Hello, Discipline, My Old Friend

It wasn’t that long ago that I was “always on” in terms of work. There is a certain ethos in the DC area that rewards that outlook and I was fairly good at it. This was compounded by the fact that I was a partner in my company and the buck always stops with the owners. Therefore, you always answered the phone/email/text/DM. A few years ago, I began to realize that this approach wasn’t serving me well over the long haul, especially in terms of my health.

What I needed to do was get reacquainted with discipline. Because I had fully bought into the idea that a business owner is never “off,” I had allowed discipline to atrophy. When all 24 hours of each day are available to accomplish tasks, then “close of business” means “before 11:59pm.” If you make your deliverable before the person you have committed to shows up for work in the morning, it counts.

There are obvious problems with this approach. First, work is always lingering in the background. Second, you are never fully engaged in any activity (including work). I coached soccer games, ran practices, and many other similar activities, but the block of code that I couldn’t quite finish before heading out to practice, or the proposal inputs due by midnight were never far away. Conversely the practice, or board meeting, or dinner party was always lingering in my mind when I should have been focusing on a proposal or my code.

“Focus” is the key part. By not engaging in the discipline to segment my day, I was denying myself the opportunity to focus deeply on whatever my current task or activity was. I addition, I was denying myself the opportunity to develop techniques and strategies that would make me productive and successful with a more disciplined approach.

I forget where I heard this, but the distinction between motivation and commitment is that motivation is an emotion that can ebb and flow like any other, but commitment is the choice to keep going even when motivation wanes. I needed to commit to restructuring my day and applying the necessary discipline to maintaining that structure. Most of what I did was common sense, but had fallen by the wayside during years of being “always on.” Here are a few:

  1. I gave myself a fairly firm daily schedule. More on this later.
  2. I disabled most notifications on my phone. All apps notify you for lots of inane reasons. I disabled all but the most critical.
  3. I put my phone into “do not disturb” from just past dinner time to just after breakfast.
  4. I started taking notes on paper again. The act of writing commits things to memory better for me. I will then retype them into my computer later, adding reinforcement. Also, a pad of paper doesn’t send you notifications during a meeting.
  5. I carved out time for exercise.
  6. I stopped drinking caffeine after 11am on most days. This shifts a bit when I am traveling.
  7. I drank a lot more water. Hydration helps me think more clearly.
  8. I got religious about my Google Calendar.
  9. I started reading mostly fiction books. Even mediocre fiction more deeply explores concepts than the best non-fiction. I will die on this hill.
  10. I added specific start-of-day and end-of-day tasks to my daily routine. More later.

The steps above boil down to two goals: reduce distractions and improve cognition. The one that may not seem obvious is the firm daily schedule. This fits into improving cognition. By putting time constraints around my work day, I began forcing myself to better prioritize my activities and re-examine my approach to those activities so that I could remain as productive as I perceived myself to be when I was always on.

It wasn’t a rousing success at first, because I was completely out of practice. I called this the “induction” period and my stress level went up because I could feel things slipping. I really wanted to just take a few evenings to catch up. Instead, I reviewed each day and identified the things that I let in that I didn’t need to. As I cut those things out, I began to catch up and my stress level went down.

I added two daily routines that helped a lot. First, I started reviewing my calendar every morning before I started my day. This should seem obvious, but….

Although I have separate calendars for work and non-work activities, I have one unified schedule view of everything. That keeps me from missing that I have a dentist appointment or a performance by my daughter or something like that. I had a really bad habit of scheduling calls over those things because of a lack of visibility.

The second routine is that I wrap up each day with about 30 minutes of close-out activities. This was adapted from the “turnover log” that is standard practice for shift changes in EOCs and such. Instead, it’s a turnover log for myself. I make notes about where I am leaving off on unfinished tasks, I follow up on emails, I adjust the next day’s calendar (if needed), and I generally do anything that will help me transition my mind from work to whatever is coming next.

What really makes all of this work, however, is discipline and commitment. Even on days when I am not motivated, I need to get out the door and exercise and then review my calendar. Habits are hard things to change, especially if they have been in place for a long time. I had built up a lot of habits, many of which were tied to aspects of my identity to which I had clung and needed to re-examine. Breaking those habits required digging a lot deeper than I had anticipated, but the results are bearing fruit.

Those aspects of my identity to which I clung contributed to my lack of focus, because I kept allowing activities into my day that really only served the purpose of maintaining these bits of self-perception. I’ll explore this more in future posts.