The value of a red X

Red XsNot too long ago I was idly browsing through the mindless jumble of e-cards, rants and inspiring phrases superimposed upon pretty pictures my friends and acquaintances (and some people I don't know but I accepted their friend requests anyway out of sheer guilt) that make up the social media craze we all have lovingly come to know as Facebook. Occasionally when I haven't looked at Facebook in a while, I get to thinking I am missing something. Then I sign in, spend thirty minutes scrolling through the mess of what has become the modern day equivalent of old school chain emails (like if you agree, share if you're my friend, comment if you want to shoot yourself in the face). After this exercise in lunacy, I realize I have missed nothing, because there is almost nothing out there to miss.

However in the midst of all this jumble of nonsense, I saw something that did indeed pique my interest. A friend of mine shared a link where Jerry Seinfeld commented on the secret of his success. When asked if there was any tool that helped him to be successful, he said there were two things he used to be the most successful TV comic alive.

A cheap paper desk calendar and a red sharpie.

I was intrigued, yet suspicious. You certainly can't trust everything you see on Facebook. (I mean just today someone shared a video of Evan Longoria bare hand catching a baseball speeding at him from behind, 'saving' a reporters life. As Abe Lincoln once said in 1884:

"The problem with internet quotes is that you cant always depend on their accuracy."

(Some of you will get that in an hour or so, think about it for a while in a nice, quiet, dark place - it will come to you).

While I don't know if the interview was legit or not, what I read was interesting enough. In the interview Seinfeld (allegedly) says that the secret to his success was figuring out what he needed to do to BE successful, then each day he did that thing he marked a red 'X' on his day calendar. Then the secret to his success was simple:

Don't break the chain.

He said the key to being successful is just doing the thing that makes you successful over and over again, each and every day, never quitting and never breaking the chain. As one day leads into the next and you look down at your calendar and all those red X's you gain confidence and momentum.

For him that meant writing. Each day he would sit down and write, trying to force himself into writing out things that were funny. As the old writers adage for success goes: "Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, now GO!"

But he said the key to success for any venture was the same. Dieting? Don't break the chain. Exercise? Don't break the chain. Learning a new language? Don't break the chain.

I let this idea simmer around for a few weeks in that broken tea kettle I call my brain. I know how important consistency is, even if I have struggled with it in many areas of my own life.

Having been diagnosed with ADHD while in elementary and middle school, I have learned one of the keys to managing this annoyance in my life is consistency and habits. My wife can attest to the importance of this for me as well. Living with my mother growing up, I always had a special place to put my keys whenever I came home. When I got married and moved in with my wife, I did not have this place, and it completely destroyed my ability to NOT lock myself out of every place I needed to go. After several instances of walking to work because I locked my house AND car keys in the house, one particularly frustrating day culminated in me breaking a basement window to break into my own house because I WAS NOT going to walk to work again. When she learned of this, suffice it to say we both learned how important it was that I built a habit of storing my keys in the same place everyday, and I learned NOT to bust open my own windows, but to instead just walk to work.

I also learned to keep my car keys and house keys on separate key chains. The theory was even I couldn't lose both sets, so I would never be completely locked out again. I could either get into the house and get the car keys I left behind, or I could drive to work.

That's me folks, conquering stupidity one  moronic workaround after another. 

But as a kid growing up in a single parent home, with little structure and supervision I lacked a lot of self discipline, and this failure in my character has haunted me and impacted nearly every area of my life. My mother taught me many things: the importance of self reliance, determination, hard work and more than a little grit. But getting up on time, doing my homework, maintaining a long term vision at the expense of instant gratification were lessons she struggled to fit into the day while she was working two and sometimes three jobs to keep us afloat financially.

Way to go mom. Sheesh. 

However, as I have grown older I have learned the importance of consistency, routine and establishing good habits. So I obtained a cheap little desk calendar and a red sharpie and started with my first habit I wanted to build: Getting up early, exercising, personal meditation and study, and daily planning.

I started on May 5th and I am happy to say I have been going every weekday since.

I have by no means defeated the giants of laziness, or inconsistency. Every morning the alarm goes off at 5am and my inner child shouts at me to get back in bed, go back to sleep, start working out again tomorrow. After all, I have lived this long with the belief that the best day to start a diet is tomorrow. There is a problem with this philosophy though.

Tomorrow never comes.

As day turned into days, and eventually weeks, and now a full month, each and every little red X grew to mean more and more to me. I was tired some days, sore others. But each day I got up and did it, always thinking about those little red X's and the streak I had going. There was always a voice in my head telling me millions of excuses why I should take a break, what was one day after all? I deserved some more sleep, my surgically repaired knee was hurting, my back was sore, I would be no good to my work and my family if I was tired.

But the sight of those red X's always encouraged me to get up and get to it.

Eventually a confidence within myself began to grow, and each day I felt better and better about myself. While some of that certainly could be attributed to the endorphins you get from a hard workout, I know a large portion was simply the confidence that grows from pushing yourself to do something difficult and overcoming.

They say habits take six to eight weeks to form, and I just started week five today. Hopefully I can continue this and push on to the place that this is a lasting habit. As much as I hate 5am (and I think it's a real shame that time of day even exists), I love the feeling I get from having that time all alone with the rest of the family still sleeping to do something to take care of myself, have a time of peace and quiet before the insanity of the day erupts, and to overcome something I have struggled with my entire life.

So whatever you might be struggling to do consistently might I recommend a cheap $2.00 desk calendar, red Sharpie marker and a few simple words:

Don't break the chain.

Try it and see where a few steps each and every day can get you. Farther than you thought possible!


2 Responses

  1. Karen Quinn

    Well being from the little island Ohians know as England, I’m not even sure who Seinfeld is but the idea of building a new habit with a chain of red crosses is inspired!

    I will go to the stationers and buy that calendar and sharpie this afternoon. The World Cup has started so I am facing five weeks of being ignored even more than usual in my (all male apart from me)household. By the time they emerge from their football frenzy, I will have a new habit and be unrecognisable – That’ll teach ’em! Mwah ha ha ha…..

    • J.S. Sanders

      Karen, I can’t believe you don’t know who Jerry Seinfeld is. He’s just about the most famous stand up comic in the USA and even though his show went off the air years ago, it still remains one of the most famous TV shows of all time.

      You can read more about him on Wikipedia if you like:

      I am glad I helped to inspire you. And you’re right it will be a just reward to get back at those guys.

      I would chat more but Spain is about to play the Netherlands… 🙂

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