Organizational Skills like the Military - Without the Military.
May 4, 2011 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Military envy: How to get that military focus, time & project management skills, excellent organization and self-discipline without the actual military experience? (From a book or a simple way of thinking about it?) Advice from military men and women much appreciated, as well as any self-discipline guru.

I've no desire to join the U.S. military, but I've always admired certain traits that members of the military have, and wished I was able to have the same.

Is there a book/program/or simply a way of tricking oneself into behaving as if one were a member of the military?

Specifically, these are traits I've seen in almost every military serviceperson that I've met (and, working near different military bases, I've run into a few) that I'd love to be able to embody in myself without actually joining the military.

1. Time management skills - simply sitting down and *doing* something until it's completed, rather than loitering (I'm good at loitering)

2. Getting up early. I have tried practically everything imaginable - alarms that make you get out of bed to turn them off, going to bed earlier, having a "treat" in the morning (like a favorite book to read or TV show), but the simple fact of the matter is I love sleeping. So I get to work perfectly on time, but never leave myself room to do all the projects I want to do, and never give myself the chance to get into work earlier and leave earlier (which is an option at my workplace), something I'd LOVE to take advantage of if only I could take the stick before that carrot. Almost all of the military servicepersons I've met have been early risers, which I admire.

3. Amazing organizational skills that would make Martha Stewart envious.

4. A relative sense of calmness about completing projects, which may arise from the organization already put into place - and an ability to handle "emergency situations" with ease (I've been a first hand witness to the capability of military officers to react swiftly to small domestic crises like the Chinese take out about to catch fire - whereas I tend to be MUCH more "deer in the headlights" about such things).

The bottom line is that I'm pretty bad at self-discipline. I tend to do all the things I want to do first, and wrangle my way through the things I need to do. Not that I'm a poor performer, but my attitude toward the "need-to-do's" could be MUCH better and would make me feel more productive and therefore happier, and less frustrated. I want to feel On Top of Things, not scrambling.

Suggestions (maybe from active and retired members of the military) on how to be my own drill sergent or "force" myself into a routine/self-discipline?

Book suggestions along these lines would also be much appreciated.
posted by Dukat to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like if self-discipline is the issue, then something which externally imposes discipline might help; if not a full-on military training & service, then at least

Also, in respect to #1 or #2: ha! My dad and uncle have over 12 years in a couple branches of the service between them, and have the organizational skills of a dead badger. Maybe it fades over time...

#4: practice. The Unthinkable mentions in a couple of places that one of the major advantages that the military (and police, firefighters, etc.) have is training. You do the thing that you've been trained to do, and get around to the normal human instinct of freaking out later, or not at all.

This one, at least, you might well be able to work on by means of Red Cross or other disaster/fire safety training.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:01 AM on May 4, 2011

1. Time management skills - simply sitting down and *doing* something until it's completed, rather than loitering (I'm good at loitering)

What is the "something?" Are you in a career that requires you to expand your skillset a little bit every day, or are you really unable to do even the menial stuff?

2. Getting up early. I have tried practically everything imaginable

You don't mention your bedtime. What is your bedtime?

3. Amazing organizational skills that would make Martha Stewart envious.

Have you put yourself in a position to naturally learn these things in a low-risk environment? Can you spare the time to join or start a volunteer organization? Most people can't start with Martha Stewart-level self-organization because it's too big of a hill to climb. No biggie, start small.

4. A relative sense of calmness about completing projects, which may arise from the organization already put into place - and an ability to handle "emergency situations" with ease

You can drill this into place. Every time you think of an emergency situation, or witness one, write it down in a small notebook. Write down what happened, what the solution was, and how the solution could have been more timely or effective. Review this notebook every month or so and soon you will surprise yourself.

Regarding completing projects -- write down every step you take on a project that takes you longer than 5 minutes to start and finish. The next project you start will immediately benefit from that list.

If you work with computer software daily, write down every single "recipe" (click here, type that, export using these settings) you use. I use wiki software to do this.

When you see something go wrong, write it up. Write up what should have happened. Did you have to talk to 3 people to get some information you needed? Come up with a phrase to say to the first person next time that will jump you directly to the third person. And so on.

Note: I'm not military but have served as a volunteer leader in an extremely well-ordered organization for almost 20 years. These tips have actually helped me grow much faster in the organizational aspect.

Also: Get a coach ASAP, someone who's retired or very experienced. Don't expect them to hold you accountable like you're some buck private, but do expect yourself to follow up on what they suggest.
posted by circular at 11:06 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure there's a good answer to your question - I think you are underestimating the time and effort members of the military have devoted to developing their good habits, and the effect of living and training under constant supervision.

In my (brief) experience, military discipline becomes self-discipline only through practice: In the beginning, you are disciplined because you are overseen by people whose job is to directly inform you when you stray, and/or because bad things happen when you don't do what you are supposed to. Eventually this becomes ingrained, and you operate in the same way on your own.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2011

The most organized, early-rising, calm, productive people I've known have been female homemakers. I served in the army of another country, not the US, but at the end of it I would say I was the opposite of what you're looking for: released suddenly from an extreme framework, my urges were to sleep and sleep--sleeping had been turned into a sort-of great pleasure for me--and eat junk food, a cheap thrill that compensated for the deprivation I had been feeling. Building up consistency, punctuality, reliability happened for me slowly through working at corporate jobs and absorbing the lesson that being on-time, etc., were easy ways to make my life at work pass more pleasantly.
posted by Paquda at 11:12 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of what you want comes of being part of a team with unambiguous norms that are strictly enforced, both officially (UCMJ), and additionally informally (sock party), a team that includes both your individual unit but also reaches all the way up to the National Command Authority, and of knowing that you're inescapably for better or worse part of such a team.

