Discipline and Deflection

Meditating by the sea

“Discipline and Deflection”. That’s the title of the ebook I’m working on. I started with the idea that perhaps, just maybe, I could write about how I dealt with (coding and non-coding) interruptions while still completing projects (I wrote a bit on that here). That I could help you, in case you happen to want to know more about that.

As I thought and consolidated my points, every single point seem to revolve around the idea of self-control. Without self-control, any life-hacking, GTD-esque, productivity tool you have is useless. Because without self-control, you won’t have the discipline to use those tools and actually do what you wanted in the first place.

When you have something important to do, you need to focus. This actually has 2 parts. You need to concentrate on that one task, and ignore any interruptions (including other tasks). It turns out that there’s lots of advice on this, and that it’s hard.

So I don’t have like “47 tips on making your browser work better”, or “12 essential tools you must have on your computer” or whatever number that’s popular right now. I only have 1 (which is fine. I mean it’s the number one!), or 2 (it’s the only even prime number!) things to tell you.

It’s just self-control. And there are 2 parts: discipline and deflection. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance.

Sound like one of those New Age concepts? Perhaps.

Let me tell you 2 stories first…

Distractions and Newton’s 3rd Law

Garion was learning to control his power. Before this, it had always been spontaneous. He just thought it, and it’s manifested in reality. But there had always been some impetus, some urgency, to which he was forced to perform those acts of manifestation.

Now, he’s mindfully controlling what could be done. And his task at hand? To overturn a large piece of rock.

The first thing he noticed was, while he can concentrate on visualising the overturning of the rock, small peripheral happenings around him kept distracting him. A bird’s song. The buzz of a bee. The smell of the flowers. The coolness of the breeze. The light from the sun.

Finally he managed to ignore all the distractions, and was thinking about how to overturn the rock. Maybe he could lift it at one end? That made sense.

So he bent his will to lifting the rock at one end. Sweat beaded his brow. His hands were shaking, as though he had been physically lifting the rock.

Finally, Garion collapsed onto the soft grass in exhaustion. The rock simply would not move! After resting for some time, he got up and tried again. This time, he had a plan. Instead of slowly lifting, he would mentally grab hold of one end of the rock and flip it with one mental heave.

He visualised holding the end closest to him, and then he heaved. The rock flew off into the distance. Garion smiled in satisfaction.

Garion also realised he’s waist deep in the ground.

He didn’t brace himself against the impact. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Flipping the rock upwards meant he was pushed downwards.

[this short story is paraphrased from the Belgariad by David Eddings]

The One Finger Punch

Chen Min was intrigued. How had that frail studious man defeated that ferocious brute of a man with just a touch of his finger? Chen Min had to find out.

“The essence of the skill,” the academic explained, “is balance.”

Suppose the total force was 10. If the attacker used 7 points of force, one just needed to use 3 points of force. If the attacker went all out, one merely needed a touch of a finger.

Matching the attacker’s force of 7 with another 7 would upset the balance. Sure one might still come out the better. But one had used an excess of energy to do it.

The academic, even though he’s not trained in kung fu, had agreed to teach Chen Min the skill. He took Chen Min to a spot beside a waterfall. It was noisy. The water splashed into the deep end of the pool. The leaves were rustling in the mildly strong wind.

And he told Chen Min to listen for birds. “What birds?” And 3 birds flew from a nearby tree.

Then he brought out a bird from the cage he carried and handed it to Chen Min. His instructions? Without holding onto the bird, with his palm open and the bird standing on his open palm, stop the bird from flying away.

Needless to say, the bird flew off without giving Chen Min any time to react.

Then the academic took another bird out from the cage. He held it in his hands. Chen Min could practically see the bird bending just a fraction of an inch downwards, in preparation for taking off.

And just as the bird was pushing off with its feet, the academic lowered his hands slightly, just enough to counter the force from the bird’s downward movement. Without the force needed to push off, the bird couldn’t fly off, and it stayed. The academic smiled, and lifted his hand and the bird flew away. Chen Min’s jaw dropped.

Chen Min stayed at the waterfall place, sat down, and concentrated. He focussed all his senses. He was watching intently at the trees. He was listening intently at the trees, desperately trying to ignore the rush of the wind and rustling of the leaves. He still couldn’t make out the chirps of the birds.

He thought maybe there weren’t any to begin with. And a few birds promptly took off from the trees into the sky. “I can’t do this!” and he slumped onto the ground.

Chen Min was enjoying the breeze, and was drifting into day dreaming mode, when he heard a chirp. He jerked back up, and tried to listen again. The chirping was gone.

He tried to understand what was going on. He was lying down, enjoying the breeze, not thinking about anything… and he was totally relaxed!

He sat back up with his legs crossed in meditative position, and slowed his breathing. And relaxed. And the faint chirping could be heard.

The key to maintaining balance in the One Finger Punch wasn’t to focus intently with one’s senses. It was to let go.

[that’s Chen Min, a kung fu master depicted in a comic book. Yes I get inspirations from comic books.]

Final words

Those 2 stories are part of what shaped my thoughts about self-control. Now, clench your fist. Then relax your fist. Now imagine your hand being in a clenched state and in a relaxed open state at the same time.

That’s what my ebook is about. To be disciplined enough to do the task you set out, and be relaxed enough to gently deflect interruptions. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance. Self-control.

I am also compiling a list of tips on handling interruptions of the I-want-to-focus-right-now-without-interruptions kind. This will complement the ebook, which will talk about deeper concepts (and so takes more time and effort to execute. Nobody said this was easy…). The compiled list will be freely available as a download for everyone.

If you want to contribute a tip on how you handle interruptions during your work, your studies, when you’re coding, anything, just put in a comment or contact me. I will include your tip in the list with attributions to you. Or you can tell me which awesome programmer I should be totally talking to, and asking that person for tips.

And finally, buy my ebook when it’s out. *smile*

Disclaimer: I’m not versed in New Age, Zen, Buddhism, and so on. I am not a health professional. I have some interest in those topics, only insofar as curiosity puts me. I’m just a simple man who happens to read a lot on a variety of topics.

[image by Neustock]


  1. Leong Hean Hong says:

    Can I make a pre-order? Looking forward to read the book.

  2. Vincent Tan says:

    Thank you for your interest! I’m still in the beginning stages of writing it, and I’ll let you know more as I get it to “done” state.


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