Don’t break the chain — 6 months later

Six months ago I started using the “don’t break the chain” system. Three months ago I wrote a blog post about it. Time for an update! Read the original post first, if you haven’t!

If you repeat any thought or action multiple times, your brain creates new neural pathways and makes it easier to think the thought or perform the action in the future. Whether you’re learning a new foreign word by repetition, repeating “I love myself” until you start believing it or practicing a physical movement until mastery, rote repetition changes your brain. This is for example why new habits stick after 30 days of practice — your brain becomes wired to do them.

Knowing this I was expecting some changes in my life by following the “don’t break the chain” system for an extended period of time. However, nothing could have prepared me for the rate with which things started to change for the better.

Here’s what has changed after doing 15 minutes of reading, writing, sports and cleaning every day for half a year:

1. I got better at managing my days and developed an unconscious awareness for the passage of time in a day. Before time would flow by and suddenly it was time for dinner. Knowing I have to do four different tasks every day forced me to structure my day and take control of my time. I started getting more done in addition to these four things.

2. This systematic approach to individual days rippled into the rest of my life. As part of my 15 minutes of daily writing I started making plans for the future, breaking them down into smaller and achievable steps and evaluating my progress along the way. Writing down random thoughts gets them out of my head and makes me focus on the bigger picture. My mind was free to shape the future and not just follow along.

3. I learned to simplify my life and say no to tasks and activities which provide little or no value. Life is too short to be pushed around and there is no time to do everything you want to. I unsubscribed from a million different newsletters, made sure to finish all incomplete tasks which drain energy, removed myself from annoying projects where I was stuck for historic reasons. I learned to choose what I spend my time on.

4. This made me feel in control of my life, instead of feeling like I’m constantly running between different errands for other people. I started to appreciate life more.

5. Knowing I had to get things done, I started to do them immediately instead of procrastinating until the last minute.

6. I got better at managing my finances, which I was unable to do before. I started saving money. You should start too.

7. The need to do sports recharged me even on days when I woke up with very little energy. Thus I was able to control the day, not fall into a depressing downward spiral. This made me happier.

8. Turning a new page in the calendar every month became a mental checkpoint to re-evaluate the previous month and make decisions for which activities to do this month. I’m up to six things per day now, having added learning Dutch and writing down 10 ideas per day. While I’ve written about the latter before, I never made it a habit. Now that I have, it’s amazing and a topic for a future blog post!

In short, this practice has made the once perpetually aloof and “let’s see what happens” type of guy take control of his life and change it for the better. The progress I’ve made in the last 6 months feels enormous.

There are drawbacks. Some days I have to struggle to finish all six tasks when all my body wants to do is sleep. Some evenings I have to force myself to complete the tasks instead of spending time with my girlfriend, although this gives extra motivation to finish them during the day. Some days I’ve just forgotten to do a task or have been too tired to do the full 15 minutes. In all of these cases I have to remind myself that I’m the one making the rules and I can bend them if I choose. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s better to break the chain and write down the good reason than to blindly force yourself to do things you prefer not to.

That said, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages and I can wholeheartedly recommend this method to anyone trying to take control of their life, especially if you’re stuck in a hectic cycle and have no time. Start with just two things per day and take it from there.

I’m aware that what works for me (and for my girlfriend) might not work for everyone. Therefore I asked my small mailing list if anyone had actually tried following the method.

In total I got seven replies. Many praised the changes in their life after starting to consistently wake up early in the morning. Many saw value in taking 30 minute breaks after 90 minutes of working.

From those who actually tried keeping the chain, there were four types of responses. Some couldn’t try the system for one reason or another:

“I really enjoyed Your take on how being productive, but to be honest, couldn’t implement it permanently, cause my current lifestyle is far from patterns and every new day is kind of different.” — Raigo L.
“As for breaking the chain, I didn’t make a calendar, but it helped me to make an actual weekly goal to go gym at least 4 times per week and I have been sucessfull ever since and now it is a habit for me.” — Antons F.

Some had success, but broke the chain. Luckily they found other tools which helped them:

“I luckily found another similar method more to my liking and it has so far worked for over a month without a break in the chain. The method is “The Daily Practice” by James Altucher,” — Gert S.
“I started using a similar way as your calendar for the every-day things; then I found this website https://habitrpg.com (where you can also note the everyday tasks and adds gamification to your tasks) and switched to it.” — Francesco P.

Some just got it to work:

“I printed a big calendar and pinned it to my fridge. Now there are 4 tasks that I do everyday, no excuses! So far, big success.” — Mónica O.
“I applied the calendar method, started waking up at 6 o’clock each day to read for at least 15 minutes and learn for at least 15 minutes before going to work and each evening to learn for at least 30 minutes and to do 50 ab exercises or to take a long walk with my girlfriend. This resulted in me doing the Cisco CCNP Switch certification exam.” — Erkki S

And finally, one reader started to seriously turn his life around:

“I took up your method to give it a try after what I could only describe as depression had settled in for not being able to get shit done. […] It took me months to start, […] but I did. I’m on week 4. I have broken the chain in all but one item, but I’m loving it and the results are great.” — Mr. Anonymous

He went on to describe his success with waking up at 6 am, doing sports, engaging in creative work and improving his professional life:

“Career. I’ve been sitting on my job being miserable for a long time now, while not really taking persistent action to change the situation. Finally I hit a bottom when I self-diagnosed (later supported by a professional) a real depression. That’s when the four X-es started and one of them would be my most important short-term goal: find a next job. So I did something every day: re-writing a resume, submitting it, making lists of people to contact, contacting them etc… Results? Things started moving. It’s too early to tell whether two of the most potential conversations will result in a new job yet, but I have already received a verbal offer. I might update you on that later. More metaphysical results? Everything is better. It’s all connected. For example — not looking forward to my day since I know it’s going to be miserable and I’m not going to do anything about it would also be the main reason for serial snoozing. The more I stayed in action, the easier it became to kick myself out of bed at 6… to do important shit with my life. Broken the chain once. No excuses.” — Mr. Anonymous

Wow!

Hearing stories like these gives me immense motivation to continue this path of self-experimentation and sharing the outcomes with the world. Thank you everyone who wrote in!

And if you haven’t already, give the “don’t break the chain” method a shot. Especially if you don’t have time for it!

Archived comments from when the blog was self hosted:

https://jamesclear.com/small-habits
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