20 November 2011

Essential Test-Driven Development: Just Say No to Unit-Testing

Wait...Is He Kidding?

A while back I was working with a large client to plan their Agile training curriculum for teams across the country. They wanted to have ready a few courses on Agile development practices, and I recommended my Essential TDD course as a starting-point.  The head of the program said, "Let's not train them on anything that advanced.  Let's start with a unit-testing course."

I answered, "I find it easier to train and coach people on good unit-testing practices through the practice of Test-Driven Development. TDD makes unit-testing easier: Easier to do right, and easier to do in time to make a difference."

Unit-testing, as a stand-alone practice, is frustrating and dull.  The fun work of designing the solution and writing the code is over, and now we must prove that we did it right.  Usually, this means we have to re-read our own code, remember what it's supposed to do, and retrofit unit-tests onto it. The tests we write after the fact are often difficult to write. Often, they give us bad news (that would have been more helpful sooner). Plus our own fallible human brains will often fall back on justifications for why any failing test is wrong rather than an indicator of a mistake (i.e., Confirmation Bias).

Many developers find Test-Driven Development to be easier, more enjoyable, more effective, and more logical.  For me, it was like discovering that I'd been walking on my hands since graduating from college: Yeah, after 10 years I was pretty good at painstakingly writing simple, quality code without unit-tests, but once I got used to the "weirdness" of TDD, I saw how my old ways had limited my creativity, productivity, and understanding. I was back on my feet.

Just Like Science, Only Totally Different

Software Developers are natural problem-solvers.  This can be to their detriment. When we write software "on our hands" we mentally note the problem, then select the most interesting solution of the half-dozen that pop instantly into our heads. "That smells like a Composite Pattern.  Yeah!  I'll implement a Composite here." Yep, I used to design up-front.  Only it turned out not to be a Composite, and I wrote too much prematurely-generalized code, giving my product capabilities that no one asked for, yet someone paid for.

I also had extra code to maintain. Every time I added new behavior to "my" code, I had to carefully ponder the effects of my changes on the myriad intricacies of my existing beautiful design.  The more the software grew, the more the complexity problems grew, and the greater chances I would introduce a defect.  Walking on one's hands is a cool trick, sure. It's just not the most professional strategy.

Fortunately, in 1998, XP Coach extraordinaire Fred George came to visit our team, and turned my world upside-down.

In college (1984) I started out as a physics major, and thrived in all environments where scientific experimentation and discovery were the norm. Creating a hypothesis and designing experiments is somewhat akin to writing a unit-test first: State the problem first, then use that to prove the solution. Then refine the problem/solution pair through Merciless Refactoring. When I realized this, I was hooked.  TDD feels more like scientific investigation, and less like hacking.

Science isn't the perfect metaphor:  After all, you can't make a false hypothesis true by tweaking the Universe.  But you can make a test pass by making small changes to the code (Bob Martin calls them Transformations).

And It Works!

The results of the case studies indicate that the pre-release defect density of the four products decreased between 40% and 90% relative to similar projects that did not use the TDD practice. Subjectively, the teams experienced a 15–35% increase in initial development time after adopting TDD. 
-- Nagappan et al, © Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

I used to deliver TDD training at Microsoft for Net Objectives, and I recall talking to two attendees from different teams who, while working on the course labs together, had discovered through conversation that they were assigned to very similar products.  Microsoft is one of the only organizations large enough to do a good study of similar-sized projects, with teams who have the freedom to choose aspects of their methodology.  Up until this study, most of our evidence of TDD's efficacy was either academic or anecdotal.

A few things I'd like to point out from the IBM/Microsoft study quoted above:

First, 40-90% decrease in defect density? Um...wow! (Need I say more?)

