Work for clients (20 points), work on your weekly/monthly personal goal (e.g learn zsh) (50 points). Obviously, the number of points is subjective and based on what you believe is important

I'm sure there is more but that's the basic idea. I see my productivity as a system consistenly looking to be improved and become more efficient

The thing about productivity hacks is that their mileage varies pretty wildly from person to person. That's why there are literally hundreds of thousands of GTD apps out there. It's as bad as informercial exercise equipment. People love the idea of being productive, not the actual act of being productive.

We are in not-complete Beta but if you are signed up to http://www.Quantter.com (log in via twitter for now) you can record things you do just by including in your twitter message this microsyntax: #label:xMetric eg. #run:5miles or #thingsdone:2 ...

If you go to your Quantter settings (top left of profile page), select your "favorite activity" (=the hashtag you 'Quantt'/quantify) and you will seen a green check each time you do that activity at least once. The number of consecutive days you did this activity is your streak (given at the top of your Quantter profile page).

Finally you can follow 5 other people's streak, just by going on their Quantter page (while being logged in): http://www.quantter.com/user/TwitterUsername (eg. http://www.quantter.com/user/egadenne) and you click on "Follow Username" link under the grid.

As mentioned here, another very good implementation of Seinfeld "don't break the chain" is Kyle Bragger Streak.ly.

O/T but ARGH -- the 'hashbang' URLs are failing for me here every other time, and my wife (who I sent the link to) got the wrong page too. Anyone else suffering similarly?

Yup - consistently. I now never bother with hash-bang URLs. It's helping reduce my tendency to procrastinate which, ironically in this case, is helping to improve my productivity.

I've had a serious problem with Gawker sites failing to properly include third-party javascript. Even JQuery. The whole page then fails to load. Definitely how NOT to do things.

Thanks for posting this. I got the LifeHacker homepage and thought using LifeHacker was Seinfeld's secret.

Worse for me since redesign every gawker hashbang URL sends me to the .au version stripping the hashbang and leaving me with a challenge to find the actual article if it was a shortened URL.

This is what http://calendaraboutnothing.com/ is about. Which reminds me, I haven't committed anything in a while...

Trivia HN: Kyle Bragger (now of Forrst fame) did a Show HN about a service he developed using this technique several months ago - http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1665467

There's an iPhone app called Streaks that does this very thing. It's pretty nice.

I admit this does accomplish the motivation to routinely complete certain tasks. The problem I have with productivity tools is that they can't take into account all the constraints that are important: type of tasks (routine tasks + 1-time tasks), categories of tasks (project-related, home, work, hobbies), priority of tasks (most important to least important), time sensitivity of tasks (now, today, tomorrow, whenever) as well as size, scope, yada yada yada. Various tools seem to accomplish some but not all of these. What I am left with is a handful of tools that I get notifications for and am feverishly trying to check and manage. Productivity has now become managing all these productivity tools. Still waiting for that killer app that can match my (and I'm sure others') complicated mental model.

http://www.joesgoals.com/ is a great web app for tracking daily tasks (including longest/current chain).

+1. I'm a pro user and I love it.

Previous Discussion of the same article: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1033433

When I'd heard about this, I found http://dontbreakthechain.com/. Once I get a streak going, it's a pretty powerful motivator.

I've been using this method and this specific site for a bit over a year now and I'm extremely pleased with the results.

Also I've found that things that I can tick-off every single day get huge, almost never breaking streaks, while things that I need to do 1-2 times per week aren't solved that well by this method.

Although not of interest to most here (sorry), I'd just like to point out that if you are in Japan when you click that hashbang URL--or any lifehacker URL that comes up in e.g. a google search recently--the server pukes on itself and redirects to www.lifehacker.jp. I'm guessing their links are broken anywhere in the world where they have a localized site? Kinda sad.

It's a very good piece of advice, it has a "gaming" feeling in it.

It reminds me of the automated test suites you have in IDEs such as Netbeans, which display a huge green bar when 100% of your tests pass. It's such a goog feeling to see this green bar that you work harder to make tests pass again.

That doesn't work for me. If I don't take a day off here or there, I get burned out - my creativity starts to fail me and I end up making mistakes.

Maybe it's just me but I find that I sometimes need a break of a day or two to solve certain problems or put tasks in perspective.

A quick PHP script just to generate a printable calender http://pastebin.com/zrHCRAQH (just HTML http://pastebin.com/vi8FWybe)

For tasks with an "every few days" nature, it would be handy to have a calendar with, say, a box for each three days.

But you can adapt this method to a regular calendar by marking X's on that day and connected days when you do the action.

So for something like resistance training that you want to do every four days, you can "catch up" on the second, third or fourth unmarked day, but if you go more than four days, the chain is broken.

Note that you can potentially go a week between sessions by being early once then late the next time, so it's a little different than a calendar with multi-day intervals. But that extra flexibility might be helpful for some tasks.

I did this with a set of projects (mostly writing / creative) for all of 2010. It was pretty effective at first, but I definitely hit a few stretches of burnout. I was sure to record an entry for each day, but would occasionally fall behind.

At the beginning of this year, I moved away from it because I felt like it was a bit too much: it was forcing me to just output and quality generally suffered. I am still trying to find a good balance for it, but the calendar method is really a great way to motivate you to work and also shows you that you really can just keep moving forward.

The key here is doing things every day. You don't need a special calendar on the wall.

