Ever since traveling upended many of my habits and systems, I’ve been unintentionally experimenting. I’ve been surprised to find that sometimes discipline inhibits flow. Perhaps I should say instead: discipline misapplied tends to backfire.
While I was traveling, my sleep schedule got kind of… weird. Without meaning to, I let go of the idea of waking up to an alarm.
In NYC, I worked until I was tired (sometimes as late as 2 or 3am), and then slept until I was rested. Despite being a self-proclaimed “morning person,” this routine worked well for me. Most days I’d wake up feeling rested and refreshed, and I’d get ample flow without distractions after dinner and into the late night hours.
Upon returning to Taipei, I tried to get myself back into “regular” sleep patterns. Surprisingly, I started to feel tired and sluggish in the mornings. I’d struggle to get started with work. The fatigue would permeate the day and I’d sometimes go the entire day feeling relatively tired and unproductive. By contrast, on days where I let myself sleep, I generally felt more positive, more energetic, and more productive throughout the day. Despite getting a later start to my day, I’d drop into flow more often without that gritty tired feeling at the edge of my consciousness.
I do prefer early mornings to late nights, and I would like to get an earlier start to my days. However, in tunnel visioning on waking up at a specific time, I sacrificed the real goal—focus, flow, productivity, which all come from being rested—for a vanity goal—waking up early and feeling “disciplined”.
Discipline is still valuable, it just needs to be properly applied to the problem. In this case, I’d get better results if I focused more on winding down and getting to sleep earlier so that I can naturally wake up earlier and still feel well-rested.
Another instance where misapplied discipline is likely backfiring is my overzealous use of the Pomodoro technique. As my work load has trended more toward deep, creative thinking—it often surprises me how similar designing good software is to writing good prose—I’ve found the most success in multi-hour long sessions, often at cafes, where I can get lost in a problem and let my mind work its magic. 25-minute sessions are great for some kinds of work and great on days where I’m struggling to drop into flow at all. However, they may not be the best default mode for writing software.
I’ve even found that tracking my time too actively tends to break flow. Something about being constantly conscious of time and how much work should be done sometimes gets in the way of sinking into the work.
All of these are things I’ve done out of a sense of duty to discipline. It’s clear to me now that I am sometimes losing sight of the real goal in the name of procedural discipline. Though I still believe discipline and structure are necessary for self-improvement, I’m beginning to wonder where else I’ve blindly misapplied discipline, and whether my structures are helpful or harmful.
In the coming months, quarters, and years, I hope to explore this question more. With some luck, maybe I’ll find a balance that works well for me.