As an individual you can't and won't get those things.
posted by orthogonality at 11:34 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just as the military starts with others imposing order and training you, do everything you can to create a structure that gives you no other choice. You manage to get to work on time because others Expect you. So come up with a way to involve others in your pre-work plans. I did this for awhile by having exercises classes where the teachers and fellow students would ask where I was if I'd skipped, and eventually became an instructor - I couldn't decide to sleep in if I was the Teacher.

Ask someone if they'll proofread (or look over for ideas) your project at 2pm. Now you really need to just sit down and do it before 2pm because someone else is waiting on it.

Basically, if you know you can't do it by yourself at first, enlist others to help. Repay them by doing similar things for them.
posted by ldthomps at 11:58 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consider hiring a personal life coach.


I doubt a book will be as convincing.
posted by Murray M at 12:24 PM on May 4, 2011

I've been told that a lot of the discipline seen in military folks is a result of the absolute simplicity and forced lack of distraction in their lives. In the military, you have a very well-defined set of duties and an unambiguous set of instructions to complete those duties.

This may or may not be useful information, but maybe you should try to absolutely define your goals for your routine without ambiguity and eliminate all uncertainty on how to accomplish them.
posted by Willie0248 at 12:53 PM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Enlist other people, yes. Other people who will either be sad or angry if you don't follow through. Can you get yours hands on a work assignment that requires good organizational skills?

Specific to getting up early, running clubs are good for this. Rowing clubs are better, because one person's absence affects everyone - can't row an eight-person boat with seven people - so skipping out means a big guilt trip. The physical part of this is important; if you're overtired, you'll suffer much more on a run, trying to keep pace with your bright-eyed teammates, than you would if you were, say, doing chores alone.

You may find that negative consequences motivate you better than rewards. This is how the military instills discipline: they set up a system where not following the rules causes you to suffer more than following them.
posted by orangejenny at 4:26 PM on May 4, 2011

Discipline is a skill. The most useful drills IMO for learning the discipline skill are abstaining from food or sexual activity for long periods. It's like riding a bike -- once you know what it is supposed to feel like, you easily repeat it. Try fasting from all food for 5 days, or abstaining from all sexual activity for 30.
posted by blargerz at 8:21 PM on May 4, 2011

blargerz, isn't that a little...austere for a beginner?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:28 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing that comes to mind: give yourself an enormous pat yourself on the back for even the smallest day to day achievement. For example, when i am done watering the plants - a chore i despise - I make it a point to give myself a medal for the resounding success of Operation Gardening. Clearly I do this after a short post-op debrief with myself where I write down the criticalities I've encountered and observations on how to better overcome them in future operations.

Also, use disgusting names for food and swear a lot.
posted by 3mendo at 1:12 PM on May 9, 2011

Stoneweaver's right. You just do it because that's what you do. The reason you're seeing that in the military people is partly a real reason and partly a trick.

The reason: military people do it because they often have to. When you're late for work, someone will physically come to get you, and you won't enjoy the experience. You get in the habit of focusing and finishing a job you start, because often in the military, you don't get to go home until it is done, whether that takes you five hours or 18.

The trick: it seems like military people are like this, but the truth is there are non-military people like this and people not like this do join the military. However, people without these skills tend to not enjoy the military and get out.

As for the calm in a crisis thing, that's just a combination of a couple of things. One is practicing a what-if attitude all the time. When I open this steam valve, what do I expect to happen? What will I do if that doesn't happen? Well, the trip lever is right there, that will shut it again. So when (real story) the valve bolts turn out not to have been tightened onto the turbine and steam starts blasting out everywhere, you're not thinking "oh, what do I do now?"

The other thing, and I think it's often overlooked, is just being comfortable with being in charge of things and telling other people what to do when necessary. When the chinese food catches on fire, there are going to be people that do get the deer in the headlights thing, but more often what I see is everyone looking to see what everyone else is going to do. I have more of a tendency to start ordering people around right away - You, unplug the microwave now. You other guy, get the fire extinguisher that's under the sink (previous what-if thinking paying off).

I think the organizational skill comes for free in the military. You switch jobs so often. Every few years, it's on to a new command, and often you're switching job hats at your command every few months to a year in the meantime. You hardly ever have to make anything up from scratch, though, it's turned over to you from the last guy. The last guy got it from the guy before him. The thing about that is, when you take over, you get to change things a little to work better. So the organization of what you're trying to do has incrementally gotten pretty efficient, hopefully. At the same time, you're seeing a lot of different jobs, and so a lot of pretty efficient ways to do a lot of different kinds of things.

So now, when you do end up having to make something up from scratch, you just have to think back to when you did something that was kind of similar, or pick and choose parts of different organization systems you've worked with.

After a few years in the military, you also have a pretty big mental library of how NOT to do X. So there's that, too.
posted by ctmf at 1:22 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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