Discipline And Flexibility, Not Discipline Or Flexibility

Earlier this year, I was in the habit of waking up at 4:45 every morning. I got inspired by something I found online by Jocko Willink, and I just decided that I was going to will my way to getting up earlier every day.

I’d jump out of bed with the alarm, take a cold shower, meditate, write, and get started. I was a regular Tim-Ferriss-wannabe: productive, hardworking, running high mileage, and generally getting shit done.

This lasted for a little more than a month, until I got sick. Damned sick. Maybe it was a virus, or maybe it was a cold; maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe it wasn’t. But I useless for the better part of two weeks.

I can’t say for sure that my new routine was directly responsible for my body breakdown, but my body made me feel like it was. The first day I was sick I must have slept for 16 hours. In the days leading up to my illness, I could feel that it was getting harder to wake up. My body was exhausted. The combination of running and work was getting to me. But I pushed through. I willed myself to wake up, even when my body didn’t want to do it.

And I don’t think it did me any good. It did the opposite.

By contrast, I was recently reading an article about the great running coach Renato Canova. He’s known for pushing his athletes with extraordinary workouts that go above and beyond what most coaches would consider reasonable. He makes sure his athletes work hard. Canova workouts are synonymous with either sadism or masochism, depending on whether you’re doing it to yourself or someone else. But it was another part of his training formula that struck me as truly unusual: he doesn’t believe in schedules. Same with famous running coach Brad Hudson: no training schedules. These are coaches who are push their athletes to the absolute limits of human potential, but they don’t plan out their routines. They understand that for their athletes to become great they need discipline and flexibility.

The athletes who follow Canova’s and Hudson’s training systems are invariably disciplined. But if an athlete needs an extra day to recover from a difficult workout, that’s what the athlete does. Success in running comes from very hard work plus sufficient recovery, repeated over time (And I think that’s true of most things).

Too often in my past, I have either tried to stick with a perfectly regimented system, often to the point of failure, or I have simply abandoned discipline altogether. It now occurs to me that maybe I was wrong on both fronts. Perhaps the best results don’t happen from oscillating between regiments of discipline or flexibility.

Now I believe the best systems are the ones that mandate discipline while allowing for flexibility. Most of life is too complex to plan six months or even three weeks ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean you give up and just wing it. Sophisticated systems require sufficient discipline to ensure growth along with sufficient flexibility to avoid over-fitting, too much slack, or applying stress at inappropriate times. To be successful, you have to work hard. But to maintain sanity and good health, you have to know when to back off, too.

This isn’t to criticize Jocko Willink or anyone else who is capable of making 4:30 am and four hours of sleep work for them. I just know that it doesn’t work for me.

Willink is right to emphasize the importance of discipline. Discipline does, as a rule, improve our lives and help us live in ways that are consistent with our real values. I agree that is a necessary pre-condition to living well in a modern environment. No argument with him on that. But sometimes discipline means taking an extra day off or not pushing your body or mind to the limit. Sometimes sleeping in is the disciplined thing to do. In many ways, the hardest form of discipline is making the right decision in the right moment—knowing when to push and when not to push. And unfortunately, there’s no formula that can answer that question for you.

People want the simple formula—the secret that will solve their problems, make them thinner, sexier, smarter, and richer. But life is an ever-changing game. The formula that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. And what worked for Jocko Willink or Tim Ferriss probably won’t work for me or you.

It isn’t easy to maintain discipline and flexibility—to accept uncertainty and maintain focus while always striving to make consistently good decisions based on new and evolving information. It’d be a lot easier if I had a simple formula.

And maybe the formula is simple enough.

Perhaps the simple formula for success is discipline plus flexibility. The only problem is that’s nearly impossible to get right on a consistent basis.