Plenty of people want to achieve things. Yet only a fraction of them ever do. Why? Because they lack the structure and they lack the discipline. Or at least, so says retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink, formerly known for leading the most decorated special ops unit of the Iraq War, and now better known for working out at 4:30 a.m. and staring intensely at people in his role as soldier turned business guru. Actually, though, the man speaks a great deal of sense. This isn’t mindless discipline we’re talking about here – it’s discipline with a structure and a rationale – and in this article we’ll be exploring how you can harness that discipline not only to achieve what you want to achieve, but also, as counterintuitive as it might appear, as a tool to provide you with more freedom in your life.
Principle #1: Discipline Equals Freedom (and getting things done)
I want to start with Jocko Willink’s infamous 4:30 a.m. start to the day, because it illustrates the point perfectly. Surprise surprise, he doesn’t get up at 4:30 a.m. because he loves getting up at 4:30 a.m.; rather, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. because that discipline is what allows him to get stuff done and enjoy greater freedom and control in his life. As he’s mentioned in several interviews, once he’s up, he will work out in the early hours so that he’s set up for the day by the time his family wakes up, and can spend some quality time with them before he sees his children off to school. In other words, the discipline of his 4:30 a.m. regime provides him with a dual benefit: not only does he get stuff done in the sense of maintaining his fitness and physical health, he also gives himself the freedom to spend time with his family later on in the day rather than having that time taken up with his fitness regime.
The key thing to note here is the deliberately proactive behavior: Doing things before they need to be done. And just like Jocko Willink, we can all of us embrace this principle to afford ourselves more freedom in our lives (even without jumping out of bed in the middle of the night!) Work is the prime example. Do you work with discipline to complete your assignments well before they need to be done? Or do you procrastinate and mess around until you are consumed with what needs to be done, right now? That, ultimately, is the power of discipline: it is what stops our lives from being a treadmill of things that need to be done, and gives us the freedom and space to start working on what it is that we want, too.
And, whatever it is you want, make damn sure you carry across that new found discipline to get there. Because you’re going to have to be every bit as proactive in achieving what you want as you are in doing what you need. Want to work less? Start working with discipline right now. Want financial freedom? Start saving with discipline. Want to get in shape? I think you get the picture. It is discipline, unmitigated daily discipline in all things, as Jocko Willink says, that gets things done.
Principle #2 Structure Equals Freedom
As important as proactivity and consistency are, however, there is another aspect to discipline that we would be remiss to neglect, and that is the value of the structure and repetition inherent within it. In fact, this very structure and standardization can be extremely efficient, and acts as an invaluable tool in freeing you up to zero in on the things that are the most important to your success.
To show you exactly what I mean, let’s return to the story of Jocko Willink and his experience in the field in the Iraq War. Operating in the extreme of conditions, what Willink did was to implement a series of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) within his unit – protocols covering everything from house searches to entering and exiting vehicles. And, having done so, he quickly spotted an interesting trend: the stricter the unit was with its SOPs, the more freedom it actually had to operate faster and more efficiently, since every member of the team knew exactly what they had to do. Willink had stumbled onto a critical insight: discipline, structure, and organization are key to freedom, speed, and efficiency.
I read about this story with a keen interest because it immediately reminded me of one of the best business books I have had the fortune to read, The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber. In that book, Gerber is essentially saying much the same thing, but this time transferred across to the matter of business: If your business is to succeed, you have to put in place the standardized processes, procedures, and systems that allow you, the owner, to focus your attention on the one thing that really matters, which is growing your business.
And even something as seemingly eccentric as Mark Zuckerberg’s well-known habit of wearing exactly the same clothes every day serves the same purpose; to free up time and energy for your primary goal, whatever that may be. By standardizing the peripherals, you are left free to focus on your primary objective, and this is a strand that runs through all of the examples we have considered here. Discipline, structure, standardization – whatever you want to call it, this is what gives you the freedom to focus on what matters to you.
Plenty of people want to achieve things. Yet only a fraction of them ever do. Today, I say: Make sure you’re one of the disciplined few.
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.