Discipline through Doing the Minimum

This is the second 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.


Of all the things that get in the way of discipline, the biggest is procrastination. Procrastination is one of those things that really isn’t fixable with a pithy statement or motivational poster. (Plus, you probably still haven’t even hung that poster up yet, have you?)

If procrastination is first, a close second is perfectionism. Combine these two and you have a force that can’t be beat by the best of intentions mixed with positive thinking piled on top of Jillian Michaels screaming in your face.

There are three things here working against the perfectionist-procrastinator. (From here on we’ll refer to him as “PP”.) I’ll list them here and then we’ll take a look at them one by one.

  1. Having a big enough block of time to complete an entire project
  2. Waiting for the moment to “feel right”
  3. Having the energy to “do your best”

Perfect, from start to finish

PP will only start working on a job if he can foresee it being completed perfectly within an unbroken, solid chunk of time.

This means everyday tasks like brushing his teeth or putting food in his body or driving to the store are no problem. PP can envision the amount of time it takes and visually see himself arriving at the store within that modest time frame and successfully finding a parking space. Perfect.

But give PP a task that in reality should take several days of focused work and PP will immediately grab a Pop Tart, open up his Netflix account, and curl up in the fetal position.

How does PP break out of his tough, candied shell? He must lie to himself about the scope of the project.

If PP focuses on reality, his perfectionistic side is not going to allow him to get started, so what he must do instead is create several small fantasies.

At this point PP asks himself, “What is the very minimum I could do on this project right now?” Let’s look at a few examples:

Project The very minimum
Write a 10 page history paper Get in the car and drive to the library
Clean the house Take the vacuum cleaner out of the closet
Type, collate and send a report to your boss Open your e-mail

Most big projects are impossible to complete in one uninterrupted swoop. Not only that, but as PP works on his big project, he is going to be interrupted by his kids, the phone, another e-mail, a request from his boss, having to eat lunch, and a million other little things. Thus, he’s required to begin again and again.

This is terrible news to PP because even thinking about getting started on a big project just once causes him to turn into a pool of sweat and seep into the floorboards.

This is where tricking himself into thinking about the minimum allows PP to finish short bursts of the project in between interruptions.

Feel good, feely feelings

PP is a feeler. He goes with his gut. And his gut usually says, “Not quite yet—I’m not feeling it right now. Maybe I’ll feel motivated after this bag of chips and season of Friends.”

The problem with feeling like the moment’s right is that the moment never comes. It sucks to be disciplined. It’s awful. It’s no fun. PP’s body is not going to willingly subject him to the torture of getting things done.

So what’s PP to do? Know that it’s yucky and icky and that he’s not going to like it. (We’ll further explore this with PP in a future post. Stay tuned!) There’s no use waiting for a particular feeling.

Always give 110%…

You know what’s weird about this motivational statement? It’s impossible.

It’s like saying, “Want to fly? Just flap your arms really hard! What?! You fell on your face? That’s because you’re only flapping at 100%! I said 110! ONE HUNDRED AND TEN!!

The truth is, PP’s tuckered out. He’s already done a lot today and has been interrupted a dozen times.

His daily energy bundle only goes so high. Everything he does from showering to getting the kids off to school to taking the dog for a walk is a subtraction from this energy. When PP finally gets around to working on his project, he only has a certain limited amount of energy left.

If this level doesn’t happen to be above PP’s “start-my-project” threshold, he will never get started.

He will almost never be at the optimal energy level, but that’s ok. 110% doesn’t exist anyway. It’s ok for PP to work in a lower range of energy.

IMG_6513Eh…good enough

The magnifying glass approach

The perfectionist-procrastinator wants to see a project finished, and see it finished well. This is a laudable sentiment, but unfortunately it simply doesn’t align with reality. There’s almost never enough uninterrupted time and energy to “do a project.”

This is where identifying the minimum is helpful. Zoom in on a small part of the project, define the minimum, do that, and then see what happens. It’s not a miracle worker, but you will find yourself having completed more than our good friend PP, curled up on the couch, knee deep in Season 3 and Pop Tart wrappers.


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

How to write (and teach) the five-paragraph essay

For a student to participate in the western world of academics, it is essential they know the basics of the 5-paragraph essay. Organizing thoughts into an outline and then putting them into this formula is a specific skill that must be taught and practiced for students to master.

It is even more important to have a strong command of this form for students who want to apply for study abroad programs or work in Europe or the United States. I wrote this lesson plan while helping students prepare for the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) exam so they could have a better shot at becoming one of the amazing 60 or so students from Kyrgyzstan who spend an academic year at a US high school.

