Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, underscores the importance of discipline in his latest book, “Discipline Equals Freedom.” It’s filled with short, unabashed accounts about how and why we should live a disciplined life. Avoid the “hack” or “shortcut,” Willink tells us, and choose the road of discipline.
The book is undoubtedly motivational. “To reach goals and overcome obstacles . . . will not happen cutting corners, taking shortcuts, or looking for an easy way,” Willink writes. “There is only one way. The way of discipline.” But what struck me was the relevance of his message when I considered it in the context of the 21st century.
We think of disciplined people as those who get up early, work late, avoid unhealthy foods, and exercise regularly. But these actions aren’t enough today. It’s not just about getting up at 4:30am to work on your novel, for example, but what happens during those hours. Are you focused on your work or cluttering your mind with social media feeds, texts, and emails? As digital technologies continue to infiltrate our lives and tempt us from the task at hand, we also need what I call digital discipline. It means avoiding digital distraction and the need for instant gratification brought on by digital communication tools and devices.
A Culture of Now
We’re accustomed to seeing people glued to their digital devices. At work, employees don’t miss a beat: they have multiple computer monitors with digital communication tools open, like email and instant messenger, and their smartphone is nearby, pinging them with every new text and app notification. At the gym, people text or post statuses on social media sites while riding a stationary bike or using an elliptical machine. It seems harmless, even natural, to instantly respond to emails or messages while working or breaking a sweat.
We’re also accustomed to the instant gratification digital technologies provide. If a random question pops into your head while writing a report, search the internet, ask Siri, or your Amazon Echo. If you want a dose of caffeine, order and pay using your Starbucks app. If you want to feel better about yourself, post something on Facebook and surely you’ll get some “likes.” Although every desire is fulfilled right now, it comes at a cost. Digital communication tools bait us to be undisciplined with our time and attention.
Access to digital technologies makes us think we can do everything at once. But a growing body of research finds that multitasking doesn’t work. Switching between tasks can result in up to a 40% loss of productivity, according to Dr. David Meyer in an American Psychological Association article. “We are wired to be mono-taskers,” reports the Cleveland Clinic. So getting up early to work on your novel may be worthless, if you’re scrolling through Facebook messages, responding to emails, and writing during this time.
Bouncing between tasks can also be mentally draining. Tasks inevitably take longer because you lose your train of thought when constantly interrupted for unimportant requests or insignificant reminders. In fact, a Stanford study found that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
So the answer is clear: have digital discipline, which can take different extremes. I, for example, determine in advance when I’ll use and check digital communication tools, like email and Slack, when I create my daily plan. Plus, I don’t use or check digital communication tools or devices when I’m writing or editing. That means my phone is out of sight, with the notifications turned off, and my email tab is closed. So the discipline part comes in by adhering to the principles I created on a daily basis.
Being disciplined is challenging, especially early on. Fortunately, however, I’ve found that being disciplined, digital or otherwise, gets easier over time. It moves from something you have to do to something that’s part of your life. More broadly, Willink’s book title points to the broader benefit of living a disciplined life: it’s liberating. I’ve found this to be true as I’ve become more disciplined with my work habits. Indeed, being disciplined is not always easy, but it’s the best way to get the most out my day.
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