Secondly, note that there is a cost associated with adopting the TDD discipline.  This should not come as a surprise: TANSTAAFL, y'know.  Worst case, you take a 35% hit in development time, and reduce defect density by 40%.  Remember what defects mean to us:  Time spent debugging, reworking, and re-testing.  Defects, a form of technical debt, are expensive!  I'll take the subjective 35% initial hit to avoid incurring that debt.

Thirdly, I'd like to focus on that one word: Initial. Any discipline requires time in order to develop a level of comfort, and to see early benefits. Disciplines are, in fact, painful to adopt, and TDD is no exception.  "...Twice as much code...!" developers cry. "No!" I tell them, "Closer to three times the code!" Also, on any program (green-field or existing), you will wonder "Where do I start?" It takes time before the ubiquitous, domain-specific language starts to solidify, and writing the next test becomes effortless.

Fortunately, it really doesn't take that long to see the benefits.  One developer on a team that I trained this summer reported back to me after about a month: "I thought it was stupid.  I'd write the simplest, stupidest little test--yes, first!--even though I knew the implementation was code I could write in my sleep. I had to focus on not falling back on old habits, even though I would occasionally curse your name.  Then, barely two weeks later, one of those stupid-simple tests was failing, in an area of the code that (I thought) I wasn't even touching! That one stupid test saved my bacon.  It was a simple mistake, and if I had checked it in, I could have messed up some very important customers..." His company's customers are legal firms. Like the conference T-shirt says, "TDD Saves!"

I've experienced a number of first-person events where the safety-net of comprehensive unit-tests plus the flexibility and maintainability provided through Merciless Refactoring resulted in astounding payoffs.  In no less than three cases (on two disparate programs), a simple "user story" contained what most teams would call "major architectural changes."  In each case, we were done in less than a week.  I had never experienced these extremely short cycle-times until I worked with teams who embraced TDD.  (I will share these first-person stories in a future blog post.)

Of course, these benefits could perhaps be obtained by simply having a comprehensive suite of unit-tests, so how is TDD better than unit-testing?


When I was a kid, I hated eating my vegetables.  My Mom would insist that I couldn't leave the table, or have dessert (if there was any) until I had consumed all those overcooked nuggets of yuck.  I finally learned a trick (no, not feeding them to the dog when Mom wasn't looking - that was my siblings' trick! ;-). I discovered two very important things about vegetables:  They taste better when they're hot, and they taste a lot better when you're hungry.  The trick:  Eat your veggies first!

TDD is like that:  Write the test first. It's healthier.

We (1) describe the expected interfaces and outcomes, (2) confirm that we've asked for something new and unique, then (3) make the code meet the challenge.  The next step, not to be skipped: (4) we clean up the design through refactoring, in preparation for the next tiny step towards the delivery of value.

Once developers grasp why we're writing a single unit-test and watching it fail before we write the code that makes it pass, they eventually cannot resist this mode of thinking. When you write code Test-First, you cannot write untestable code. When you write Test-First, you cannot miss a test; you cannot forget to cover a behavior with tests.  When the test does pass, you're likely done with that test for the rest of time, but it serves as a tiny bit of "executable specification," and it serves as a tiny investment in the future.

The alternate route, adding unit-tests to already-written code, often invokes our "Confirmation Bias":  I will have a nearly subconscious tendency to trust the code more than the tests, and I may tweak a test to match what the code is already doing.

Backups are Free. Restores? Now Those Will Cost You!

I recall just such a confirmation-bias disaster.   In the mid-90's, our Enterprise Backup software's UNIX ports had a chunk of code based on "tar," the UNIX tape-archival command.  On restore, tar would mask out the super-user execution bit. I recall seeing this code (hadn't written it...the architect had lifted it from tar), and assumed that a smart, security-minded thing to do in tar was likely a smart thing for our product, too. Except that our product ran as root anyway, and was expected to restore a whole system to a bootable state.

Oops!  The architect, executive developer, and UNIX developer (me), had all unknowingly conspired to ruin a customer's day ("further ruin" since the customer was trying to restore the root volume on a large server...).  All for want of a clear test scenario prior to the development of this code. All the test scripts we had written around this functionality assumed that the code (and the architect) was right.

