Discipline through Deadlines

This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. We all would like to be able to think a little clearer, feel a little better and enjoy the things we need to do in life a little more. No matter where you are when it comes to being disciplined, these thoughts can help you better achieve your goals and continue along your path of being disciplined.


So you’re a procrastinator. Welcome to the club.

This isn’t generally a cause to celebrate. Epic procrastination sessions are more likely to land you in the hospital than garner a standing ovation for productivity and accomplishment. And since procrastination is an incurable disease, it’s best to just stop fighting against it and learn how to work with it from the hospital bed instead.

Us procrastinators have it the worst. It’s not that we want to be lazy. We just physically can’t get anything done until the last minute. However, this can be worked to your advantage to get things done by setting real deadlines that are out of your hands.

Setting deadlines for yourself doesn’t work because in this situation you’re ultimately only responsible to yourself, and any good procrastinator knows he is perfectly happy to let himself down.

The trick is to create deadlines that are beyond your control. This means giving other people control over when you must finish a project.

Idea starters

  • Project: Organize your living room (vacuum, pick the Cheetos out of the sofa, etc.)
  • Deadline: Invite friends over to watch a movie in the evening
  • Project: Post to your blog weekly
  • Deadline: Write something in the header like, “updated weekly” or “new posts every Monday.”
  • Project: Be a better runner
  • Deadline: Put good money down in a non-refundable 5K race
  • Project: Wash the car
  • Deadline: Get yourself a date for Friday night
  • Project: Get out of bed in the morning
  • Deadline: Lock your alarm in a box and give your neighbor the key
  • Project: Finish A Clockwork Orange
  • Deadline: Join a book club with some English blokes
  • Project: ____your project here______
  • Deadline: _____your deadline in the hands of others here­_____

Forget taking charge. Let others take charge for you, and reap the benefits!

Now that’s a good motto for us procrastinators. I think I’ll bring it up at our next meeting, whenever that happens. Come to think of it, we’ve never had a first meeting. We might have to invite a few non-procrastinators to join the club so we can finally get around to getting together…

IMG_6344Project: Publish an English instruction book Deadline idea: Maybe think about hiring an English speaking editor…


This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. You can read each of the posts by clicking below:

My life is things

There is an entire industry consisting of multi-million dollar companies which exist for the sole purpose of providing us ways to haul around our shit.

Think about it.

Samsonite. Jansport. Chanel.

We have so much that we run out of places to keep it on our own person so we have to fashion straps to a large pouch and drag it around.

Turtle syndrome – even more painful than it sounds

I was walking out of school one day with my counterpart, Nazgul, when another teacher tagged up with us.

“What’s in his bag?” The teacher asked Nazgul, pointing at the turtle-like shell connected to my back.

“Ask him yourself,” Nazgul said, a kind head jerk thrown my direction.

“My life.” I answered automatically.

“Good answer,” she nodded, adding one of those breathy nose laughs for good humor.

Then it hit me. My life is things. It’s not people. It’s not situations. It’s not doing or even being. My life is a laptop computer, a water bottle, various power chargers and apparently a few used Kleenexes and empty candy wrappers. My life is sad.

I remember one occasion vividly, if not for its harrowing sear, then for the humiliation. I had detaxied and was standing in the center of the large bazaar in Naryn City with a giant backpacking bag on my back and another 40L bag strapped to my front, and was unsurprisingly looking around at where to pick up even more shit. I looked utterly ridiculous. Two kids passed me in the bazaar, stopped, turned around, came back, circled me, and then lost it in fits of laughter. I’m not even exaggerating. They absolutely lost it, doubling over and slapping their knees all while pointing and generally drawing the type of negative attention to me that I deserved. I looked blindingly stupid.

I couldn’t tell you today what was in those bags. I know I didn’t touch three-fourths of it on my two day journey. So why had I felt the need to carry it around all weekend?

IMG_4757Let’s see, what am I forgetting…oh yes, my sanity.

