Jerry Seinfeld’s commitment strategy for joke writing

As told to a software programmer:

(Seinfeld) said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said 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.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Shakeout says this story is an example of loss aversion in that “the benefit of writing another joke seems small, but as you build up the chain you give yourself something to lose.” Loss aversion doesn’t seem like the appropriate behavioral economic lesson to apply to Seinfeld’s story.

An alternative might be research on differences in decision making when facing isolated options versus sequences. The frame of a sequence typically enables individuals to make more farsighted decisions, which is exactly what happened in Seinfeld’s case. In much of this research – the best of it done by George Loewenstein – individuals typically postpone objectively “better” outcomes until the end of a sequence (like French food versus McDonalds). Though in the Seinfeld story, the sequence itself seems to differentiate the value of initially identical products (a self-produced joke).

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3 Responses to “Jerry Seinfeld’s commitment strategy for joke writing”

  1. Sophie Says:

    I love this!
    /goes off to buy 2009 wallchart

  2. Jurgen Wolff Says:

    Could be fun to adapt an Advent calendar for this–when you finish that day’s writing you get to open the little door and eat a piece of chocolate…(might not be good for your weight, though…)

  3. John Says:

    There’s an iphone app that allows you to track multiple goals this way: GoalKeep. It also lets you quickly share progress on your goals with friends. The developer’s URL is http://www.thepolypeptides.com/goalkeep/index.html.

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