Discipline in the face of death

Environment-free productivity is simple. It means developing routines, workflows and processes that are transportable and function in a wide variety of environments. If you can do that, you can do your work no matter where you are. At home. On the road. On holiday. In a public library. Laid up in the hospital.

But what if your deliberately robust and portable routines and workflows are themselves disrupted? I’ll give you an example. I have a four-part morning routine: I get up, make a coffee, meditate, and complete my morning pages. And all I need to be able to do that is access to coffee, somewhere to sit on the floor, and my notebook. At bare minimum, I can go without coffee, which means I need a notebook and somewhere to sit. I can get that anywhere. But what if I don’t have my notebook? What if there’s no private space for me to go in the morning to meditate? Do I give up and write the day off? Of course not. I adapt. Someway. Somehow.

There are two books that have formed the foundation of my meditation and mindfulness practice: Wherever You Go, There You Are and Mindfulness in Plain English. In one of them—I can’t remember which—the point is made that you shouldn’t be reliant on meditation for practising mindfulness. It says that going without such a dedicated practice is itself a form of dedicated practice. 

I’ve been thinking about this because, over the past few days, two things have happened. First, I went away for a few days and stayed somewhere that made it impossible for me to complete my preferred morning routine. Second, after returning home, I injured my lower back. So again, I haven’t been able to do what I like to do in the mornings. 

Both my environment and my routines have been less than ideal, but I still have to write and work. This realisation brought to mind my interview with Brazilian jiu-jitsu champ Tom Barlow. He mentioned that the real test of competence is performance under pressure. Can you perform when you’re tired, when you’re fighting the clock, when the stakes are high and everyone’s watching, wanting you to fail? 

It also reminded me of something Hober Mallow said in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Mallow was trying to preserve discipline and order amongst his crew in a delicate situation.

“ ‘An action against my orders is bad in itself whatever other reasons there may be in its favor. No one was to leave or enter the ship without permission.’
Lieutenant Tinter murmured rebelliously, ‘Seven days without action. You can’t maintain discipline that way.’
Mallow said icily, ‘I can. There’s no merit in discipline under ideal circumstances. I’ll have it in the face of death, or it’s useless.’ ”

In a similar vein, there’s no merit in productivity and creativity under ideal circumstances. The real test is performance in the absence of the ideal. 

Can you function on four hours sleep? Can you think straight when you’re in a high stress situation? Can you do the work when your environment is conspiring against you? Can you do good work with bad tools, with equipment that you’re not used to, in a place that is unfamiliar and strange, at a time that isn’t typical?

You’re going to be forced to answer these questions sooner or later by the hands of fate. So is it not wise to put yourself in these situations voluntarily, before you’re forced into them? Practice the disruption of your carefully calibrated processes now so you’re prepared for them to be disrupted later.