I eat pieces of stuff for breakfast

It’s just stuff. And this is one of the hardest lessons for me to learn.

I’m getting better at it. I’m getting better at letting people touch my things, pick them up and mull over them. (Or maw over them with their grubby little fat fingers, placing oily little fingerprints on every surface and…ok, ok, breathe.)

Once, for a secret-santa-slash-white elephant gift giving party many years ago, I parted with my SpongeBob alarm clock I paid seven dollars for at a CUB Foods grocery store. It spelled out the word FUN in big plastic letters and launched into “F is for friends who do stuff together, U is for you and me…” at whatever interval you set it at. It was glorious. And giving it up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still think about that clock.

Now two plus years into the Peace Corps, I’ve given away so many items I don’t really think about it anymore—books, chargers, food, clothing items, cookware, to name a few. I still get a little cringy when anything under the age of 12 walks through my door and starts pawing stuff, but as long as they don’t smash anything I can’t cheaply replace, I let them go on touching. (While quickly thinking of an intriguing story that would usher them to further shelves beyond the line of my room.)

We need things. We do. Our quality of life insofar as health and well-being and options depends on them to some extent. But we know that life is not measured only in number of years spent trudging along, dragging our stuff behind us.

It’s measured in the time we give each other.

It’s measured in the wide space in which we allow our minds and souls to soar.

It’s measured in growing and stretching and experiencing and engaging and finding new and fantastic ways to love life, love each other and love the world.

It’s measured in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights and cups of coffee. (Oh, wait, nope. That’s just my Rent DVD.)

And now I’ve found another thing to get rid of, another item to lighten the load, and a refocus on things that matter—the things you can’t carry because you always hold them in your heart.

The battle of the English “moods”

As an English teacher in the Peace Corps, I spend a lot of time explaining points of grammar I never thought about or noticed before. I’ve become adept at explaining tenses and certain points in particular because I’ve either studied them or am asked them over and over, but still every once in a while a new little rule or concept pops up that intrigues me.

Sometimes I’m simply stumped, like when one of my counterparts asked how she should know if a certain verb is followed by a gerund or the infinitive. (For example, we say “I enjoy playing soccer,” but “I want to play every day.” It’s wrong to say, “I enjoy to play soccer. I want playing every day.” But why, and how can you be sure which form to use following newly learned verbs??? I found the answer, but it took a little googling…and not even the BBC’s website had the right answer!)

Some questions make me see English in a whole new way, revealing culture and the way we think through our language.

The use of modals raises just a point. Modals are simply words that set the mood of our verbs, like “can” or “should” and can’t be conjugated on their own. (In a bit you’ll see the word “want” which is technically not a modal; however, it does express modality so I’ve included it J.)

It’s easy to see the modals (moods) at work when you compare these sentences:

  • I should prepare my lessons.
  • I can prepare my lessons.
  • I want to prepare my lessons.
  • I will prepare my lessons.

In the first example “should” implies it would be good if I prepared them, but maybe I will and maybe I won’t.

The second simply denotes ability. I am able to prepare them, but I may or may not choose to.

The third shows my desire. I wish to prepare my lessons. I would like to get them done, but there still may be factors preventing me from doing so.

The last example is the only one where we know I will get the lessons prepared. For sure, I will prepare my lessons, whether or not I want to, should do, or even at present have the ability to.

The battle at Grammar Field

How and when we use should, can, will and want to, tells us a lot about our thinking process, what we value, and how we see the world.

The first task is to listen carefully to which modals you find yourself saying.

I spend too much time on the word “should.”

  • “I really should be more involved.”
  • “I should make handouts for that training I’m giving.”
  • “I should add an extra club for students preparing for their national exams…”
  • And on and on ad nauseam

The problem with this is that I don’t want to.

My modals do battle. Should and want raise their coats of arms and march off to war where should almost always takes the decisive victory. At the very least they reach some kind of uncomfortable truce where should eventually wins by war of attrition anyway. Want starts to die a slow and painful death before surrendering in full under the flag of should.

