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It seems that I have no ability to be productive. Outside of the occasional week where feeling accountable to somebody else has kept me on task, I have never had the self discipline to accomplish anything significant. Even after those weeks, the accountability did not go away, just the work ethic.

Every technique I find to improve self discipline requires some discipline to use the technique, which I never seem to have.

I have an uncanny ability to not work, and just end up reading news, or cooking dinner, or finding something else to do.

The reason that I am posting this, is that I confront the idea of working in my head, and instead of distracting myself from the idea, I held myself to the idea of not working. In addition to my aversion, my legs began to tingle and feel uncomfortable, and I felt an uncomfortable stress in my whole body. That seems problematic...

How can I build the self discipline to be productive, given that I don't even have enough discipline to practice most self discipline development exercises.

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By "work", do you mean just your job or does it also include things like chores? – Belisama Jun 15 '12 at 10:11
If you're having an acute physical reaction to the thought of doing something you might want to consider some form of counseling. – Dave Newton Jun 15 '12 at 14:50
@DaveNewton Yeah, that's where my thoughts were going. Particularly, if the reaction is just when thinking about the job and chores are fine, then there's something specific about the job that needs addressing. – Belisama Jun 15 '12 at 15:26

First of all: Willpower is similar to a muscle: It needs exercise, so you can really train that (source: own experience, Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D).

In my experience there are two aspects to this:

  1. Setting goals. If I don't know why I should do something, than there is really not worth in spending my time doing that task. So think about why you should e.g. write that report or prepare for that particular test.

  2. Knowing the techniques/thoughts that get you started. This includes:

    • Identify your lame excuses ("I will do it tomorrow" (=lie)). This will need some time, as you probably are an expert in self deception (like we all are).
    • Accepting that work is not fun. Feeling good while working on a task is not required during work hours. There are other times where you can feel good and do what you like.
    • Battling anxiety by breaking tasks down. You have to write this huge report? Then break it down into research, outlining, writing, proof reading. Each step in itself is less overwhelming than the whole task.
    • Getting started by commitment: Pychyl recommends to formulate goals in this fashion: "In Situation A I will do B to archive C". Notice that there is the goal C included!

Nice techniques to know are the pomodoro technique which helped me to get started and the unschedule which can make you more aware of the time you really have (or don't have).

Good luck getting started!

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Starting something new is usually the hardest step. Whenever I have trouble starting I usually try one of the following remedies:

  1. Schedule your time off. If you are supposed to start a task and find yourself procrastinating, set a timer for say 20 minutes where you are NOT supposed to do any work and start working after that. What this does is reduce the guilt feeling about taking the break in the first place. You will feel a bit more rejuvenated to start your next task
  2. Think of the smallest part of the task that you can accomplish in 10 minutes and start with that. You can definitely push yourself to focus for 10 minutes, and once you are started it becomes easier to continue. I am a fan of the pomodoro technique as a way of overcoming procrastination
  3. If possible, shut down your email client, web browser and internet connection. Even better, sign into your computer in guest account mode. Since the environment is not cozy for procrastination it will make it harder to procrastinate.
  4. If none of the above work, it might mean that you are due a vacation (minimum 4 days long, preferably a week long). Of course only you can honestly assess that.

Good luck!

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just create a habit before a task ask yourself if this is the most important thing i ought to be doing now. if you answer no then just stop doing it. it will be difficult as the start practise it for a month and it will be part of your daily routine.

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In addition to all the good advice above, I would emphasize the importance of keeping your grand goals in mind, checking every once in a while (daily? weekly?) if you're working towards them, or simply on what's easiest at the moment. I like using the analogy of an open ocean swim. Of course, you need to swim as fast as you can. But every few strokes, make sure to take a moment to look up and see if you're still swimming in the direction you want to go, or if you started deviating from the straight line that takes you to your destination. We all naturally drift, but those that realize they're off track and correct the course are the ones that succeed in life.

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Every technique I find to improve self discipline requires some discipline to use the technique, which I never seem to have.

The core is about starting with very small goals. Maybe start by having the goal of brushing your teeth every day of the week for 2 minutes. Use a timer.

If you succeed with small goals, slowly increase the size of your goals. When you want to build self discipline it's more important to succeed at the goals you set than to have big goals.

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Self-discipline is a mental challenge. There will always be ten excuses you can make and ten ways out you can take. The trick in overcoming them is being able to forgo at any point in time what you are for what you will become. This ties in to the other answers: have your goals in mind.

Many are satisfied with mediocrity. It is easy to do. It is hard to escape.

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Just say this to yourself: I'll only do one new thing today. Yes, only one thing, that one small step; nothing more, nothing less.

Try it tomorrow and see the change in yourself.

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I like the technique of breaking down anything new into very small steps - it may sound silly but lets say I am going to mail something today - breaking it down into the following steps:

a. find envelope b. address envelope c. find stamp and put on envelope d. bring envelope to mailbox

That sort of thing - it keeps you focused on the small steps for anything new you are doing and helps you appreciate little progress so you don't feel you need to do the whole project all at once (which can be intimidating). And it feels good to check things off!

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Techniques and whatnot are good, and I by no means wish to discount them...

BUT, people often leave out a huge component of what you're referring to as your ability to be productive or self discipline, and that is your health.

I know it might sound dumb at first, but think about it. We are, at least on some levels, fleshy bags of water, meat, chemicals, and other crap. Your physical and mental status is heavily influenced by the chemicals & nutrients you put into your body -- not just the food and water in your diet, but also the chemicals & critters (bacteria and whatnot) your body encounters all throughout your life.

Thus, if you are not getting enough water or needed nutrients, your body, mind, and their functions (such as work ethic) suffer easily. If you are sick (whether you feel sick or not), your body could be spending unknown amounts of energy fighting that instead of giving you the "willpower" to get things done.

Point is, it's foolish to assume that your ability to get things done is purely a matter of mental discipline and effective techniques. If only life were so simple that our problems only had one or two causes, or solutions, right? Give your physical and mental health a little love (ideally, in addition to any techniques you adopt) and see if things don't get easier. (They do.)

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