The following is a lesson plan for introducing and practicing the basics of the 5-paragraph essay. As always, it should be modified to meet the specific needs of your students.

Lesson Plan – The 5-paragraph Essay

Objectives: Students will be able to write a 200-250 word essay using 5-paragraph form to include 1) An attention grabbing introduction 2) A thesis listing 3 reasons 3) 3 paragraphs with 3 reasons being the topic sentences 4) A conclusion that restates the introduction using different words.

  1. Give students a straight-forward topic, like, “My favorite singer” or “Why I want to go to America.”
  2. Brainstorm and list many reasons why they like this particular singer, or why they want to go to America. Emphasize specific reasons.
  3. Have students complete the following chart to help them with the form and reasons. “My favorite singer is __Avril Lavigne__ because 1) __she is edgy__ 2) __she doesn’t take crap from anyone__ 3) __when I play her music all the cute girls gather around__”
  4. Explain the word “detail” (story, statistic, example, anecdote, supporting information) and brainstorm together a couple details for one of the reasons.
  5. Write the outline above on the board and have students copy into their notebooks.
  6. Provide a sample essay. Students must: a) Identify and underline the thesis; b) Number the reasons within the thesis; c) Number and underline the reasons in the topic sentences; and d)Number the reasons in the conclusion. Go over these one at a time and elicit answers from students. If students need help, have them work in pairs or small groups before providing answers.
  7. Students complete an outline for the sample essay.
  8. Students check their partners’ outline and match it against the elements in the example.
  9. Students write a practice essay. (For homework.)

Lesson notes: Learning to write essays using the 5-paragraph technique takes lots of practice. Students should have many opportunities to sit down with the teacher one-on-one to discuss outlines and critique writing tasks. I have found this lesson to be more successful if you first spend lots of time only writing outlines. Slowly build on thesis, reasons, details, introduction, conclusion and transitions. It helps to assign a topic every lesson (or day) and then the next day working in pairs, students can critique each others’ essays underlining and labeling the elements of the 5-paragraph essay. Lastly, please, for the love of learning, and all that is good and bright in the world, add your own personality and above all, humor to your teaching. Just like how our essays should be interesting in order to be memorable, the more enjoyable your lesson, the more the students will get out of it.

Topic ideas to assign as homework:

  • Describe a time you were a leader and give examples.
  • If I were a banana, I would…
  • If I don’t like my host mother’s food, I will…
  • You are home alone and you accidentally break the coffee table. What do you do?
  • The three most important people are…

For the FLEX test particularly, it’s necessary to stress to students the importance of being original, unique, and outgoing while showing a flavor of critical-thinking in their writing. FLEX recruiters are going to read a billion of these essays and students need to stand out to have a shot at a year in America.

5-paragraph essay outline

Topic: XYZ


  • Be interesting!
  • Be unique! The reader should remember this.
  • 2-3 sentences


  • Write the topic and give your opinion using 3 reasons.
  • “I think XYZ is good because 1)… 2)… 3)… ”


  • 3 paragraphs (3-5 sentences each)
  • Reason 1
    • Detail (example, story, anecdote, statistic)
    • Detail
  • Reason 2
    • Detail
    • Detail
  • Reason 3
    • Detail
    • Detail


  • Write the introduction and thesis again using different words
  • “In conclusion, you can see that XYZ is very good because…”

Sample 5-paragraph essay

Topic: What will you do when you get back from the United States?

Studying in America will be an amazing experience, but I will also be very excited to come home. Of course I will miss my family. But I also am excited to meet my friends and tell them all about America! When I come back from the United states I will help lead an American Culture club, show videos of high school life and help Access students.

Leading an American Culture club will teach students about new things. I want to share new music and lead a hip-hop dance club. I went to many dances at my school in America and it was so fun! My dance group in America wants to keep in touch with us and we will record videos and send them to each other.

I took many videos of my high school in America. I want to show my school their cafeteria, their classrooms and the gymnasium. I know we can make some changes to our school to make it even better.

Access students learn American culture, but they don’t have a chance to visit, so I will help teach Access students English through American culture lessons. We will listen to songs and write letters to students in America. It is a good chance to learn English from native speakers!

After I come back from America I will be so happy to see my family and friends again! But I know I will miss my place in the United States too. I will be able to keep in touch with my friends in America and teach my friends new things by leading clubs, showing videos and helping with Access.

What ideas do you have for teaching the 5-paragraph essay? Write your suggestions below in the comments!