In some cases should “should” win out over your Wants. You can’t always live a selfish life; I’m not arguing to always follow the whims of your desires.

But when I stop and listen to the situations where I use these words, I find there are all sorts of things I feel I should be doing, and I end up letting should drive my actions out of guilt.

Taking charge

Being aware of the language you use is half the battle. After recognizing what kinds of words you’re telling yourself, the next step in reclaiming control of your life is to make purposeful decisions in how you use these words.

  • There are truly very few situations where should must be your master. You should eat food. You should show up to work most of the time. But, those teachers will live if there’s no handout for the training tomorrow.
  • Can is powerful when you use it in focused ways. You are capable of a lot more than you think.
  • Want helps you discover your desires and leads you to find more joy and satisfaction by spending more time doing what you enjoy.
  • And will helps us go about our daily lives with determination and action. It helps you separate what you will do from what you choose not to do.

Whether your specialty is in teaching English or in another sector of the Peace Corps, placing yourself as Commander-in-chief in the grammar battle not only puts you in command of the English modals, but it puts you in a better mood too.

I used to do things until the Internet

Why I’m going offline for a while


I’m pacing my room, thinking about a cigarette.

I’ve just emerged from a three hour internet bender, trying to research this post.

The rabbit trail had me finally cornered at this arcade blackhole of a site where I watched my Alpine skier flip end over end in slow-motion, 1982, 8-bit color.

Thirty-two years on, our virtual world is slightly more advanced, yet it hasn’t lost its ability to send us tumbling down the side of a cliff in an avalanche of Facebook likes, blog stats and people getting hilariously injured.

It’s awful. Not people getting hurt—that’s numbingly funny. What’s awful is the fact that I feel both mesmerized and trapped by the internet’s ability to provide instant gratification while at the same time sucking my desire to be a contributing member of society.

And it’s only getting worse.

I remember the days before the Facebook newsfeed, where you actually had to search a friend’s name to find their page and you went because you had a reason to go there.

And I remember the days before the internet even existed at all. If only vaguely.

I used to do things until the Internet

I used to collect and trade baseball cards. It was a huge passion of mine. There was nothing better than the smell of opening a new pack—splitting it ever so carefully so as not to damage the corners—and anticipating what rare or valuable cards would be uncovered. I could put rosters together simply by knowing players and their teams from their baseball cards.

And I wrote. More, and in a more authentic way than I do here on this blog, whatever value this might have. I wrote for the joy of writing and not because it was in some public forum where potentially everyone could read my words. I wrote short stories like this one from seventh-grade that I’m still trying to match the quality of, 17 years later.

I drew mazes and played outside and had a sun tan. Now I’m a cream-colored fleshy blob, like overcooked oatmeal, microwaved by the rays emanating from this computer screen.

It started with AIM—the instant message—and I was hooked. This was no catch and release. The hook only went deeper. Now everything is linked in irrevocable chains, keeping us captive in the dungeons of likes, comments and videos that start playing all by themselves as you scroll over them.

But emerging into the light of real-reality isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch and walking away. It’s more akin to performing surgery—to removing a bit of who I am as a person.

He’s just a ‘facebook’ friend

I’ve fantasized about purging my Facebook friend list, “deleting” anyone I haven’t physically spoken with in the past year. In these dream sequences I convince myself that they aren’t my real friends. But if that were true, why is it so hard to hit the unfriend button?

Erasing a friend in virtual reality still causes offence and emotional pain in a physical reality.

And that right there is one proof of how the lines are blurred.

Nate Jurgenson, a net theorist, adds to this thought. He points out that when we’re at our computers we’re still flesh and blood in real time, and when we’re out camping we’re thinking about how awesome it will be to tweet about our adventure once we return.

In a digital age, the real you is a composite of reality and virtual reality.

Losing a whole year

I first came across Paul Miller while high from a line of TEDx Talks on Youtube. In 2012 as a tech writer for The Verge, he set off into the wild of reality, living unplugged from the internet for a whole year.

