David Segal: Disciplinary action

David Segal
Continental Divine

It’s a three-ring circus, managing a job and home and children. As I write these words, my wife is trying to get out the door for work, my son is practicing piano, my daughter is asking to draw, my dog needs a walk and the dishwasher needs to be unloaded. Now my kids are playing with my parents’ antique phonograph, blasting a muddy 1909 recording of Billy Williams singing “Save a Little One for Me.” Look it up. Like I did. (Maybe this isn’t the best time for me to be writing.)

At times, I think if I could just be less busy, I’d be less stressed. But that may not be quite right. Sometimes it’s the busiest week — when my days are scheduled through with meetings and projects and writing, with time set aside to cook, exercise and gather as a family — that feels most fulfilling. Busyness alone isn’t the deciding factor, but something else that has to do with purpose, productivity and progress toward life goals.

By nature, I resist the imposition of routine. I prefer not to feel too tied down. But if I’m honest, it’s the long stretches of unscheduled time that go wasted, and routines are reassuring.

I’m reminded of a motivational speaker who came to my high school in the late 1990s. He was tall and fit, wearing a smart but simple white dress shirt and dark trousers. He talked about his college years, how he went to sleep by 10 every night and finished every term paper days in advance of its due date. Those claims caused a fair amount of eye-rolling among the students.

Then he moved into the prop portion of his pep talk. He had placed a large wooden box at center stage, open on top. He stepped into the box, which came up to his waist. He looked up at us as he said, “This is how most people think about discipline: It boxes you in, restricting your choices.

“But actually, that’s not how it works.”

He climbed out of the box and turned it over so the opening was at the bottom. Then he climbed on top of it, standing tall and looking out at us from his high perch.

“This is how discipline works,” he said. “It is liberating, not limiting. It empowers us, lifting us up to see farther and do more.”

Most of my classmates remained skeptical of his message. On the surface, it sounded like a buzzkill: Work hard and avoid fun and you’ll succeed.

I was intrigued by the speaker’s deeper lesson, which I am still trying to learn: Being organized and planful is a way to escape the tyranny of the urgent and unimportant.

I attended a workshop on time management some years ago, and the teacher showed the class an image of a glass jar next to a pile of big and small rocks.

“To fill the jar,” she said, “if you start with the little rocks, you won’t have room for the big ones. But if you put the big ones in first, the little ones will settle into the small spaces in between, so there’s room for everything.”

The big rocks are your main priorities: family, self-care, career growth — whatever you value most. On a schedule they might translate into family dinners, regular exercise and meeting-free times at work when you can do big-picture thinking.

If you don’t put those in the jar first, it will fill up with the little rocks of tasks and asks that may feel urgent but aren’t important. The big rocks won’t fit. Without the discipline of prioritizing what matters, you’re beholden to whatever comes up.

I get it, but I don’t always do it. There are plenty of days when I get sucked into email and Facebook, squandering time that I could have spent better. I think of this practice of discipline not as a switch that gets flipped and suddenly I’m perfect, but rather as an evolution toward healthier habits.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m thinking about these questions during Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation.

One of the most maligned aspects of organized religion, particularly by the “spiritual but not religious” set, is the laying down of rules and regulations that govern time and behavior. But when it comes to things that matter, if you don’t make set times for them, then you might want to ask yourself how much they actually matter. To require something is to value it.

The Passover seder ritual is an example of liberating discipline. The “requirement” to gather with family and friends for a meal frees us from our routine inability to do that because we are just too busy. The “fixed” script of the Haggadah (the story and liturgy of the Passover seder) frees us from our resistance to moving past small talk into big ideas like redemption and gratitude.

Those of us — I include myself — who bristle at rules and routines can use a reminder that discipline is a tool for acting on our values. Those of us who prefer the “freedom” of spontaneity should consider that letting things happen organically often means letting them not happen at all.

By the way, I should be so lucky that my life resembles a three-ring circus! A circus is a highly orchestrated production that requires years of diligent training and practice, from the agile trapezist to the hoop-jumping poodle.

The discipline involved in creating it is precisely what makes it feel fresh, dazzling and alive.

David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at His column runs the first Sunday of the month.


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