The two phrases making up the title of this post come from Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL commander who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy. I first heard him use the phrases on various podcast appearances, including his own, and then in more detail in Extreme Ownership, a book he co-authored. He also mentions them in his answers to questions in Tim Ferriss' book Tribe of Mentors:
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“Discipline equals freedom.” Everyone wants freedom. We want to be physically free and mentally free. We want to be financially free and we want more free time. But where does that freedom come from? How do we get it? The answer is the opposite of freedom. The answer is discipline. You want more free time? Follow a more disciplined time-management system. You want financial freedom? Implement long-term financial discipline in your life. Do you want to be physically free to move how you want, and to be free from many health issues caused by poor lifestyle choices? Then you have to have the discipline to eat healthy food and consistently work out. We all want freedom. Discipline is the only way to get it.
That excerpt reminded me of the quote from Warren Buffett: "We don't have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest." And how true it is in investing. All too often, it's in trying to be too smart, and straying from one's circle of competence, that gets one into trouble. Lack of discipline in one's investing habits, and not sticking to things that are simple and easily understandable, will cause one to miss the freedom being sought. And discipline is a process, made up of the habits one puts forth on a consistent basis. As Willink defines it in his more recent book by the title of his response to the question above, Discipline Equals Freedom:
Discipline: The root of all good qualities. The driver of daily execution. The core principle that overcomes laziness and lethargy and excuses. Discipline defeats the infinite excuses that say: Not today, not now, I need a rest, I will do it tomorrow.
And for another application of discipline to investing, we can turn to a quote from Seth Klarman: "The hard part is discipline, patience, and judgment. Investors need discipline to avoid the many unattractive pitches that are thrown, patience to wait for the right pitch, and judgment to know when it is time to swing."
Now, back to Tribe of Mentors:
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
Prioritize and execute. I learned this in combat. When things are going wrong, when multiple problems are occurring all at once, when things get overwhelming, you have to prioritize and execute.
Take a step back.
Detach from the mayhem.
Look at the situation and assess the multitude of problems, tasks, or issues. Choose the one that is going to have the biggest impact and execute on that.
If you try to solve every problem or complete every task simultaneously, you will fail at all of them. Pick the biggest problem or the issue that will provide the most positive impact. Then focus your resources on that and attack it. Get it taken care of. Once you have done that, you can move on to the next problem or issue, then the one after that. Continue doing that until you have stabilized the situation. Prioritize and execute.
Like many others whom I imagine read this blog as well as continuously re-read Poor Charlie's Almanack, Willink's reply reminded me of the quote from Thomas Carlyle: "The task of a man is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand."
It's easy to get so flooded with data and information, much of which is good and interesting, that one feels overwhelmed or so behind on things that you start to think you'll never catch up. How am I ever going to read all those books? ...read all those articles and reports? ...listen to all those podcasts? ...watch all of those videos? Prioritize and execute. Pick the most important task, focus, and finish it. And do it like Jeff Bezos, without multi-tasking.
And as is often the case, let's let Charlie Munger have the last word:
Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.... Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day—if you live long enough—most people get what they deserve.