The first few months were great. He lost weight. His family found him more emotionally available. He cranked out half of novel. Then reality set in. Miller found himself again struggling against the negatives he thought were the cause of always being connected to the Internet.

“There’s deeper reasons for a lot of my problems that didn’t really have a lot to do with the Internet. They just manifest differently on and offline,” says Miller in a video documentary shot 11 months into his experience.

It’s not a matter of virtual vs. reality. The real world exists and continues in real-time, whether we’re connected or not.

The heart of the matter lies in how Miller wanted to change and be different. Going offline was the path he chose in order to discover himself and life in a new way. And that’s why I’m taking up the similar cross to trudge along. By it, I may just find freedom.

The real, virtual challenge

I don’t really want to quit it altogether. After all, the Internet itself isn’t the problem—it’s the way I’ve let it snag me and pull me into its vortex.

The Internet is simply a tool—like a car or pen and paper even—and can be used to accomplish constructive things. The trick is to get to a point where I’m using it as a tool and not becoming a tool myself—twisted and turned and wrenched and wracked by an overwhelming beast with its head lost in the cloud.

Without making ridiculous promises I’ll never keep, I’m not going to do it for a year. I’m going to start with a 30-day trial and then re-evaluate where I stand. Starting tonight and running for a month, I’ll be adhering to the rules set up below.

I also expect to slip up at some point and am ready to forgive myself. The point isn’t to do it just for the sake of saying I did it, but to try and discover how a life without the constant virtual-distractions will enable me to live a better life.

What I’m hanging onto:

  1. Posting to this blog – All my writing will be done offline, and the only page I’m permitting myself is the posting page. This also means all my research will be done offline. It’s going to be a bit trickier, but I hope it will encourage me to draw even more from the human experience and to connect with people better by asking more questions, considering the answers and simply hanging out with people more in general.
  2. E-mail – Though I’ll be checking it less often, I’m limiting myself to 30 min. on Tuesdays and Fridays. This will force me to scan quickly and focus on the essentials, while letting the rest fall serenely by the wayside.
  3. Skype – I have family and friends who live on different continents and the technology to be able to see them face to face in real time is an incredible blessing. A major point of this whole thing is to connect better with people, and there’s no good reason to pull the legs out from under this ability.
  4. FutureLearn – I’m currently taking a couple of free classes online, and I really enjoy them and I believe they’re helping me create a better future.

What I’m giving up:

  1. Facebook – This site has been one of the deadlier ones when it comes to zapping my time. Those who want to get ahold of me can still call or e-mail.
  2. Online articles – Ok, pretty much everything else caught in the interwebs not included in the list above.
  3. Texts – This is, perhaps, a weird one, and people may get slightly annoyed with me but I’m extending the ban to cell phone texts as well. My phone bill is going to go up, but I’m going to try simply phoning instead and see how it goes.

Like Miller’s experience, I don’t expect giving up the Internet to automatically change my life. What I do expect is the opportunity to be able to discover what a freer, more productive life is.

In quitting, there’s so much to gain

So…why? Why am I quitting the Internet? What do I hope to gain? What’s the reason, what’s the search? And what, you might ask, did the Internet do to deserve such a shunning?

It’s existential, mostly, and not a little selfish.

I want more time to myself. Sitting alone at a computer, surfing the web doesn’t constitute time to myself, quite the opposite in fact. I feel buried and overwhelmed by the amount of information I expose myself to.

I want to create more, and consume less. I’ve got this idea growing in the back of my head about a kind of a ‘create movement,’ that seeks to draw out people’s creative energy and make contributions to the world in real, tangible ways.

I want to give my priorities space to breathe. I have a list of priorities taped above my desk like studying Russian and calling friends, but I’ve seen them lose their places to my addiction of spending time on the Internet.