How human of us, to assert only that we couldn't have possibly made a mistake. That would be like designing a flawed experiment to prove a pet theory.  You're hurting yourself. You're jeopardizing your career. You're walking hot pavement on your hands. Stop that!

04 February 2011

Go Home Already!

Yesterday morning I decided I needed a break. Not that life had been excessively stressful recently (quite the contrary!), but sometimes you just need to step back, take stock of your surroundings, and move forward again based on a broader perspective. So this wasn't the kind of break where I set work aside, completely, but rather a reassessment of circumstances, and of the choices that are before me.

This reassessment was refreshing, and left me with some energy to write about more of these Agile practices that foster creativity and sustainability.


Definitions of "slack," and related practices, abound. To me, "slack" means not allocating 100% of the team's time. The team commits to a realistic amount of work, rather than falling for the "planning fallacy" that everything will go according to a rigorous plan.

Teams who don't plan out 100% of their iteration tend to provide more value. This may seem paradoxical, until you consider human nature: If people go into a sprint (a.k.a. iteration) sensing that they are committed to 100% capacity, they start the sprint...sprinting! They are stressed from day 1, and will lose enthusiasm for the work long before the end of the iteration.

Related Practices

Team velocity, measured by "yesterday's weather," can help. If the team tends to do 12 points in a sprint, we schedule 12 points. Velocity--when it's not constantly debated, gamed, or artificially increased--already takes many unforeseen difficulties into account.

Leave Room on the Plate: I've seen teams who set "stretch goals" or add "low priority" stories to the trailing end of the iteration plan. If trust is strong, this can work, but it could lead to overcommitment and disappointment. Instead, I suggest allowing the team to pull small, high-priority stories in at the end of the sprint, if there's time left.

Of course, all other stories must first be "done done." Is there any further testing needed? User documentation to alter? If so, there is still work to be done, and the team should not pull in more work yet.

You know the phrase "too much on my plate"? Be sure you're not asking the team to "super-size" their iteration plan.

Creative Time: Some teams set aside actual "slack time." During this time, the team may:
  • Explore a new technology that would help improve flow later.
  • Refactor that old area of code that bothers or worries us. Perhaps it doesn't need to change very often (else we'd refactor prior to expanding its responsibilities), but we just have some energy and desire to clean it up now.
  • Brainstorm on some upcoming technical challenge.
  • Run a "spike" or experiment.
I've worked with two or three teams who adopted this practice, and they used guidelines like these:
  • Thursday afternoon was set aside for "play."
  • Each person could use the time to explore some area that was of interest, and that had potentially positive effects on career skills or the team's well-being.
  • The team was asked not to work on stories from the iteration. If they had, this would throw off the velocity and thus erode this practice over time.
  • Examples of acceptable activities: Spikes (timeboxed experiments). Refactoring away some technical debt. Trying out a new development or testing tool. Holding an extended brown-bag to talk about Design Patterns. Anything that didn't break the previous guidelines.
  • We asked the team to describe how they had used their slack time at the next stand-up meeting, and "it wasn't very productive" was an acceptable answer, with no stigma attached.
  • Full-time employees could even simply play video games or surf the web if (a) they sincerely needed the down-time and (b) they gave a report at the Friday stand-up (and "I played Dragon Age and got my mage to level 17" was perfectly acceptable).
External coaches weren't to play games (obviously!), but we derived plenty of joy and relaxation from refactoring the snot out of some bit of nasty code. Once, frustrated with some quirks of our old Java IDE (note: It was neither Eclipse nor IDEA), we evaluated IDEs and recommended (either Eclipse or IDEA) the next day. The team agreed to use the new IDE in the next iteration.

I suggest Thursday afternoons rather than Friday afternoons, because on Friday afternoons people will naturally just escape after lunch for the weekend, and little team value will be obtained.

