Don’t Break the Chain! – Skinny Artist

Don’t Break the Chain!

Don't Break the Chain -


Practice, practice, blah, blah, blah….

Okay we get it.

By now we’ve all heard the great secret of success is that you have to sit down and practice more.

Then again if we did everything we are supposed to do, we probably wouldn’t have all of these infomercials trying to sell us the latest exercise gadget, and Taco Bell would go out of business.

It turns out that knowing and doing are two very different things.

I think most of us know that we could be more focused and disciplined in our creative life.  We know that we should probably spend a little less time checking our Facebook page and a little more time doing the thing that we are always bitching about not having enough time to do.

So if we get it, then why don’t we do it?


The Tribe of 365

In recent years you’ve probably noticed more and more of these project 365 “accountability” groups online.

In these groups, visual artists and photographers promise to create something small everyday, and then post their work online. The thought here is that if they skip a day, they will face the ridicule of their creative peers or at least feel the need to explain themselves.

This taps into a truth about human nature that we tend to perform better (or at least more regularly) when we think someone else is watching and will hold us accountable.  Part of the problem with the creative arts has always been that there is that small voice in our head that tells us that no one else is really going to care (or even notice) if we slack off a day or two.

This is especially true for non-visual artists such as writers, poets, and musicians.  For us it’s not quite as easy as snapping a picture of our latest work and putting it up on Flickr or Facebook.  I mean who really wants to post some crappy first draft of a poem or read through some sketchy 1/16th of a chapter from our latest novel?

So we simply tell ourselves that we’ll just wait until our latest project is finished, but at the same time, we secretly suspect that no one is going to give a crap if we ever post it or not.  So as our initial excitement and motivation begins to fade, so does our productivity.


We create our habits and then our habits create us

You’ve probably heard the rumor that it takes 30-60 days in order to create a new habit.

These 365 projects are not really about whether or not other people see or comment on your artwork every day.  In the end these groups are about holding yourself accountable.  They are about you putting in the work and getting to that place where you are going to feel worse if you don’t do it, then if you just sit down and do the work.

It’s not just about making yourself feel guilty, however, it’s also about building momentum and that sense of pride when you look at what you’ve accomplished.  In other words, once you get to a certain point, you don’t want to stop because you can see how far you’ve come.

Okay that’s great, but how do we actually do this?


Don’t break the chain

Not to long ago, I read something in the book “The One Thing” that changed the way I approached this issue.

In the book there was a story about the comedian Jerry Seinfeld.  He said that one of the keys to his eventual success was that he found a way to sit down and write new material for his act every day, even in the beginning when no one else cared.

Jerry Seinfeld

He created a system for himself where he would hold himself accountable for sitting down and writing every day.  What he did was to put one of those big yearly calendars on his wall where he would see it everyday.  Then he would put a big red ‘X‘ across every day that he sat down and worked on his material.

Seinfeld said that, “After a few days, you’ll have a chain [of red X’s]” and then if you “just keep at it, the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing the chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.  Your only job is to not break the chain.”

Once you have created a long enough chain, you’ll discover that you’ll practically do anything to keep going and not “break the chain”.

The genius to his system, I think, is in the visual feedback of the calendar.

Using a system like this, it’s no longer about whether or not other people can see it.  Instead it becomes a type of game or contest with yourself.  How long can you make it?  How many days can you go without breaking the chain? 

Although I prefer using a paper calendar because it’s right there staring me in the face every day, there are a few smartphone apps that could help you as well.  If you have an Android phone, the app “Habit Streak” (free) and “My Daily Success Checklist” (free) might work for you.  If you  have an iPhone, the popular app “Streaks” ($1.99) might also be an option.

The great investor Warren Buffett once said that the “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”  He understood human nature enough to know that this combination of momentum and pride can be a very powerful motivating force.

Now of course we would all like to look good in front of our peers, but even more than that, we want to be able to feel good about ourselves and what we have accomplished.  In order to do this, however, we need to find a way to keep us motivated and moving forward every day.

Keep in mind, however, there’s a fine line between motivating ourselves and just making ourselves feel like crap because we can’t keep up with our endless to-do lists and goal charts.  So if you do find yourself “breaking the chain” at some point, please don’t beat yourself up about it — it happens.  All you can do is let it go and then get back to work building yourself a new chain.

The key is to start today.


Now it’s your turn…

What’s your secret to motivating yourself?

How do you keep your creative momentum going?

What do you do to keep yourself from burning out?



About the Author

Drew is a writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist creative community. You can also find him online at where he writes about fitness, nutrition, and his continuing battle with father time.

Good article! As an illustrator who works at home I think that motivation is one of the hardest things to conquer. I find myself working hard on jobs but when it’s over I seem to lose steam and find myself slouched in front of my computer if I’m not careful. So I’ve found that sticking to a routine helps even if I don’t have paid work to do. I make myself go into my studio every morning and work on something for at least an hour. About 5 years ago I started writing down words or phrases (ex. woman in red hat, dog days, apple of my eye, etc.) on little slips of paper that I keep a jar and I pull one out if I need help with inspiration, it helps keep me thinking and illustrating. When I feel burnt out I turn to learning something new, taking a beading or cooking class which seems to help with the isolation of working alone, or just checking out galleries and museums. It’s important to have a life outside of work.