I want to remove the stress that comes from trying to keep up with the Joneses. I wonder how much of my overall anxiety and depressed feelings are directly related to feeling I’m not measuring up to what I perceive others to be accomplishing through their posts on the internet. I struggle with dark competition, an idea put to words by Stephen Covey, where I’m not competing for some kind of place or prize but for my “own internal sense of worth.”

I want to draw myself out into the world made of flesh and bones. I ignored my host brother for a random linked article. He was making little etchings on a piece of scratch paper on my desk for a board game he’s inventing, and he wanted my input. I did one of those little “mmhmms” and in no uncertain non-verbal hints, turned back towards the computer screen. Now that he’s left for the capital for a few days I started thinking what a great idea he has and I need the time to invest to help him draw it out.

“What are you doing for others?”

As Paul Miller was set to return to life with the Internet, he reflected on what he’d learned, what he’d failed to learn and what he now wanted from life.

“I want this next year to be about other people than just Paul Miller. There’s only so much navel gazing that one guy can do. There’s people in the world with real problems other than that they use reddit too much.”

That’s where I want to be. I want to take down the pixelated placards that have covered the reality of my life with a virtual wall made from carefully selected photo tags and manicured status updates.

I want to climb out of the webs where I’ve been buried, entangled in click-bait titles and shiny topics I care nothing about.

I want to look up from my virtual navel and see people with hearts pumping in their chests, moving and breathing and being.

For now the pacing has stopped, and I’m meditating in the deep silence of a stilled computer. I’m still here, I’m not gone, and I’m not leaving. It’s my hope that this time will find me more present than ever–both in my own life, and in the lives of others.


For obvious reasons I’m not going to be reading comments here for a while, but please share with us your thoughts–how does the Internet get in the way of your life? Have you ever lived or thought about living offline? It what ways do you limit your Internet usage? Should we even make attempts to limit it? What does a life offline have to offer?

A cause for Kyrgyzstan, 16 years and counting

A life-changing conversation with a leading expert on bride-kidnapping

Last week I had the honor of meeting with Dr. Russell Kleinbach, one of the world’s leading experts on bride-kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. A professor emeritus of Philadelphia University, this is his tenth trip to Kyrgyzstan since first teaching in Osh as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998.

Born and raised as a Minnesota farm boy, Dr. Kleinbach went to seminary in Kansas City then worked as a civil rights activist, once meeting with senators on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s.

After returning from his trip to Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a guest on a talk show debating the Vietnam War. Going head to head with staunch proponents, the “green” Dr. Kleinbach quickly found himself in over his head. “They tore me every which way and loose,” he told me, with a quiet chuckle.

For the next six months he read everything he could on the war, educating himself on the history and perspectives of the conflict. This led him and his wife to spend the last two years of the ‘60s living and working in Vietnam. The experience helped shape his deep ideological belief that “the foundation of all conflict in the world is inequality.”

Dr. Kleinbach worked for most of his career as a professor teaching psychology and the humanities. Having had a keen interest in the Soviet Union, he took the opportunity to live and work in Kyrgyzstan, a former soviet republic, a few years into its newly forming history. Here Dr. Kleinbach was first made aware of the phenomenon of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a social ill that affected his students and those in his community. Sixteen years later, Dr. Kleinbach continues to work researching and educating Kyrgyz people on the effects of this practice and how it can be stopped.

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is an extremely complex issue which runs the spectrum from those who elope to those who are physically taken practically at random off the street. Dr. Kleinbach’s cause works to end what they call “non-consensual bride-kidnapping” or the practice of forcing a woman to marry who doesn’t want to. (More detailed information can be found in this well-written 2013 Eurasianet article. A descriptive account can be found in this NYT article from 2005.)

Reducing bride-kidnapping rates one village at a time

I was initially invited to meet Dr. Kleinbach by my Japanese volunteer friend in our village. Entering the guest house where he and the director of the organization he started, Kyz Korgon, were staying, we found them folding pamphlets and rolling posters for their next round of seminars and door-to-door canvassing in villages in our region.

He started right in with the history of his work in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, the research he’s done, and the methods of education they employ.