Sustainable Pace and Energized Work

Different people have different amounts of daily sustainable energy for doing certain parts of their jobs. It often appears that younger developers have more energy to work long hours on a problem. I've since realized that what most knowledge-workers of any age tend to do is to push themselves beyond their own rational limits, into an "irrational loop." They're too wrapped up in a problem to realize that they're tired and hungry, so they keep pushing on that problem. In the irrational loop, they become more and more frustrated, and are prone to make simple mistakes that cause the solution to elude them further, resulting in more time spent looking for a solution.

I sometimes quip that most bugs are written in the last two hours of a 12-hour day. It's probably not accurate as stated, but it gets the point across: Work hard while you have the energy, then stop.

I cannot count the number of times over my 25 years when I've had to be the one to say "Y'know, this problem will wait for us until tomorrow morning." In fact, it's now one of the most fulfilling parts of my job as coach to say "You're stuck? Roll back to the last green bar [i.e., all tests passing] in your local repository, go get some food, some rest, and some time with your families. Go home!" Nearly always, the next day someone walks in having realized what the roadblock was, and with a good solution rattling around in her skull.

There's another benefit: People will sometimes avoid going home because there's even worse stress waiting for them there. But those troubles won't fix themselves, while we hide at the office answering megabytes of e-mail. Letting people have the time to spend with families, on hobbies, and on a full night's sleep pays off almost immediately: Fewer sick days, fewer chronic family issues, higher retention, and alert, relaxed teammates!

In my own experience, I know I can teach my courses with four hours of sleep and a double-shot espresso, if I have to. But I'm effectively on autopilot, playing back the recorded messages in my brain when asked a familiar question. Instead, I prefer a good dose of actual sleep, and no caffeine: I'm more focused and more in tune with the needs of the attendees.

Related Practices

Go Home: Once you know approximately where your limits are, set a time when you plan to go home, and stick to it. Let colleagues know when you're starting to run down, and that you've got about an hour left of productivity in the office. Schedule time for yourself at the end of the day: A yoga class, dinner with the spouse, or just a "go home" reminder on your calendar. When asked if you can attend that 6:30pm meeting, say "No."

One Failing Test: For TDD or XP teams, this is a favorite for lunch breaks or at the end of the day. Leave your (small amount of) uncommitted changes on your dev machine with a single failing unit test to mark where you were. It will take no time at all to figure out where you left off. Much less context switching! Of course, "all-green and committed" is an alternative, but there's nothing quite as concrete as a single (uncommitted!) failing test to get you back into the Zone.

We appreciated this practice so much, we'd start a new task and write the first failing test with only a few minutes left in the day.

Continuous Learning

On a day-to-day basis, people are energized by intrinsic motivators such as interesting, valuable work; pride in quality work; and interesting learning experiences. This does not have to be limited to a yearly trek to a trade conference. Those are great, but if they're the team's only source of fresh mental stimulation, all those spongy brains are going to be surviving on minimal subsistence the other 51 weeks of the year.

Related Practices

Sharpen the Knives: You've heard the old adage about the lumberjack who--in order to cut a tree in an hour--will take 45 minutes to sharpen the saw?

This old analogy really needs updating: Not many of us are all that familiar with the logging industry. Right now, reality cooking shows (Top Chef, Iron Chef, ...) are hot, and I've just learned the right way to sharpen cooking knives (one way for me to contribute in the kitchen, besides cleaning it).

So, why do chefs sharpen their knives? Because they can go faster, work more accurately, and create higher quality. We wouldn't tell a chef to "just keep cooking! Go, go, go! Never mind quality or technique or safety..." Would we?

Most teams need to "slow down to speed up" using "Slack," and this practice takes slack one step further: We improve throughput of value by allowing the team the time and authority to learn an effective new skill.

