29 October 2019

Discipline => Traction

The counterintuitive constraints of discipline provide empowering traction!

I've really enjoyed the resurgence of Mister Rogers' popularity in recent years. One of my favorite episodes consists of him taking his viewers on a tour of the local recreation center where every morning he went to swim. He dons a swim suit and the camera follows him around the pool as he swims laps and does underwater sommersalts. Swimming seems to be something he is genuinely enjoys and is good at. Later in the episode he makes this declaration about his daily practice of swimming:

...a long time ago, many years ago, I promised myself that I would try to swim a certain length of time each day. And I've done that almost every day for more than ten years! ...I like to swim, but there are some days I just don't feel much like doing it, but I do it anyway! I know it's good for me and I promised myself I'd do it every day. And as I told you, I try to keep my promies. That's one of my disciplines! When I was a little boy my parents said "Fred, when you promise to do something, you must keep your promise!"

When watching that episode with my children several years ago I was inspired in that moment to ask "What are my disciplines?" Since then I've tried to discover my own discplines in answer to that question. Here's what I've learned along the way.


When applied with wisdom and consistency, good disciplines introduce behavioral constraints which, at the outset may appear counterintuitive but which actually provide needed traction when progress is slow or difficult.

Speaking metaphorically:

The counterintuitive constraints of wisely applied disciplines are like treaded tires that cushion us over bumpy roads or the bulldozer tracks that continuously anchor yet propel heavy machinery through gravel, mires and bogs toward a destination.

(This statement has its roots in the closing thoughts presented by Jason Crawford in his piece entitled "TCR: A pulverizer for coding tasks")


What do I mean by all of this? Well, here's a listing of seemingly counterintuitive behavioral constraints along with specific, supporting disciplined behaviors, which, when applied wisely and consistently provide tireless traction:

  1. When presented with the advent of a new day, embrace it with as much rest as possible, planning actions that will ensure highest traction first and foremost.

  2. Even when there is pressure to deliver results, take time to learn and create learning opportunities. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

  3. When working on an important and/or urgent endeavor, take frequent, regular breaks in order to hone, preserve and restore focus.

  4. When presented with a daunting project, keep a journal of your progress, recording each action step as a descrete event to enable backtracking (if needed) as well as materials to facilitate future reflection and learning.

  5. When the going gets tough, work in steps that are small enough to be deemed trivial and pay attention to feedback at each step.

  6. When presented with numerous commitments of varying priority and each with disparate 'next action' steps, track progress toward desired outcomes in a way that leverages distributed cognition.

  7. When presented with an important project with multiple stakeholders, never work in isolation. Surround yourself with those who can help ensure success. Resist the urge to race ahead in isolation.

  8. When learning a new skill that requires complex mind-body coordination (playing sports, musical improvisation), find ways to shift your conscious attention away from things the mind and body can figure out on its own (which is more than you think).

Conclusion: Combining Disciplines Provides Multiplicative Leverage

It's difficult to express how influential each of these disciplines has been in my life. They provide traction and leverage in difficult situations. What's more, their applications aren't mutually exclusive--they can be combined to even greater effect! For instance, the discipline of TCR (test && commit || revert) for software development combines the fundamental behaviors of TDD and the use of a Revision Control System such as git and is marvelously effective in providing traction.

What disciplines are most valuable to you in your life and work?