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]

The “2nd best” theory – Finding balance

You might want to read part one first.

If you’ve played a role playing game before, then the following picture will look familiar. Skip forward a couple of paragraphs if you have no idea what I’m talking about…RPG statistics

What it means is your game character has high strength and vitality, but low reflexes and intelligence (you know the type right?) You can train the character to even greater strength to deal more damage.

The question is, how much more? How much more do you get if the strength is maxed out?

Now suppose you train a complementary skill, say the character’s reflexes. With faster reaction times, the character will be harder to catch and be able to strike more times. Hitting the opponent for tons of damage means nothing if the character gets pounded too. Being quicker on the feet makes the character much more dangerous.

I agree that the world needs exceptional people. If you’ve found what you’re great at, and you’re doing it now, congratulations! If not, but you’re pretty good at lots of stuff, then the 2nd best theory states that you are exceptional too! Because you are exceptional at balancing many things, and the world needs people like you too.

This works particularly in a team. For example, I am great at computer programming. I can write programs that are easy to understand (by the users and my fellow colleagues). But I suck at understanding the business logic driving these programs. There’s too many of them, with tons of documentation. My team leader on the other hand, can tell you how and why this system works with that system, but will have difficulty writing out program code. Together with my colleagues’ complimentary skills, the team can handle any software project.

Or look at any team sports. You may find star players, but you still need other players with different or balanced skills to complement them. This is what makes teams strong; people complement each other with their varied talents.

Carrying out this balancing act to the extreme will make you miserable though. Do your 2nd best for all your complementary skills. Focusing on improving your weak spot is useless, unless that weak spot is critical. Marcus Buckingham, who wrote “First, break all the rules”, says we should focus on our strengths. I’d like to add that we consider our skills that complement our strengths too, which usually make our strengths, uh, stronger.