Pair Programming: Two people collaborate on critical efforts, so teammates constantly learn from each other. This learning is not the result of a teacher-student or master-apprentice relationship: Peers can share a variety of things, including efficient tools and techniques, domain knowledge, product knowledge, and appreciation for the skills and responsibilities of other teammates.


"Measure twice, cut once."

"Sharpen the saw."

"Slow down to speed up."

"It's a marathon, not a sprint."
In all endeavors, at all of life's stages, the best action to take is often counter-intuitive. When you feel that old chaotic wind spinning around you, step back, get more of the big picture, and try out one of these practices, or one of your own invention. They are all essentially the same: You are taking the time necessary to complete your task with a high degree of quality, integrity, and craftsmanship; and without ruining your health.

Okay, I'm outta here...!

03 January 2011

Gentle Discipline: Making Agile Happen in the New Year

Update #1 for 2013:  When this was first posted, I had a few people point out that I was talking about self-discipline.  True enough!  I'm not sure I can conceive of any other form of successful discipline.  It's possible that I'm biased because I'm an Agile Coach; or--more likely--that I've become an Agile Coach because of this bias.  The "User-Friendly Discipline" is my name for an observed phenomenon, not for something I thought up. It is the only form of real discipline I've ever known to work, in my own life as well as the lives of those I've encountered, over nearly five decades, and on three continents.  The assumption that you can force other people to do something as a discipline is, to me, disproven by my observations of successful disciplines (as described below). YMMV, but I doubt it. -- Rob

It's 03 January 2011, and I'm going to wait one more day before going to the gym. If you've ever had a gym membership, you know exactly why: Right now, every gym is a zoo of humanity. Right now, hundreds of new people join the gym and try so very hard to live up to their New Year's Resolutions.

But, as the regulars and the staff are aware, most of those newcomers eventually give up and stop coming. Though I'll be happy to have things back to normal, I always feel a little sad for the people who weren't able to establish an ongoing discipline.

The D Word
In my courses, I often ask people what comes to mind when they hear the word "discipline." Images arise of strict teachers with rulers, or boot camp drill sergeants. The word seems to imply rigorous, strenuous rules, extra effort, and--above all else--suffering.

Many people stop going to the gym because they start out too intense. Often their fit (and younger) personal trainer has constructed a regimen suitable for a Marine; or they just push too hard the first day, and still can't lift their arms above their head a week later. Or they tried to dedicate all their free time to this one endeavor, and life (laundry, house-cleaning, overtime, friends) intrudes; or at least provides an excuse.

Discipline: The User-Friendly Definition

The way to establish a consistent, painless discipline is embedded in my formulation of the "acceptance criteria" for a discipline.
  1. A discipline is a habit...
  2. ...that you come to rely on, even during difficult times...
  3. ...because you know that it benefits you, personally.
Let's examine each of these further, and I'll make some suggestions on how to implement this.

A Habit...
A habit is something we do almost unconsciously, and frequently. There are good habits as well as bad. Think about the numerous habitual disciplines you've already established in your daily routine before going to work. Most people shower, put on clothes, and brush their teeth. If you think back, you had to be taught all of these, and some of us probably put up a fuss over these disciplines as children. Do they still seem painful? Would you give them up?

I recall learning (perhaps many decades ago) that to establish a habit, psychologists suggested we repeat the behavior for about 30 days. Whether this rule of thumb is still canon or not, I've found that we must remind ourselves, and perform the activity, repeatedly until we know we can discard the reminder.

A sticky-note on your mirror could remind you to floss. A daily alarm on your calendar software could remind you of the stand-up meeting. A big, visible chart graphing the number of unit-tests checked in to the repository could encourage the team to write tests (first! ;-).

...We Rely On...

For a practice to become a stable discipline, enough people on the team (it could be a team of one) have to be doing it habitually so that it will not die out due to some minor random event (e.g., when two new developers are added, or while three people are out with the flu).

