I always thought I knew what self-discipline was and how to employ it. After all, the concept is quite easy, right?
You have a task to do, you really don’t want to do that task, but you make yourself do it anyway.
You’re in a particular situation where you have two choices:
- Do something, which you know you shouldn’t, i.e. give in or capitulate, or
I’d exercised self-discipline on many occasions leading up to joining the Military, while in the Military, while training for Commandos and also once I made it into the unit.
- Making myself get up early in the morning to train hard while I’d rather be sleeping.
- Resisting the temptation to go out partying with my mates so I could ensure I was in peak physical condition.
- Taking the extra time to clean my equipment and maintain a high level of professionalism, while others simply threw their gear in a storage locker.
- Putting in the hours to study navigation, first aid, All Arms Call For Fire and weapons handling to ensure my basic soldiering was where it needed to be before selection.
- Preparing a healthy meal rather than ordering takeaway.
- Making fresh vegetable juice every morning.
… And more.
I was all over self-discipline… or so I thought.
While deployed on one of my tours to Afghanistan we conducted a mission one particularly hot day. It was a type of cordon and search mission. Our task was to infiltrate by foot, clear the village from South to North, gather some local intelligence and exfiltrate by foot.
On the day of the mission we drove our Special Reconnaissance Vehicles (SRVs) and parked them quite a distance from the small village we were to search. We made final preparations with our equipment, water, rations and ammunition and were ready to go. We didn’t plan on being in the village for too long as it was an extremely hot day; the village was quite small and the majority of our local partner force didn’t have any external means of carrying equipment. They loaded up their pockets with whatever stores they deemed necessary.
Water was the key issue we discussed. How much to take? With the information we had and with the minimal space to carry it, most guys chose to take only 2 litres. I was the machine gunner and knew I would need more. I also knew myself and had always seemed to drink more than others. I took 4 litres.
We stepped off. A few paces from the vehicles, a teammate in front of me, Mike, stopped, bent slightly forward and grabbed his stomach. Then moments later, side stepped a few paces to his right, dropped his pants and released a flow of diarrhoea. He was sick and wasn’t coming with us.
As I walked past Mike I said: “Anything to get out of a mission, hey mate? Fuckin’ malinger!” I smiled and continued on.
It was around 8am.
Our infiltration took a lot longer than we anticipated. Our EOD guys needed to clear certain areas, the ground was steep and our equipment was heavy. We eventually arrived at the intended location and began the clearance. There were many more mud brick homes to search and clear than we’d realised by looking at the map.
The mission started to get long. Just after midday, with temperatures in the high 40s and with a lot more work to do, water rationing became paramount. I could see our Afghan partner force indulging in the local stream and wells, lapping up the water, drinking it and pouring it over their heads.
It looked extremely inviting, but we all knew we couldn’t drink it. We would no doubt get violently ill from the local bacteria as our stomachs simply were not used to it. Others had made this mistake previously and paid a heavy price of vomiting and diarrhoea.
I thought of Mike.
The uneventful day dragged on. We cleared house to house, but it became obvious there were no bad guys in the area and we all wanted to wrap it up and head back to the vehicles.
I was down to under 500mls of water when we finally finished the search and began the long walk back to our vehicles. This is when I truly began to understand self-discipline. I had a water hydration pack on my back with a hose extending over my shoulder so I could sip from it whenever I needed.
With the extreme heat, heavy body armour, tough ground to traverse and, of course, my machine gun, it was extremely hard to resist the urge to drink all my water.
My mouth was dry, my lips chaffed and my head felt light. The self-discipline required to limit myself to filling up my mouth with a small amount of water every few minutes was almost overwhelming. It was a running battle inside my head. I literally had to pry the hose from my mouth so as to not drink too much.
On a short halt and respite during the exfiltration, I could see Bairdy (Cameron Baird, VC, MG) walking up the line. He looked fine and didn’t seem to be suffering any effects from the long day.
I said to him: “Shit mate, you look fine.”
“I’m only f#ckin’ walking,” he said, as he walked past.
He was a tough muthfu#ker, an inspiring leader, a top athlete and a truly great bloke.
We continued on. I had to break the walk down into incremental stages. I knew exactly how far we had to travel to reach our vehicles and guestimated how much water I had remaining. Not much.
Every few hundred metres I would take another sip and pry the hydration pack hose from my mouth, barely content with what little liquid I had gained. I held it in my mouth for a while trying to savour it before swallowing and looking forward to the next few hundred metres and repeating the process.
This long exfiltration back to our vehicles on this hot Afghanistan day was when I truly realised what self-discipline entailed. After this day I began to describe discipline as:
Doing the things you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do them and… NOT doing the things you WANT to do when you really want to do them... because you know you shouldn’t.
Sometimes it’s the latter part of this sentence that’s the toughest self-discipline to employ. Having the self-discipline to not sleep in when your alarm goes off, to not go out drinking with your mates every weekend, to not being lazy and taking the easy way out, to not hiding from a confrontation with a work colleague or your boss because it might get uncomfortable.
Deciding not to do these things is tough, but choosing to employ self-discipline in all areas of your life will truly build your mental toughness. You’ll be forced to make positive decisions based on your true wants and desires with your end goal firmly in sight.
We finally arrived back at our vehicles, exhausted, relieved and a little more mentally tougher. I took one last suck on my hydration pack hose…
…half a mouthful left.
Mindset is a choice