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Discipline and freedom

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Discipline and freedom

Scott Miker

I love reading about the systems and habits of the U.S. Navy SEALs.  To me they embody the most efficient and effective teams and individuals in the world.  Their ability to work with a small number of individuals, in the most dangerous places on earth, and still accomplish complex missions amid chaos is astonishing. 

But I have found that many people assume these individuals are undisciplined cowboys who use aggression and muscle to accomplish tasks.  But the more I study their tactics the more I realize that they rely on a highly disciplined and systematic approach to what they do.

There is a chapter in Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALs Lead and Win that gives insight into their level of discipline and how they rely on systems to succeed.  In the middle of chapter 12, authors and Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain the importance of, and value of, discipline. 

“Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom.  When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time.  When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it.  The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it.”

As with many things in life the paradoxical nature of discipline results in more freedom and flexibility.  It doesn’t mean a rigid, ineffective method.

They go on to say, “As I advanced into leadership positions, I strived to constantly improve my personal discipline.  I realized very quickly that discipline was not only the most important quality for an individual but also for a team.  The more disciplined standard operating procedures (SOPs) a team employs, the more freedom they have to practice Decentralized Command (chapter 8) and thus they can execute faster, sharper, and more efficiently.  Just as an individual excels when he or she exercises self-discipline, a unit that has tighter and more-disciplined procedures and processes will excel and win.”

This is very powerful stuff.  It shows the value of systems and discipline and gives insight into the most efficient and effective teams in the world.  It gives a framework for businesses that want to succeed and it gives us a measuring stick for us to view how badly we actually want to reach a goal.  Do we hold ourselves to this high level of discipline or do we expect outside forces to provide us the results we strive for?

What I have found is that discipline and using systems and habits to improve helps us to incrementally improve.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  We don’t wake up one day and suddenly become disciplined.  It takes work.  It takes a focus on making progress and getting there slowly over time.  But if we want to reach a high level of success we have to understand discipline and find ways to systematically improve ourselves.  But doing this (paradoxically) results in more freedom, more flexibility, more creativity, and more happiness. 

Willink and Babin state, “But there was, and is, a dichotomy in the strict discipline we followed.  Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient.  It allowed us to be creative.”