Determination Versus Discipline

On the many mornings that I am undisciplined and check my social media accounts upon waking, I am greeted by an Instagram picture of Jocko Willink’s watch. Every morning, the former Navy SEAL commander wakes at 4:30 a.m. and posts a picture of his Timex watch, with ‘4:30’ usually displayed on its digital face. An hour or two later, he will post a picture of his gym floor, sweat dripped all over it from his intense, early-morning workout.

I aspire to be as disciplined as Jocko. In the last few years, he has become my lodestar, guiding me towards more discipline and better leadership. Despite the attention he gets for his discipline, his main focus is writing and speaking about leadership. He is incredibly insightful on leadership, and I routinely think, “What would Jocko tell me to do in this situation?” His thinking on leadership has seriously impacted me.

But, still, I struggle to be as disciplined and intense as he is. And it bothers me.

Others bother me in similar ways. Cal Newport, whose approach to productivity has shaped my personal productivity more than anything else, is one of those. Cal is a nonfiction writer, a researcher and professor of theoretical computer science at Georgetown University, a podcaster, and so on. And he does all of this while working less nights and weekends than most of us do. How? An intensity and discipline about his work that mirrors Jocko’s.

Despite following Cal’s writings for years, I’ve yet to be as structured and disciplined as he is.

Yes, it all bothers me. I recognize that being disciplined is the key to getting more done in my life — even the key to getting more out of life. But I have long been undisciplined. In high school, I forgot about more homework assignments than I completed. I was regularly late to school. I tuned out of lectures in high school and college, often bringing a book I was more interested in. I slept through a freshman physics test my second semester. (Why would they schedule it at 8:00 a.m?) Have only recently exercised regularly. And I’ve seen 4:30 a.m. a lot in my life, like Jocko, but in almost every case it was because I stayed up late, not because I woke up early.

Any of you reading this far would be forgiven for thinking that this essay is just a “pity party,” a confession of my own failures. But that’s not its purpose.

Despite falling far short of Jocko and Cal, I am much more disciplined than I was fifteen years ago. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about my slow, jerky journey towards being more disciplined. When applying for my first job, I could not demonstrate a disciplined life. They hired me anyway. But through my desire to do better at my job — and through a desire in my personal life to be healthier, more fit, more educated, and more financially secure — I inched my way towards discipline.

I learned to keep a calendar. I learned to track personal metrics. I learned to keep todo lists. I slowly and reluctantly implemented some simple personal routines. I read book on organization, productivity, time management, etc. I’ve tinkered with different software and systems for productivity, task management, and time management. I intermittently tracked my calories to learn to eat better. I began keeping a simple budget that grew into what is now a budget with over 50 categories, I think. And so on.

I didn’t do these things because I was disciplined; I did these things because I was determined to succeed in the areas that matter to me. My determination made me more disciplined.T

he disciplined life was not the goal in and of itself. Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals freedom.” And I believe that that is true in many areas of life. But even in that saying, discipline is secondary to freedom; discipline is the servant of freedom; one doesn’t choose discipline as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an important end.

Which leads me to a simple point about a personal characteristic to develop, a point that can also be applied to hiring decisions or when forming a team.

Determination is better than discipline.

I’ve known disciplined people who hated work and so used extreme discipline to get it out of their way. They were disciplined in order to exert themselves as little as possible. Their discipline was in service of their laziness. Whenever you see a disciplined person, ask yourself: “What is the purpose of their discipline?” Because if the purpose of the discipline is to work as little as possible, they will likely end up being an efficient but ineffective worker. But if the purpose of their discipline is to be more successful than they other would be, that person would be a great employee or teammate.

And I’ve known plenty of determined, undisciplined people. I would easily choose to work with them over the undetermined, disciplined person. (I never want to work with an undetermined, undisciplined person.) The determined person will slowly become more disciplined. They will become more disciplined in order to be successful in the areas that matter to them. Determination matters more, because it can be the pathway to discipline.

So, don’t beat yourself up if you are an undisciplined person. Concern yourself with finding an area in your life or a vocation in which you are determined to be successful, and then throw yourself into that work. Almost without fail, you will become a more disciplined person…

…even if you never wake up at 4:30 a.m.

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