10 Ways to Improve Your Productivity and Strengthen Self Discipline

You make the plan for productivity with the best intentions. You get started, bursting with enthusiasm. And all too soon you are behind schedule. Sound familiar? I have been through this cycle countless times. So I found ways around it. One thing I learned quickly was that forcing myself didn’t work. Now I know why.

Many productivity methods rely on self discipline. Self discipline is a great muscle to have and make strong. Research has recently shown that it is a muscle that practice can develop. Small acts of successful self-discipline make you more likely to engage self discipline successfully in unrelated areas. But, it also can fatigue. So if we start from the awareness that we have a limited quantity of self discipline, how do you leverage that limited quantity to be your most productive?

Let the fun begin. This is your first game. Let’s say you have 10 credits of will power to apply. How do you distribute them in just the right ways to get the optimal results? Here are some ways I have found to help game my own work systems. Each situation and person might come up with a different combination of strategies to deploy, so build your toolkit! Trick your willpower. Game your motivation approach.

Photo via No Frills Excursions

  1. Play fully. It doesn’t take will power to do something you enjoy. Make the task fun. Play music, create a little game out of it, bind the task to something you find fun. Imagine how you would make it fun for an eight year old to do the task – and then do that for yourself.
  2. Chunk it down. I really struggle to make time to get things done that I expect to take 2 hours. Tasks that take 2 to 15 minutes get done in the blink of an eye. What is the right time target for you to think the task is so small, getting it done is easier than keeping it on the to do list. Take the task of writing a blog post, for example. If I chunk that into: come up with idea for post, title the post, create outline or key ideas, and then write to each of those points, the pieces are so small it doesn’t take much will to do them. Most of the time I find doing the first one or two gets me going, and I finish the rest from sheer momentum. Also, knocking a few out builds my enthusiasm for tossing the next few on the done pile.
  3. Gift yourself. If the task isn’t rewarding and the outcome isn’t a sufficient reward, give yourself something else you want as a reward for doing the task. Even small rewards can be extremely effective. Whatever you do when you are procrastinating on the task – make that the reward for completing it instead. I procrastinate by getting on social media, playing a game, or chatting with a friend. When I say I will do those things after I finish one small task, I am surprised how fast that task gets done.
  4. Make it social. I get a lot more done when my pal Jerry and I get on chat, express the tasks we want to do, set a timer and then hold each other accountable to getting it done in the next hour. We will chat the other if we get interrupted by the mailman or catch ourselves checking twitter. The confession of being off task is quickly forgiven by our peer-worker and we gently nudge the other back to task.
  5. Play with the order of tasks. Some people are very strict about the order of their tasks. I tend to be running several projects at once, and I let myself follow my inclinations a bit. If a task feels compelling to me, I dive right into it and leave something else for later. This is usually fine within a limited time period, but it won’t work if I just keep pushing back the less pleasant tasks. Use sparingly.
  6. Are you a towards or away from person? Know which and use it. Is doing this going to get you away from something you find painful? Or is doing it going to get you somewhere you want to be? If you are someone driven stronger by pain-avoidance then the reward of what it gets you won’t excite you enough. Keep in mind how doing it reduces or avoids pain. Tie the task to something you want to move toward or get away from.
  7. Small first steps. Maybe you have some big bold goal. Great for you. But just like a game doesn’t have you kill the main monster right away, don’t try to get to your big bold goal in one giant leap. What is the smallest first step you can take. Do that one. Then do the next. Each one you get done builds your confidence in your ability to get the whole done. I didn’t write a book by sitting down to write a book, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of the second chapter. (If you start with the first paragraph of the first chapter, the pressure is too great. Start somewhere else. Or time yourself and write whatever comes to mind for the first paragraph knowing you will change 95% of it after you finish writing a draft.)
  8. Redirect distractions. Lots of people get easily distracted by sights and sounds. Sure you can limit your exposure to distractions so you have less need for willpower, but you can also game it. Time how long it takes you to get back on task – can you cut those minutes down to seconds? Build up your ability to redirect your attention after a distraction and you will be less afraid of getting distracted.
  9. Switch mediums. Can’t get started writing? Step away from the keypad. Draw a picture instead. Interview yourself and record it, then use dictation software or services to make it into text for you.
  10. Role Play. Act your way into getting it done. How would your productivity guru get it done? Pretend you are them doing it now. Or get silly, imagine you are superman working at the newspaper on an article undercover. Impersonate him. Choose someone who would either be great at the task and pretend to be them or imagine someone that it would be absurd for. What if you were a pirate doing your accounting?

What ways do you work around your limited capacity for self-discipline?

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