A Tale of Two Teams

I've observed at least two Extreme Programming (XP) teams as they discovered they needed to rush out a release. One organization decided at the last moment to show the product at a trade show. On another team, there was a customer anxious for an early Beta release, and willing to pay.

The reaction of these teams suggested their levels of discipline with various practices. The less-experienced team gave up TDD, pair-programming, refactoring, code-reviews, object-oriented goodness, all manner of sanity; and just cranked something out. The product failed to "wow" anyone, to say the least.

The other team acknowledged the crunch, took a little time to re-prioritize and break down the backlog, then sat down in pairs and practiced their testing and engineering disciplines as though nothing untoward had happened. Their release may have been short on bells and whistles, but it was also very short on defects. (And they sold many licenses and the VCs lived happily ever after, The End. There be Agile Dragons, remember?)

A key lesson from these events was that a discipline isn't ever something we think is "a great idea, in an ideal world, but we're too busy right now in the real world, so could you bug us about it later?" You have to know its true value, in your bones.

Frequency Over Intensity
Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Always Repeat.
-- Homer J. Simpson
To get there, it's important that you repeat the activity rather consistently before a crisis occurs, and through some minor daily crises. Even when, especially when, it's painful to do so.

Here's one of the user-friendly parts: Early on, frequency is more important than intensity. You can tone down the practice until it becomes a habit.

An example for the resolute exerciser: If your muscles are sore, just go do your cardio. (If your regimen is purely cardio, then go play lightly on the weight equipment.) Just go have fun with it.

An example for the blossoming meditator: No time to practice? Sit down and breathe slowly and deeply three times, then get up and go to work. (And try not to curse at traffic lights, or other drivers. ;-)

For the Agile team participant: Try a new practice wholeheartedly for a month (only one to four iterations). You know you can ask the team to reexamine and tweak the practice at every retrospective; so don't evade, grouse over, or sabotage the team's efforts. Do it as though you believed in it, and that your project or career depended on doing it well.  (It does.)

My friend Bob Hartman once helped establish a team's pair-programming discipline by asking the team to pair up whenever they were fixing a bug. "If one person broke it, why do you think one person can fix it?"

...Because It Benefits Us
We won't even attempt a new discipline without some indicator that it's valuable. We observe people who are healthy and happy, and they exercise in some way (among other things). We observe teams who produce high-quality software, and they're using fast, automated testing (among other things). We want that!

At the team or organizational level, we want fewer defects, faster time-to-market, more profit!

Weigh Costs, Too

If the individual, team, or organization picks up a new practice, the benefits are probably well-documented. What may not be clear from the literature are the costs. Both have to be considered in order to select the right set of practices for the organization (or organism).

Unfortunately, the costs--or aches and pains--are always more intense when you first start out. So, there's frequently early resistance ("emotional re-evaluation"), which could stifle the burgeoning discipline.

It's Personal

The biggest hurdle hiding within the acceptance criteria may be even more daunting: In order for it to be a discipline, each participant must have experienced (past tense) at least some small personal benefit from the discipline.

Effective disciplines are not followed out of altruism, nor are they followed because people are getting paid to do it the "right" way. Even Mother Theresa admitted to personal benefit and pleasure in helping others. And I've worked with many large organizations who were paying good salaries to people who didn't really do much: They were mostly trying to stay hidden, and waiting for their pension to kick in.

Even those employees are not very happy in their careers. People need more than a big paycheck to feel happy. What's sad is that many of them don't know this. They think "that's the way things are, and there's no way to change the system."

Every good discipline has something in it for you, the practitioner! The benefits of my sample disciplines (exercise, flossing, meditation) are clearly personal, and entirely obvious, right? ;-)

How about Agile disciplines? "What's in it for me?" Here's just a sampling, regarding some of the most peculiar Agile practices ever devised:

Paired programmers report that they are more confident in their solutions. Their defect-density drops, and they spend far less time in the debugger. They feel that they--even the old-timers--are learning from their peers at an exhilarating rate. They are more comfortable around teammates, and more confident in their discussions with management. They have fewer carpal-tunnel-related complaints. Ultimately, the feel more productive.

