Jul 16 2009

Self-Discipline: Broken Windows Applied to You

Self-Discipline:  Broken Windows Applied to You

Just as my last post about New Shoes was touching a bit of a nerve around, as one friend put it, "mental housecleaning," my colleague Angela pointed me to a great post on a blog I've never seen before ("advice at the intersection of work and life" — I just subscribed), called How to Have More Self-Discipline.  Man, is that article targeted at me, especially about working out. 

I think the author is right — more discipline around the edges does impact happiness.  But it also impacts productivity.  Not just because working out gives you more energy.  Because having your act together in small ways makes you feel like you have your act together in all ways.  As the author notes (without this specific analogy), it's a little like the "broken windows" theory of policing.  You crack down on graffiti and broken windows, you stop more violent crime, in part because the same people commit small and large crimes, in part because you create a more orderly society in visible, if sometimes a bit small and symbolic, ways.

I agree that the best example in the "non work" world is fitness.  But what about the "work world"?  What's relevant around self-discipline for professionals?  Consider these examples:

– A clean inbox at the end of the day.  Yes, it's the David Allen theory of workplace productivity which I espouse, but it does actually work.  A clean mind is free to think, dream, solve problems.  The quickest path to keeping it clean is not having a pile of little things to deal with in front of it, taking up space

– Showing up on time.  It may sound dumb, but people who are chronically late to meetings are constantly behind.  The day is spent rushing around, cutting conversations short — in other words, unhappy and not as productive.  The discipline of ending meetings on time with enough buffer to travel or even just prepare for the next meeting so you can start it on time (and not waste the time of the other people in the meeting) is important.  Have too many meetings that you can't be at all of them on time?  Say no to some — or make them shorter to force efficiency.  There's nothing wrong with a 10-minute meeting

– Dressing for success.  We live in a casual world, especially in our industry.  I admit, once in a while I wear jeans or a Hawaiian shirt to work — even shorts if it's a particularly hot and humid day.  (And even in New York, not just in Boulder.)  But no matter what you wear, you can make sure you look neat and professional, not sloppy.  Skip the ripped jeans or faded/frayed/rock concert t-shirt.  Tuck in the shirt if it's that kind of shirt, and wear a belt.  The discipline of "dressing up" carries productivity a long way.  Want to really test this out at the edges?  Try wearing a suit or tie one day to work.  You feel different, and you sound different

– Doing your expenses.  Honestly, I've never seen an area where more smart and conscientious people fall apart than producing a simple expense report.  Come up with a system for it — do one every week, every trip on the plane home, every time you have an expense — and just take the 5 minutes and finish it off.  Sure, expenses are a pain, but they only really become a pain and a millstone around your brain when you let them sit for months because you "don't have time" to fill them out, then you get accounting all pissed off at you, and the project's size, complexity, and distance from the actual event all mount

– Follow rules of grammar and punctuation.  Writing, whether for external or internal consumption, is still writing.  I'm not sure when everyone became ee cummings and decided that it's ok to forget the basic rules of English grammar and punctuation.  Make sure your emails and even your IMs, at least when they're for business, follow the rules.  You look smarter when you do.  Maybe — maybe — with Twitter or SMS you can excuse some of this and go with abbreviations.  But I wouldn't normally consider a lot of those formal business communications

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  A little self-discipline goes a long way at work (and in life)!