Bride-kidnapping is a prevalent practice that, according to his research, has been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. It is popularly believed here among Kyrgyz people that this practice has ancient cultural roots, yet Dr. Kleinbach believes it’s a more recent phenomenon. “In a culture without a written history, tradition can develop quite quickly,” he tells me, adding that no where even in oral tradition does the idea of bride-kidnapping appear as a legitimate way of gaining a wife. “It’s not in the Manas,” he says, referring to the world’s longest epic poem and what today many Kyrgyz people consider the foundation of Kyrgyz culture.

This is one of the appeals he makes to people during his organization’s seminars. They focus on a multi-pronged approach to reach people which includes a discussion on how according to the Koran, Muslim Imams are forbidden to bless a marriage that is non-consensual.

“The issue is start the thinking process,” he says. But he’s doing a lot more than that. His work is getting results.

The organization he works with canvasses an entire village, conducting interviews with women and men to determine the statistics on the number of women who have married non-consensually. Then, they meet with students and unmarried youth to show a video of women who have been kidnapped and discuss the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. The sessions end with an appeal for a written and signed “pledge of resistance” form stating that for girls, if kidnapped they will leave and return home, and for boys, that they will promise to only marry someone who will agree to the marriage.

The next year his organization returns to the same village and conducts interviews with those who have been married since they were in that village the previous year. The results are showing nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of non-consensual marriages.

His talk on the organization’s work only slowed when our host brought out the afternoon lunch of rice soup and steamed dumplings.

You’re asking the wrong question

As the conversation moved on to the kind of chatter associated with all meals, I felt this growing urge to ask him a selfish question. Maybe it was his professorial demeanor. Maybe it was his warm heart and open ear from decades of mentoring students. Maybe it was simply a deep gift for relating to people. Whatever it was, I felt that tug that comes whenever you’re in the presence of someone great, that tug to ask for sage words of wisdom gained from a life of living with purpose.

“What am I supposed to be?”

As a 30-year-old, still hopping the world every couple of years without a clear plan, I yearn for that calling. A cause that pulls my feet out of bed every day to stand for something instead of that listless noise that’s made me fall for everything.

“If you had a calling, you’d probably know it by now,” he says, tossing the thought ball back to me. “Don’t worry about the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’…Focus on a cause you can pursue.”

Indeed Dr. Kleinbach didn’t discover the cause of bride-kidnapping prevention until he was in his late 50s. “Ah, but I already had a full life teaching. This is just sort of the icing on the cake.” He went on to commend the role of the teacher I’ve been playing saying that’s cause enough, an honorable cause.

Always one to make things practical, he followed this immediately by challenging me to pick up the cause of educating people of the dangers of bride-kidnapping and helping people work out a better way. To stake my claim here, in Kyrgyzstan, working with local people to end this practice that wrecks havoc in so many lives.

And there it is: the secret. It’s nothing more—and nothing less—than simply doing something. To start thinking about others and what needs to be done. To not worry about having what it takes or being on the right path because in his words, “the education will take care of itself.” That each and every cause is fought by people who through doing the work are discovering how to better people’s lives.

I’d been asking the wrong question and seeking its answer in the wrong direction. Focus on the self is where the problem lies, not the solution.

A cause to celebrate

“You ever hear about stone soup?” Dr. Kleinbach gave me a whimsical look.

I had—I remembered the story from grade school, where a man with only a stone for dinner invites the village over for soup, but first cleverly asks each person for just a little something to flavor the stone. The story ends with a simmering pot of vegetable stew and dinner for the entire community. I nod.

“I’m the guy with the stone.”

Dr. Kleinbach looks at me with the smile of one wise enough to know it’s not the personal cause alone that changes the world. It’s a focused heart, a willingness to do something and an invitation to draw others in to make a difference.

IMG_6310A student painted poster hanging in my school reads: “The 8th of March! Dear ladies and girls–we congratulate you on your upcoming holiday.” (International Women’s Day)