    I think you’re right Toni that you do need some type of routine like that in order to sit down everyday and create something, whether it’s a quick drawing or just jotting down a few paragraphs.

    Your idea jar is a great idea. I remember taking a creative writing course in college where we would each be handed a photograph and then be asked to write a short story about the scene. The nice part about it was that, like your illustration examples, you don’t have to sit there and think of something to draw or write about, instead you just get started. The results aren’t always memorable, but then again, that’s not really the point any more than jogging 3 miles is about getting back to your front door. You do it simply because it exercises those valuable creative muscles. Maybe it’s just a warmup, or maybe it ends up being your total creative output of the day, either way you’ve done your work :)

I think the trick to motivation is to not wait for it. The daily practice habit forces me to come up with SOMEthing, I have indeed joined a 365 group, and I get to suffer the humiliation of displaying whatever crap collage I’ve come up with each day. Yet, I’m having a blast, playing with colors & textures, and finally, 1/3 of the year done, thinking about how I can translate the work into larger compositions. The level of artistry in the other contributions keeps me on my toes, too! To counter burnout, I sometimes work on a series of pieces, then just post daily, or even schedule the posts. On the larger scale, I work towards a body of work for the year, then spend the summer releasing it into the wild. Come September (right now!) I can’t wait to get back into creating. Delayed gratification at work, I guess?

    You nailed it Liz when you said that the “trick to motivation is not to wait for it”!

    As Jack London said, sometimes you have to “go after [inspiration] with a club” and drag it back kicking in screaming. I don’t know about you, but I know if I sat around and waited to be inspired (or even come up with a good idea) I would never get anything done. So i say bring on the half-assed writing and crap collages and let’s get messy!

Jessica D

I’ve been training to run my first marathon and it has become a metaphor for the rest of my life and work. I think of myself as being in training for life. You have to give yourself proper fuel and rest, and then you just have to get up and do it…and keep going…even if you don’t feel like it. But it will feel good. And when it feels good you will keep going – not necessarily to get to a finish line, but because the work and the journey itself is rewarding. I definitely need to keep creating more good habits though.

I’m interested in the personal accountability versus the social accountability approaches. I think the calendar is a good idea. I also think I personally would like to find a 365 group – or similar – to join, which I don’t have right now. I like being inspired by other people and the idea of responding to each other, bouncing concepts back and forth. I started dreaming of a Skinny Artist group where people post whatever they want (photos, words, drawings, music…) about certain themes. Hmm…..? Or if someone wants to recommend/invite me to their photography group that would be awesome.

    A marathon is a beautiful metaphor for creating art because it’s all about long-term thinking and short-term training. You’re right that you really do need to just “keep doing even when you don’t feel like it.” Even when ideas aren’t flowing or people are telling you that you should probably just give up. I know that at least for me, every day that I continue on this path makes me feel like I’ve accomplished a least some small victory simply by not giving in to the all the doubters (including myself).

    I like your idea of creating some type of Skinny Artist share group — maybe we could come up with some type of Facebook group page or something hmmm….. I think it would awesome if we could get artist/writers/musicians all bouncing ideas off of one another from all of the different creative arts. Sometimes we get locked into our little creative niche and I think we miss out on so many ideas from outside our creative realm. We’ll definitely have to look into this more.

    Anyone else have any thoughts or suggestions on this?

In past I was into 365 days photogrpahy, the most funny I got my first camera and my first accomplish was very crappy and ugly at the beginning but I have group of friends which follow my photos and blog and always cheer me up. it was in 2009/2010, that time they said I’m good, but I haven’t belived them , every day I try to create sth, there were better or worster days, but after a year I deifnitly broke the term of no inspiration- there is in every place, we just need open eyes and I saw huge progress in my phogoraphy.
even know if I stopped this project, i still do photos everyday in terms of showing it to people, even if I don’t public them, I’m alway try make photos as someone whould judge them. it helps me to have better progress ;D
I wish it would simply work for me when it comes to drawing, but it’s totally different story uh..
anyway nice article <3

    Thanks Darlene for sharing the post on your site and letting us know about it :) I really appreciate it!


This is fake. Well at least Seinfeld never used this or advised to use this. He did an ask me anything on reddit and said this was the dumbest non-idea that wasn’t his.

    That’s interesting Jone, although I’m not entirely surprised. It seems these days pretty much anything on the internet gets attributed to a famous person to make it more “newsworthy”. When I was writing up this story I found this Seinfeld attribution in multiple sources both online and off so I thought it was fairly credible. What surprises me more than anything, however, is the fact that a celebrity in today’s culture would actually admit that they didn’t come up with it ;)


Great article! This is such a great method to try. I agree that the visual aspect of seeing the Xs on the calendar does help a great deal with motivation. While a wall calendar works for you, I’ve started this by using an online calendar (simply because I didn’t have a wall calendar but already had the online tool on hand). I got the idea from –worth a read for further insight on this topic.

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