The Art of Self-Discipline

On the days when I’m languishing and finding it difficult to be productive, where procrastination and anxiety keep me in rabbit holes of distraction, and at the end of the day I look at the clock and realize how much time I’ve wasted, it’s easy to write myself off as a lazy, slovenly person. It’s easy to think of myself as the kind of person who does not have discipline, that I wasn’t born with that trait – fatalism has kicked in; I should accept who I am.

But that’s not what self-discipline is. It’s easy to see self-discipline as some sort of binary state when you are comparing yourself against others further along their own paths than where you want to go.

The Romans had a saying that “we can’t all be Cato’s,” referring to the stoic politician who served the State with self-sacrifice. But that saying is wrong. It should be “we aren’t all Cato’s, yet.”

In virtue ethics, your moral character is judged against an abstract ideal – the Stoic Sage. But possessing virtue is not a trait or character state. Possessing virtue is a process of becoming, of doing the right thing at the right time.

Having self-discpline doesn’t mean you are a paragon of discpline. It means you are exercising discpline in the moment. If you fail, it just means you are still working on becoming who you want to be.

The Japanese refer to this as ““, the Way. You never reach perfection, but your life is one long project of incremental progress towards what you are meant to be.

That is the way of self-discipline.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Last Person to Know Everything

On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.

“Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography” by Maria Rosa Antognazz

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.

I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.

I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.

It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:

Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Intellectual humility
  • Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
  • A grasp of the methods and tools of science
  • Generating novel insights
  • The ability to see problems in terms of first principles
  • Engaging in idea arbitrage
  • Focus and flow in work – liking what you do

Work Focus While Home Alone

Working from home poses challenges for most folks when it comes to being able to focus. Many of my colleagues noted how difficult the summer months could be while children were home from school. For me, with an infant at home, the distractions were fairly minimal, especially because my wife handled 99% of the care during the working day during her leave from work.

But now she’s gone back to work and our child is at daycare during the day. While you’d think this means my productivity output has jumped by leaps and bounds, it’s actually done the opposite. With no one in the house to bother me, with no one to look over my shoulder, or for me to quickly hide the fact that I’m goofing off watching irrelevant videos on YouTube instead of looking at spreadsheets, the seeming unlimited time means I have a hard time getting started.

This almost seems like a cousin of Parkinson’s law, but instead of work filling the allotted time, the strength of the impulse to get started is negatively correlated with the amount of free (unsupervised) time I find myself with. Quite the opposite, there seems to be more inertia to overcome.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – as a note to my future-self: there is a connection here with what Mel Robbins says about procrastination, that it’s not a function of laziness but instead a coping mechanism for the anxiety felt by the task. I should look into this more.

Parenting and the Return to “Normal”

I’ve been very fortunate to work from home since the start of the pandemic. I have only stepped foot in the office once in the last year, and have otherwise been plugging away at tasks from home. I was also fortunate that this time overlapped with the birth of our son, so I have been home for his first year of life. My wife returns to work in September, and our son will head off to daycare, signaling our first steps towards a return to “normal.” At present, I will likely continue working from home until January, assuming public health doesn’t pull back on restrictions to limit the virus spread.

Two recent podcasts had me reflecting on the kinds of things that changed about life both as a result of the pandemic as well as experiencing parenthood while at home. The first was a musing from The Daily Dad on the slow life of the pandemic, and the second was from Scott Young on how parenting changed his views on productivity.

The pandemic hit a hard stop to the busy lifestyle I had adopted. This isn’t to say I embraced “busyness” as a mark of distinction, but rather I was the kind of person who said yes to a lot of things and wanted to be involved in cool stuff. My calendar was filled with lots of obligations, work and social alike. I juggled three jobs while running a non-profit, a social club, and podcasting and vlogging projects. I enjoyed being busy and helping others.

But as a parent, I carry a different set of responsibilities that conflict with this kind of lifestyle. I was never faced with the choices to prune back my (mostly) optional obligations in order to fulfill my parental duties – the pandemic largely did that for me.

And as we think about returning to “normal,” I will obviously have to think carefully about what sorts of things I add back into my life (the pandemic will end, but being a parent won’t). Some of the effects from the pandemic and being at home to take a greater prominence in co-parenting our child makes me reflect on what kind of home life I wish to cultivate, and ask which elements of the pandemic do I want to carry forward into the new normal. For instance, in thinking about the slow life, things like bedtime routines, long blocks of time with kid(s), weekends set aside for family time, are all things I want to hold sacred.

The pandemic was referred to as The Great Pause. I should get some more of this thinking done before we un-pause and move on with life.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Visualizing Time

In an effort to tamp down on my procrastinating and get back on a Pomodoro system, I bought a desk timer.

I elected to go with a physical device rather than using my computer or phone to track time because I’m trying to remove the temptation to get distracted if I’m curious about the time left in the period. But I also had some other criteria.

In addition to wanting to avoid distractions, I wanted: a.) a visual representation of time, b.) something that made audible ticking, and c.) I wanted to avoid batteries if possible. The device above fit all three requirements. You wind-up the dial, set the desired duration, and the timer ticks away until the bell rings.

I’m still struggling with getting started (I usually give in and watch YouTube videos in lieu of starting my work), but once I get going, I find it easy to work through 25-minute sprints.

Let’s see how long this lasts.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

WFH Observation – Novel Environments

I’ve been working from home for a year now, and I’m still surprised when I discover something about how I work that I had overlooked previously. You’d think I’d have stuff sorted out by now, but alas here I find myself.

Over the last week, we’ve been away from our house as we prepare to sell it. With COVID ramping up in the province, we thought it would be easier with a baby and a dog to be out of the house full time while prospective buyers came by to look at the listing. We stayed with family, which has required me to adapt my working conditions.

Typically I work in the home office at my desktop. For the last week, I’ve been working off a laptop and a borrowed computer monitor that functions as my second screen. For comfort, I’m using my peripheral wireless mouse and keyboard, along with my wireless headphones to block out noise. While working out of various bedrooms this past week, I’ve noticed an increase in my focus.

Granted, the increased focus coincided with a series of long meetings I’ve been attending, so perhaps I’ve been tricking myself into thinking I’m more productive. However, as I reflect on the situation, I also feel it’s worth mentioning that working in a new location helps to provide a sense of novelty for me.

This isn’t a new insight in the world of remote work – early in the pandemic, I used my company’s access to LinkedIn Learning to complete a few micro-courses on the topic of remote work to help me adjust. Many of the instructors noted that traditional remote work is done in many locations, both inside the home (dedicated workspace) as well as at favourite places out of the house (e.g. the local cafe). Because of COVID, I haven’t placed much stock in this piece of advice because we are dissuaded from working out of the house for long stretches of time (that is, sitting indoors at a coffee shop) if we are not required to do so.

This mini-experiment in remote work has given me some insight into my working style – I am not immune to the novelty that comes from environmental changes. When things relax a bit more, and if I continue to work remotely in my position, this will be something I’ll give consideration to.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Meaningful Actions

Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.

One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.

I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.

There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.

I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.

I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.

I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.

In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.

James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?

Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.

Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan