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Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.
Jonathan Fader Ph.D.

What Seinfeld Understood About Motivation and Psychology

The comedian's useful advice for getting better

Dafne Cholet/Creative Commons
Source: Dafne Cholet/Creative Commons

There aren’t many life lessons that haven’t been covered in Seinfeld: in the show’s nine year run it covered difficult parents, relationships, alternate-side parking, muffin tops, shower pressure, and the ethics of double dipping—to name a few.

But Jerry Seinfeld, the real person, had another life lesson to offer off the air to one aspiring comic. “He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” Brad Isaac writes, “and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.”

Easier said than done, except for Seinfeld’s killer tool: a giant wall-sized calendar that showed the whole year on the same page and a giant red marker. Next, set a daily goal, e.g., write five jokes. Every time you hit that goal—that day on the calendar gets a big red X.

"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."

The method sounds great in theory, but does it work? As a psychologist interested in motivation, I’m always interested in filtering out scientifically sound motivation tips from the inundation of not-so-trustworthy life advice.

In psychology, this sort of “Seinfeld Calendar” fits into the larger category of “self-monitoring,” and it works exactly as it sounds. Think of your food diary, Fitbit, pedometer or, for finance, any of the thousands of apps that help you track your spending habits and savings goals. Self-monitoring, one study suggests, helps athletes adhere to training regimes. Another study found it useful for decreasing alcohol consumption in college-aged students. Half of the battle of staying motivated is being honest with yourself, and behavior monitoring does just that.

But there’s something else Jerry Seinfeld intuited about motivation psychology. In his reported interaction with Isaac, Seinfeld stressed, “Don’t break the chain.” That piece of advice strikes on another invaluable piece of psychological insight: the abstinence violation effect. In short, it means if you’re trying to avoid a problem behavior, cheating “just a little” can have terrible results. I always give my patients the example of eating “just one Oreo” leading to “I can’t believe I ate the whole sleeve.”

This method, as many have noted, has plenty of applicability outside of comedy. Whether you’re looking to get in shape, learn a language, or put aside a little money every day, the Seinfeld method can be immensely helpful. So if you’re looking for a change, try an oversized calendar and a big red marker—it worked for Seinfeld after all.

For more on motivation and psychology, follow Dr. Fader on Twitter and Facebook. Or, for more on Dr. Fader's private practice, visit Union Square Practice.

About the Author
Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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