Sample budget for teacher trainings in Kyrgyzstan

A fellow third-year volunteer Luke and I gave a brief session last month at our All-Volunteer conference talking about teacher training logistics. The session included a sample budget of what to expect to spend on a 1-2 day training for area teachers. I’m including the budget below for anyone interested in implementing trainings in Kyrgyzstan as an idea of where to get started and what kinds of things may be needed to run a training.

A training can be done for as little or as much money as you like. It’s possible to hold a 1 or 2 session training at your school for no cost other than a bit of chalk and the teachers’ time. However, if you’re going to host a multiple session training, it’s usually a good idea to provide a few materials that will assist in the success of the training.

Below is a sample budget of what things you may want to include in a training for 15 participants. Not every training must include all elements, for example most local trainings are held without renting a hotel for the participants, or without paying for teachers’ transportation costs.

There will be other necessary items, for example a teapot, tables, chairs, etc. but this budget assumes these items will be available to be used for free wherever the training is held.

Item Cost (Som) (Dollars) Units Total Cost (Som) (Dollars) Who funds
Training Items
Notebook 20-25 .40-.50 15 300-375 6.00-7.50 G, CC*
Pen 7-15 .15-.30 15 105-225 2.10-4.50 G, CC
Folder 25-40 .50-.80 15 375-600 7.50-12.00 G, CC
Certificates 15-20 .30-.40 15 225-300 4.50-6.00 G, CC
Flip Chart 200-250 4.00-5.00 1 200-250 4.00-5.00 G, V, CC
Markers 5-10 .10-.20 10 50-100 1.00-2.00 G, V, CC
Handouts 3-4 .6-.8 150 (pages) 450-600 9.00-12.00 G, V, CC
Total 1705-2450 $34.00-50.00
Coffee Break / Lunch Items
Chai 90-100 1.80-2.00 1 (box) 90-100 1.80-2.00 CC, G, V
Coffee 90-100 1.80-2.00 1 90-100 1.80-2.00 CC, G, V
Sugar 30-40 .60-.80 .5 kilo 30-40 .60-.80 CC, G, V
Cookies 150-250 3.00-5.00 2 kg 300-500 6.00-10.00 CC, G, V
Lunch 100-200 2.00-4.00 18 (with trainers) 1800-3600 36.00-72.00 G, CC
Salary for Cooks 250-300 5.00-6.00 2 (2 people, 1 day) 500-600 10.00-12.00 G, CC
Total 2810-4940 $56.00-100.00
Travel per trainee 50-100 1.00-2.00 30 (local travel, both ways) 1500-3000 30.00-60.00 CC, G
Training Room 1000 20.00 1 (day) 1000 20.00 CC, G
Hotel ? ? 2-3 nights ? ? G
Translator 500-1000 $10.00-20.00 1 (day) 500-1000 10.00-20.00 CC, G
Total Costs(without hotel) 7515-12390 $150.00-250.00

*G = Grant, V = Volunteer, CC = Community Contribution

These are suggestions of funding sources based on volunteer experiences in the past. The volunteer is not required to spend any of their own funds for trainings beyond their own transportation (grants don’t cover volunteer travel). You may find however that you will spend some money here and there for various items like a thank you gift, some additional snacks for lunch or other materials needed for the training like scissors, etc.

Teacher trainings are great for a number of reasons. They allow teachers the opportunity to meet with other teachers to discuss relevant issues, they provide opportunities for professional development and they help improve the quality of instruction provided for students.

Trainings are also relatively inexpensive and can have a high probability of passing when submitted as grant requests. Trainings have a higher chance of being accepted if they also include a follow up process for participants. This can be follow-up observations by you or your counterpart, submitted lesson plans or a number of other ideas. Make sure to include in your budget any costs incurred through follow up, whether that is travel money for your counterpart to go observe teachers or money for another chai break if you are meeting with teachers.

They’re in it to win it

And I’m not talking about Kyrgyzstan’s chances to play in the World Cup, though there has been some positive movement.

I was sitting across the table from three recent graduates of my new school. We were chatting about university entrance exams, and all three were set to interview at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek. We practiced interviews and essay formats and went over a few grammar questions.

These girls were already at the top of their games. Each girl placed in the top five nationally in one of Russian Literature, Kyrgyz Language or English Language Olympiads. Now they were competing for spots in a year-long prep program for the most prestigious university in Kyrgyzstan and for scholarships for an education they couldn’t afford otherwise. AUCA is also the most expensive university in Kyrgyzstan.

IMG_0171High school seniors at graduation, ringing the bell for the last time

There are cheaper universities and colleges in Kyrgyzstan, but few offer a high standard of education. With low salaries for professors and lecturers, many feel the need to accept bribes to supplement their incomes. This leads to a drop in the quality of education as many students opt to simply pay for their diplomas instead of submitting homework and attending classes.