Humans are creatures of habit. If your habit is to slack off five days of the week then you will find it difficult to be productive on the remaining two days. If on the other hand you just start doing things, after a couple of days it's normal. I've been there, I've done that. Whatever you want to do, just start doing it. Even if you suck at first.

It's like quitting smoking. First few days are a little difficult. After 3 weeks you don't think about it.

And put a nice picture on your wall instead. ;)

I would also suggest marking every day that you spoke to at least 3 people on the phone.

Because often, it's good to recognize that we need to involve other people and relationships in getting stuff done, and not just do everything solo. This rule of talking to 3 people a day means you probably won't be talking to the SAME 3 people every day, so you have to keep up your relationships and meet enough new people. Also a great measure of success.

This very article was the inspiration for my recurring todo app - http://www.dailytodo.org/

I like the simplicity of your app.

Two of the github guys: kneath and technoweenie I believe, implemented exactly this for measuring contributions to open source projects.

site: http://calendaraboutnothing.com/ blog post announcing it: http://techno-weenie.net/2008/10/6/calendar-about-nothing/

Not only is this good advice for getting your own things done, but it's good to keep in mind if you're building an app that helps other people get things done. When I was writing "full-time" I loved using 750words.com - it's a sort of freeform journal platform that does a great job implementing measurement-based incentives like this.

We saw this article around an year ago and it inspired us to build Rootein http://rootein.com/ It's a web app, a Facebook app, has a mobile optimized version, features reminders and Twitter alerts as well. </ShamelessPlug>

How do you track of multiple tasks/projects with this technique? One calendar per task? A key/value mapping to replace the cross (e.g. a "G" for every day you go to the gym)? Simply merging them into one "meta" task? Or does it just not work for more than one task?

I since stumbled upon Giles Bowkett's variation whereby he uses a colour-coded horizontal line for each task. I like it. It emphasises the "chain" aspect and works well within the space constraints.


This tends to work pretty well - I got into it via Joe's Goals, but got sick of the interface and tech, so built a command-line tool to do the same kind of thing - http://tmcw.github.com/habiter/

similar, yet distinctive approach - especially about when to stop:

http://www.secondactive.com/2009/08/boost-your-productivity-... :

"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start."

A deep truth, though literally "daily" doesn't work for everything e.g. weight-training.

I tried this streak method, and I had a bad shoulder for a couple days meaning I had to break my streak.

And the problem with the streak is that once you break it, you no longer have an unbroken streak to motivate you to return to the habit. If anything, you don't want to look at your calendar any more because it hurts to look at the broken streak.

So disappointingly, the streak calendar is as powerful at demotivating you to restart the streak as it was at motivating you to continue an unbroken streak.

Similar for me. You make me think of a special-purpose calendar, that shows pairs of days. Then, your streak remains unbroken by just doing it every second day. One could improvise this, by marking off two days at a time. Could generalize to n days (e.g. 3 days, or weekly).

The demotivation of an "unbroken streak" is a kind of perfectionism, of noting what has not been done rather than what has. Interesting, because I think the idea itself is a way to combat perfectionism, in that Jerry notes done having written something (not how much).

When it does work, perhaps it works by turning perfection against itself. Perhaps there is a way to do the same judo trick on the demotivation you note?

I use to do this for crossfit. You train 3 days and rest one. My training for rest day was rest. If I rested then I would mark it as done.

The general time period for building up an addiction, breaking an addiction, or a habit is three days. After you've done something daily for three days, you are more likely to continue doing it.

My productivity pretty much consists that today is not today it's a day two weeks from today, it's March 12 not Feb 26, if something needs to be done it should be done "today".

TwoShay has a great writeup of this technique: http://www.two-shay.com/articles/habits-calendar

This quote was exactly the motivation behind my Unbroken Chain app for iOS: http://goo.gl/u4W93

If he shares it freely with people he barely knows, it's not a secret. It's dishonest to call it a "secret" just to bait the headline.

Welcome to the world of marketing and sales :-D

I made this poster a while back: http://dailycheckbox.com

for those that don't know the awesome Calendar About Nothing tracks your commits to open source code. The whole goal is to get the longest chain


see the iphone app streaks

and a new site


Usually a fervent supporter of technology over anything, but I think I'd rather have that "huge calendar on the wall with a big red marker" than an iPhone (or web) app.

It's big. You wake up every day looking at it. And it brings us back in a connecting way to the real life.

Semi-unrelated: Same reason I'd still rather use a Moleskin to gather and write out my thoughts and ideas over TextMate, Photoshop, etc.

Streaks has been pretty effective for me; I used it to get myself to meditate every day. There's a little detail that makes all the difference: The app shows a badge on its icon that tells you the length of your streak. Skipped a day? No badge for you.

I put it on the home screen, so I get to see that badge many times a day, much more often than I would see a physical calendar.

Thanks for the taskmash link - looks neat. But my gut reaction is that seeing something physical, stuck on a wall by my desk, is more likely to be effective (at least in my case) as it's IMPOSSIBLE to ignore. An app/webapp solution is nice, yes, but there's no replacement for a huge oblong of paper with ink on it.

Let's see how I do. Will be printing or ordering a calendar this weekend

Man Jerry Seinfeld is a freaking genius. I'm going to start doing this every day for multiple habits. Maybe a few different color markers for everything.

This article just changed my life.

Thank you!

So his productivity secret is calendars and Xs? Weak sauce.

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