The Art of Time Discipline: Why the Early Bird Still Gets the Worm

Marine Corps non-commissioned officers like to hammer their privates and lance corporals with acronyms and easy-to-remember phrases. My favorite was the long and awkward “JJDIDTIEBUCKLE,” an acronym for the USMC leadership traits of Justice, Judgment, Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness, Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty and Endurance. To me, it just was just the government serving up another example of Pascal’s timeless quote on the ironies of literary brevity: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”


But there was one common phrase that stuck with me: “If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late.” No matter how many years passed after being discharged, I could not shake this habit. Instead, I allowed it to penetrate virtually every other area of my life. College research papers were finished a month ahead of time, and exams were prepared for days or sometimes weeks in advance. I was the first to enter work meetings and often times the last to leave. No one ever caught me unprepared, and people began to take notice.


In his Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual, retired Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink has a simple way of explaining this behavior:

“People want to know how to stop laziness. They want to know how to stop procrastination. They have an idea in their head…maybe even a vision. But they don’t know where to start – so they ask. And they say: ‘Where do I start?’ ‘When is the best time to start?’ And I have a simple answer: HERE and NOW.”


“Here is the reality: that idea isn’t going to execute itself. That book isn’t going to write itself. Those weights out in the gym – they aren’t going to move themselves. YOU HAVE TO DO IT. And you have to do it now. So stop thinking about it. Stop dreaming about it. Stop researching every aspect of it and reading all about it and debating the pros and cons of it…Start doing it. Take that first step and make it happen. GET AFTER IT. HERE and NOW.”


This behavior comes with big payoffs. By beginning to apply for federal jobs as soon as I began graduate school, I was able to start interviewing and initiate the long, drawn-out process to finalize my security clearance long before graduating. That meant that I was able to start work in the federal government immediately upon finishing my degree, which I did.


How can the phrase “If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late” best translate into the context of your life? Can you start waking up an hour or two earlier to start each day with a workout, or perhaps some focused readings and meditation? Can you start proactively applying for federal jobs to get your foot in the door and start your government career immediately upon graduating? According to federal data released in fiscal year 2016, one-quarter to one-half of federal employees in some of the largest agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, are military veterans. Many of those employees are supervisors who are looking to hire candidates with the same qualities that were incorporated into their military indoctrination and training. A disciplined approach to time management and preparedness goes a long way, and it may be the deciding factor that jump-starts your federal career. So what are you waiting for? “GET AFTER IT. HERE and NOW.”


By Peter Dowling