Disciplined TDD developers report an uncanny level of confidence in the quality, design, and adaptability of their code. At first the costs seem prohibitive: Extra test code needs to be written; and since the design emerges over time, time is spent continuously refactoring (which is the design mechanism in TDD). But after only a few months, they are able to add new behavior into the system in days, rather than weeks; and they use tests to seek out, isolate, and crush defective scenarios (bugs). They report that they recoup nearly all the time they would otherwise spend in the debugger. (I've had developers tell me that they used to spend half their time debugging. What would you do to recoup almost 4 hours of each day?)

Once people get a taste of these benefits, they have a much easier time continuing the practice, and improving upon the required skills. For them, it has become a real discipline.

Additional Suggestions
Stop Lamenting the Past

If your blueprint for success contains (or implies) "Step 1: Build Time Machine" then you need to rethink your plan.

In order to establish a discipline, you must stop dwelling in the past. You're out of shape? You can't leap into strenuous exercise. You have a million lines of untested code? The optimal path is not to take a year off to cover all that code with characterization tests. Hundreds of severity-one defects? Funding a complete rewrite isn't going to help.

There isn't a single discipline on Earth that involves wishing things were otherwise, or fixing everything that's broken.

Stop Blaming

Never punish or berate yourself or your team for the occasional relapse into those old 2010 days.

Acknowledge the lapse, yes. Perform root-cause analysis and see if you need to jiggle your circumstances to prevent a future relapse.

Let me ease your concerns here and now by assuring you that lapses will happen. So, now that you already know, you won't have to argue with yourself about perfection and responsibility. With each lapse, you simply have to re-commit to practicing now and in the future. (And, yes, you will have to pay your personal trainer for the missed session.)

But you can't try to make up for it. One of the worst mistakes I see in the gym is working out twice as long after missing a session, or after eating too many holiday treats. That path leads to further discouraging circumstances. Sure, if there's a minor mistake that can be corrected (e.g., by adding unit-tests around new, untested code), then do it. That's correcting a mistake. "Correcting" a relapse involves extra time practicing the discipline, and that invariably eats into the time needed by some other practice. Tomorrow is another day.

Does this conflict with my suggestion to focus on frequency over intensity? No, because I was not suggesting that if you go a day without (flossing, meditating, a daily stand-up meeting) that you have to start the 30-day clock all over again in order to build the habit. When you fall down, get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the bike.

Stop the Excuses

Don't over-plan your efforts towards a new discipline. A complex plan is full of opportunities for reversal. What we're really doing when we over-think the practice is creating a mental model of our lives where the practice is ultimately not worth the effort.

That is, we invent our own cosmic excuses. This takes a certain level of cleverness. If we are to try something that doesn't come with a guarantee of instant gratification, this cleverness must be tempered with courage.

You're intelligent. You're courageous. What are you planning to try this year? Add a comment and share your experiences.

Update #2 for 2013: I've noticed another impediment to creating a healthy new discipline:  Embarrassment, or peer pressure. "Why must you _____?!" people will ask (or imply), incredulously. I have a number of very old habits that a few people have (openly and vocally) suggested were professionally lazy: Exercising three times per week, meditating for 1/2 hour per day, and getting eight hours of sleep on most nights.  I don't tell you about these now to be self-aggrandizing (or self-effacing) but as factual examples:  For me, they are so routine that when I have to drop one, I become cranky, and much less effective at work. They are all wonderful, productive, professionally supportive, healthy habits. But disciplines that are counter to prevailing culture will meet with resistance.  If you can use your own facts and experiences, you will be able to politely and clearly convey the benefits to those who are skeptical. That's how culture is slowly changed. Have courage!

Have a happy and prosperous New Year!