finding a discipline that works for you (issue 10)

This is The Ordinary, a weekly(ish) reminder to notice the joy, value, and rigor of ordinary things. New subscribers, welcome!

I took a few weeks off because I got pretty busy at work. But I enjoyed writing this one for you! Happy holidays, everyone.

- Ammar


An Ordinary Visual:

My workspace. More on that in my note below:

An Ordinary Quote:

The question of reality is a very confusing one. Nobody knows, but everybody knows that somebody knows. That seems to be the problem we are facing: maybe nobody knows at all or maybe everybody knows.

So we should not purely trust the information, suggestions, and ideas that come to us from external sources, but actually work with ourselves and try to develop our own personal understanding and appreciation of reality.

True Perception, Chogyam Trungpa

Some Ordinary Reads:

“The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up” (essay): Florent Crivello of Uber observes that things that look tidy are often not efficient, and things that look messy can actually be efficient. “I submit that we should look with suspicion at simple-looking systems. The physical world is like a river in which a thousand streams come rushing — it is supposed to look messy.”

“Getting Work Done” (essay): Marjorie Knepp spent a year working at a mechanic shop as a break from the technology world. She learned that many of the highfalutin process ideas in tech (Agile, Lean, etc) are natural practices on the shop floor.

“The Eleven Principles of the Naqshbandi Path” (list): In his awesome book The Meditative Mind, Daniel Goleman demonstrated the many shared attributes of the world’s contemplative traditions. The following list of principles is Sufi in appearance, but could easily be recast as belonging to the Kabbalah to Buddhism.

An Ordinary Note:

How people create discipline in life is the source of most conflict. One discipline focuses on categorization, another on minimalism, one on possibility, another on conclusion, and so on.

But it seems that all disciplines are ultimately saying the same thing:

The manner in which you filter and organize determines the quality of your perceptions and decisions. The rest is just a difference in implementation and context.

Whether we actually value the quality of our perceptions and decisions is another thing entirely. I find myself constantly losing awareness of my discipline, distracted by whatever psychoemotional dramas I wake up with. Sometimes, my discipline falls to the wayside for months on end.

This is why discipline is not harsh or coercive. Following a discipline is difficult, but the discipline itself is gently waiting for us to return if we slip and lapse back into a state of overwhelm.

With the observation that discipline waxes and wanes throughout life, I realize that discipline is very personal. The notion that one person is more disciplined than another person really makes no sense, it doesn’t really mean or say anything.

So when someone is frustrated by a lack of progress on something, it isn’t because they aren’t good enough to deserve progress. It is usually because there is a lack of person-discipline fit.

You have to find a discipline that works for you, as you are, right now.

The Four Types of Discipline

Some people thrive in disciplines that are highly specified and organized, while others thrive in more holistic and heuristic-based disciplines. To each his own!

I’ve found that there are 4 types of disciplines, and they differ on the basis of their focus. There is no right answer.

The Maker Discipline (David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, Venkatesh Rao, Julia Cameron)

This is a volume-based discipline focused on producing. Don’t worry so much about organizing everything, because what is relevant and important will keep coming up over and over again. Just focus on taking in as much as you can, produce as much as you can, and show up at the easel or mat every day. The quality will surface.

The Manager Discipline (Peter Drucker, Tiago Forte, Ryan Holiday)

This is an orchestration-based discipline focused on knowing where everything is and how to find it. Don’t worry so much about filtering everything, because as long as it is well organized, you’ll be able to find what you need. Just focus on keeping everything in order and maintain that organization. The quality will follow.

The Doer Discipline (Cal Newport, Eliyahu Goldratt, Anders Ericsson)

This is a flow-based discipline focused on removing as much extraneous information as possible and proceeding one task at a time. The key idea is that we overcomplicate things by taking in too much, trying to do too much. Just focus on removing unnecessary distraction and create a sanctuary for deep work. The quality will emerge.

The Seer Discipline (Ido Portal, Paul Graham, David Epstein)

This is an exploration-based discipline focused on removing as much information and organization as possible. The key idea is that we really don’t need much at all to do extraordinary things. Just focus on exploring whatever it is you’re doing and create your own system for things. The quality will reveal itself.

Side note: it’s pretty embarrassing that the list of names above contains only one woman. Would greatly appreciate recommendations.

My Discipline, My Workspace, My Values

Your workspace reflects your preferred discipline, which in turn reflects your personal values.

Let me give you a brief tour of my workspace (see my Ordinary Visual):

Cup of coffee.

Cup of water.

A journal.

A small laptop stand.

A 2014 MacBook Air with 4GB RAM, split-screened between a simple text editor and terminal, with either a single Chrome tab or Sketch open in the background.

My workspace is probably oriented towards a mix of Seer and Doer.

What does this setup afford me?

  1. Environment and Task Mobility: I can work from almost anywhere. I can hop between different modes of thinking pretty quickly. Why? Because I haven’t optimized my productivity for a single purpose. I don’t require much space or configuration.

  2. Single-Tasked Focus: I do most of my thinking and idea-noodling by hand in my journal. My laptop really can’t handle too much stuff going on, so I’m forced to keep only a few applications open at a time. I typically work in chunks of hours, not slices of minutes.

I really enjoy these constraints, because within them I find a lot of space to improvise and create. But the downside is that I’m not as productive or optimized towards any one single thing. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept!

What’s your workspace look like, and what does it say about your discipline and your values? Would love to hear from you on this!