This is a big reason why diplomas from the vast majority of the 50-odd universities in Kyrgyzstan are not accepted by institutions abroad. This in of itself should be a wake up call to those in charge of higher education. Corruption must be dealt a heavy and widespread blow from top legislators and administrators if the education system is going to have a chance at providing their students with quality education. There are many more students who deserve to be accepted to the few top universities than will be. Many will have to settle for studying in environments that reward those who pay bribes and punish those who refuse.

Earlier this week a message popped up while I was on Facebook. It was one of the girls I had briefly tutored and she was just writing to say she’d “entered to the New Generation Akademy at AUCA !!!” (I’d have used a lot more exclamation points if it were me!) It was super exciting to hear that one of them had gotten in. It’s still no guarantee for her whole university education—the New Generation Academy is a fully funded extra year of prep for university, and then students need to figure out their own methods of paying tuition. But it’s a great first step and one that will give attending students a quality education and experience resultant to their effort.

These kids are more than pulling their weight on their end of the line. Kyrgyzstan—it’s time to step up and give your students the chances they deserve.

Dear students: It doesn’t matter

If I had a time machine I know the exact moment I would go back to—a breezy fall day in 1997 in the stairway of Ramsey Junior High School in Saint Paul, MN. There I would find the world’s worst perpetrator with a bowl-cut and a backpack. A young teenaged kid wearing—horrors!—a Nike sweatshirt with Adidas wind-pants.

I had unknowingly committed a mortal sin, just above blasphemy of the holy spirit I believe, by wearing two different name brands on the same day. I wished the devil would just take me right then and there to the fiery hell I deserved. It seemed better than the tortuous words coming from my fellow 8th grade classmates.

In that moment my 2014 self would walk over, lay a hand on my sagging shoulder and whisper: it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t.

You might wonder why, with the entire age of the world at my fingertips to explore I would choose to enter this seemingly insubstantial moment in time. Here I was just a kid with a wardrobe choice. But it was more than that. They were the clothes that made me happy. Made me comfortable. Made me feel like…“me.”

In that moment of ridicule the value of my own personhood was being called into question and it made me immediately reel with self-doubt, shame and apprehension.

Every young person has these moments. It might not be the clothes on your back but instead your choice of college. Or what you want to study. Or even the moves you show on the dance floor.

How you choose to live—whether in the shadow of others’ approval or in the freeing light of your passions—affects everything else in your life.

Oh young people of the world! I’ve seen you stand at the crossroads of these choices, seen you labor over them, bleed over them, weep over them. Seen you allow others to stand in command over your decisions and actions and movements, seen you held in that tortuous position where you never know when the hammer is going to drop.

And drop it will. Others can be so cruel in response to your dreams, especially in those first steps. That time in your youth when you venture timidly out from the camp of conformity into uncharted forests with rescue ropes of gossamer still tied to the approval of others. When that frailty is oh so gently tested you suddenly find yourself cut loose, and tumbling, flailing out of the circle of approval, you trip out into the wild away from the warmly lit ring of acceptance.

In that moment, don’t turn back to the safe circle of dying embers. Dare instead to forge a new path.


You’ve been conditioned through those agonizing years of adolescence to believe that each little shoe strap, every wisp of hair, each angle of your “duck” lips is going to be picked apart, stared at, and scrutinized. You’ve learned to take the safe route, to check your dreams, to process your decisions in the mill of conformity and approval.

And how could you not? It’s everywhere from red carpet walks to pop up cosmetic shops to scrolls of comments in Facebook newsfeeds. You’re told to choose your fashion with the eye of a trend-setter, to always check the reactions to your choices, to hover in a constant state of FOMO—the fear of missing out.

You stall in these moments because time only moves one direction and somehow the world has convinced you that the peak of all creation is now.

The trials and doubts and questions you find yourself in today are not the culmination of every past moment of your life. This moment is always a new beginning. An umpteenth chance. A fresh page to start writing a new story. This moment is always the start of everything else, and what follows is up to you.

Dear friends—there is so much beyond junior high. There is so much beyond high school. There is so much to life after university!

So many go through it thinking there must be a best plan, a single track to follow and if it gets derailed every future moment will be lived out in a second rate life, or worse.

Here’s the secret: There’s no plan A. There’s no best option. Life is not built upon first place finishes but on second chances. Life need not follow someone else’s perfect vision. It’s your eyes in your head, your head on your shoulders and your call as to which way they travel.

For it’s not the approval that matters and not the path, but your love for what you do and the passion by which you do it.


What passions will you let break free? What makes you come alive?