Why you should aim to do new habits 'dailyish'

I once asked Jerry Seinfeld about the Seinfeld Technique, the amazing productivity secret that supposedly explains his prolific joke-writing and consequent global success. It goes like this: every day that you manage to spend at least some time on your most important creative work, you mark a big red X on your calendar. The goal is not to break the chain of Xs. 

 

It turned out he'd suggested it, once, to some guy in a comedy club, then largely forgotten all about it. "It's so dumb it doesn't even seem to be worth talking about," he told me. "If you're a runner and you want to be a better runner, you say, well, I'll run every day, and mark an X on the calendar every day I run. I can't believe this was useful information to anybody! … Really? Are there people who think 'I'll just sit around and do absolutely nothing, and somehow the work will get done'?" 

 

I was struck by this exchange, because in productivity-world, the Seinfeld Technique has come to mean "work on what matters most to you, every single day, without fail." But to Seinfeld himself it mainly just seemed to mean that you have to put in effort, repeatedly, over the long haul. No wonder it didn't strike him as a particularly astounding system.

 

In fact, I've come to believe that the every-single-day version of this advice (which novelists are especially guilty of dispensing) is actively terrible. You can guess why: an every-single-day rule is so rigid, so intolerant of the vagaries of life, that you'll inevitably soon fall off the wagon. And once that's happened, you lose all motivation to continue – so you end up doing less, in aggregate, than if you hadn't been quite so exacting in your demands. Instead, I'm a proponent of Dan Harris's excellent alternative, offered in the context of developing a meditation practice, but relevant to many other important goals in life: aim to do it dailyish

 

If you're prone to making yourself miserable by holding yourself to unmeetable standards, like me, "dailyish" probably sounds a bit self-indulgent. But it's the opposite – because it involves surrendering the thrilling fantasy of yet-to-be-achieved perfection in favour of the uncomfortable experience of making concrete progress, here and now. Besides, it isn't synonymous with "just do it as often as you can"; deep down, you know that if you never average more than a day or two per week on your novel/fitness plan/meditation practice/side business/whatever, then you won't acquire the momentum to move forward. "Dailyish" involves applying more pressure to yourself than that. But (crucial distinction coming up!) it's a matter of pressure rather than of forcing. 

 

The appeal behind much productivity advice, I think, is the bewitching idea that there might be a technique or set of techniques that would force accomplishment to occur, making it automatic and inevitable. But there isn't – and in any case the yearning for such techniques usually arises from some buried insecurity or other psychological agenda. Maybe you don't know how to do the work in question, and you're hoping relentless effort might serve as a substitute for that knowledge. Maybe you don't really want to do it at all, but just think you ought to want to do it, so you're using "productivity" to try to force the missing desire into being. Or perhaps you think you need a flawless record of achievement in order to justify your existence on the planet – and if the stakes are that high, clearly you can't afford to put a foot wrong. 

 

"Dailyish", on the other hand? I'm not sure I quite have the words for this, but something about "dailyish" shifts the focus away from your particular smorgasbord of psychological problems back to the thing itself – to the creation you're seeking to bring into existence, whether that's a piece of writing or work of art, a happy family, healthier body, meditation habit, or anything else. It's a reminder that in some fundamental way, real productivity – provided you're working on something worth producing to begin with – isn't about you. It's about what's being produced. What matters, in the end, is what gets created, not whether the person doing the creating has an impeccable record of red Xs. Did anyone ever really think Seinfeld owes his success to a productivity technique? Clearly, he owes it to talent, perhaps also to luck – and then, on top of that, to showing up and doing the work, more days than not.

 

So, yes, holding yourself to a more flexible standard, such as "dailyish", is more forgiving than the alternative. But it's not solely a matter of being kinder to yourself. Crucially, it's also about getting you – with all your weird hang-ups and neuroses and ulterior agendas and other psychological nonsense – out of accomplishment's way. 

To receive posts as soon as they're available, subscribe to my email The Imperfectionist.