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There are many blogs, articles and even research (including the famous Marshmallow Experiment) conducted on improving productivity through improved willpower and temptation suppression (Basically, improved self discipline). I have myself tried suppressing distractions and temptations to be more productive. This includes denying myself any TV, YouTube, Books etc. till I'm done with my share of work. Usually, this leads to very little time for myself and though I'm getting more productive (through harder and smarter work), I am questioning whether this is a healthy mode of improvement.

If I try to analyze my actions critically, I initially felt like I was treating myself like a strict parent but at times, I border on a "Big Brother" denying basic freedom and enjoyment. I know I won't burn out because I like what I do but I am afraid that the rigorousness of my life would translate to something unhealthy.

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Sounds like a fast-track to burnout. Be careful, and remember there becomes a point where diminishing returns on work start to be exponential. It's possible to work for 20 hours and get less done than someone who's only working for 8. –  Stephanie Jun 13 '12 at 14:01
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3 Answers

I look at productivity more as a life goal. I can have WORK productivity and PERSONAL productivity. You may have a project that's due in two weeks, but you also want to read a book or watch a movie. I believe that getting any of these done is productivity, though one is productivity for work, the other is productivity for self. Once I think of it that way, it ceases to be a productivity questions. It's all about balance. While not the same as your situation, I've got a wonderful situation where my work and my hobbies are pretty much the same. It's just a matter of working on someone else's project and getting paid or working on my project and spending that money. I keep two sets of to-do lists, one for me, one for my business/clients. I find myself needing to morph my productivity requirements on the fly a LOT.

I've run into situations, similar to what you describe, where I need to get something done for a client, but REALLY would rather be doing something else, in this case, the same tasks but on MY projects. For me, the reward for completing a client task is to do a task on my personal project list. Now, depending where I am in the month for billables and deadlines, I may take a half-day to do my own thing. Or I may not work on my own thing for three days because I've got client deadlines. You'd be amazed how questions about paying the bills and buying groceries can make client projects float the the top of the "most desirable task" lists. :)

There are two keys for me: keeping an accurate to-do list so I can find my status at any moment in time. The second key balance and moderation. If I feel "unbalanced" in personal vs. paid work, I try to correct that by looking at my status(es) and seeing what can be moved around. As a freelancer, it's a little easier to prioritize on the fly than if I was working in a more traditional setting.

Basically, you'll know when there's imbalance by listening to your inner voice. There are times during the day where I'll take a break to surf websites, and after about ten or fifteen minutes, "Yeah, I should really get back to work." The key is to LISTEN to that voice and heed it. You'll soon find that balancing your work productivity from you personal productivity comes second nature.

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Self-discipline is good to a certain degree, but overdoing it can be counter-productive. The mind often needs to step away and let be, for the creative juices to flow.

Alfie Khon in his article argues against overdoing self-discipline:

It’s not just that self-control isn’t always good; it’s that a lack of self-control isn’t always bad because it may “provide the basis for spontaneity, flexibility, expressions of interpersonal warmth, openness to experience, and creative recognitions.” So what does it say about our society that “the idea of self-control is generally praised” even though it may sometimes be “maladaptive and spoil the experience and savorings of life”?

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I'm assuming you finish your share of work before starting any entertaining activity. If that's the case, temptation-killing might actually make your work feel like a burden.

One approach is to schedule short breaks as rewards for intensive hard work. That's one of the most interesting features I learned by using Pomodoro Technique. You can do whatever you want during said breaks, in fact you're encouraged to do something that is unrelated to your main activity. That is, if you're reading for a test it might not be a good idea to read a magazine for example, or if your job concerns using the computer then having a nice walk to stretch the muscles can be very relaxing.

The key for the scheduled breaks is that they're predetermined. In Pomodoro, the intensive labor is usually 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break but of course you can set whatever works better for you and the time available. I recommend it not only for the reward of a break but also to avoid getting too tired after a long time working on something which may require resting for a longer period, something always dangerous for procrastinators like me.

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