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May 11, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

How do you develop focus, drive, and personal discipline?

Hi there. I'm looking for advice -- both psychological/philosophical and practical -- on how to develop my sense of personal discipline.

There are a number of areas of my life in which I feel like a stronger sense of focus and drive would really improve my performance and make me a happier & more productive person.

In particular, my work. I'm a PhD student, just getting into the dissertation phase. I do a lot of reading, writing, research, and grading. Often, I procrastinate (especially on the writing/grading), leaving things until the last minute. I usually perform pretty well under pressure, but I do often get the sense that I'm not performing up to my level of capability. And, in terms of grading, I feel like I don't give my students all that they deserve. When I read papers, I get easily distracted after 1 or 2 essays, and my comments become vague and not too helpful. Inevitably, I'm left with 15 papers left the day before I've promised to give them back, and I rush through them and the students don't get a lot of great feedback or help for their next project. I'd like to be able to focus more when doing my research; instead of reading for 30-45 minutes, then taking an hour break, I want to spend more time really focusing on the texts and getting a lot out of them. I'd also like to be able to get into a habit of writing regularly, and not having to churn out 20 pages in a night.

Other issues include things like working out regularly, sticking to a healthy diet, and just getting out of bed in the morning when I need to rather than hitting the snooze button 10 times.

Practical advice is welcome, of course, but I have tried many things like to-do lists and setting aside certain times during the day for specific tasks. I guess that I need a way to ingrain a sense of focus and discipline into my psyche. If any of you have had particular success it going from slacker to champ, please let me know.
posted by Saxon Kane to Work & Money (28 answers total) 305 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried making to-do lists and all the other stuff but it really never made much of a difference. I found the that thing that worked best for me is thinking of it as a favor to myself. I have no problem going out of my way to do a favor for someone that needs help. So I started looking at getting my work done as a favor to myself on the next day. By doing this favor, when tomorrow rolled around I had free time.

This is going to sound totally corny but this is how I think of it. I think that "the tomorrow me" is a person that needs my help and I'm going to help them out.

If I had 10 papers to read I would break them up throughout the day especially if they are scientific and demand a sharp attention to detail. I would figure out when I was going to read each of them and think of it as a promise to get them done as a favor to "the tomorrow me".

I'm sure this is going to come across as some sort of split personality thing. haha I swear that's not how it is. It sounds weird but it works for me.
posted by GlowWyrm at 8:45 PM on May 11, 2008 [52 favorites]

Sounds like you have trouble focusing.

Try setting yourself time limits. Start from working for 5 minutes (be punctual) then taking a 5-minute break then gradually increasing the work period to up to 40-50 minutes. See if that works for you.
posted by semi at 8:54 PM on May 11, 2008

Lists, lists, lists. That's my trick. My life became a disorganized, undisciplined mess a couple of years ago and I decided to clean up my act. I make a to-do list everyday and I make a commitment to do what's on the list. I try to get it all out of the way as early in the day as possible. As far as working out, eating more healthful food, etc., I found it helpful to regiment my life. I make a schedule that I work hard to stick to. After awhile, it becomes second nature to do the next thing on the list. I have lost 30 lbs. and I'm happier than ever. I needed structure.

I experience the same lack of focus when I grade papers. What helps is getting to know my students. (I'm an elementary school teacher, so it's certainly easier for me to get to know my students on an intimate level than it is for you.) Before I start reading, I think about what the student often struggles with and what type of advice/feedback/criticism to which they are likely to respond and apply to future assignments. I focus on those elements as I grade their assignments. It helps me give them some good, pointed feedback rather than a bunch of general, unhelpful comments.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:55 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

You really have to enjoy what you do and want to do it. For me, when I was studying for exams, sometimes I would get sidetracked by some tangential topic, but I really wanted to know about it. So I would just read and read and read, but it kept my energy up and kept me really into the wider subject, and I would be able to take some of that fire back into my notes for the upcoming exam.

If I didn't do that then I would probably have lost interest in the entire field rather quickly.

So follow what interests you, just don't fall back and get into the pit of feeling like you're going nowhere. Sure you'll go on a few tangents, but you'll be going at full speed, and that momentum will carry you.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:55 PM on May 11, 2008

Doing your best is taking an action because you love it, not because you're expecting a reward. Most people do exactly the opposite. They only take action when they expect a reward, and they don't enjoy the action. That's the reason they don't do their best.

For example, most people go to work each day just thinking of payday and the money they will get for the work they are doing. They can hardly wait for Friday or Saturday, whatever day they receive their money and can take time off. They are working for the reward, and as a result they resist the work. They try to avoid the action and it becomes more difficult, and they don't do their best.

They work so hard all week long suffering the work, suffering the action, not because they like to, but because they feel they have to. They have to work because they have to pay the rent or mortgage, because they have to support their family. They have all that frustration, and when they do receive their money they are unhappy. They have two days to rest, to do what they want, and what do they do? They try to escape. They get drunk because they don't like themselves. They don't like their life. There are many ways we hurt ourselves when we don't like our lives.

On the other hand, if you take action just for the sake of doing it, without expecting a reward, you will find that you enjoy the actions much more. Rewards will come, but you are not attached to the reward. If we like what we do, if we always do our best, then we are really enjoying life. We are having fun, we don't get bored, we don't have frustrations.

I read this fable once that is apropos. There was a man who wanted to transcend his suffering so he went to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help him. He asked, "Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?"

The Master looked at him and said, "If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years." Thinking he could do better the man then said, "Oh, Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?" The Master looked at him and said, " If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years."

"But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?", the man asked. The Master replied, "You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy, and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won't enjoy your life. Do your best and perhaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love and be happy."
posted by netbros at 9:19 PM on May 11, 2008 [135 favorites]

Unrelated to the above story, I've recently started meditating a few times a week, and I find it helps me to feel calmer and more focused while leading a very busy life that requires a lot of focus and effort. I had hesitated to do it because it felt like I'd be adding yet another task to my days, but its been a good investment of time.

I also noticed that I got much more productive after I became a single parent. I think increasing the amount of responsibility in my life made me a more responsible person. Having someone who relies on me also makes a big difference.

Ultimately I think I've become more productive and focused largely through creating new habits. Where in the past I'd look at a sink full of dishes and groan (at least mentally) I established a habit (because of lack of time) of simply doing them immediately. Now I rarely feel like putting off the dishes and I rarely resent them because I simply have a habit which requires no thought to follow through on. Other tasks like getting up when the alarm sounds or cleaning my house each weekend work the same way for me.

For whatever reasons, I have so far been totally unable to apply all this wonderful newfound responsability to getting my bills paid on time. Nobody's perfect I guess.
posted by serazin at 10:04 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question, and I think some of the answers might give you some useful things to think about. I followed up on a lot of the stuff in there and went and read some of the recommended books, incorporating what I felt would help. I've got some big changes planned that will require more focus and discipline than I have now, so I'll probably end up getting some coaching.

Honestly, though, what seemed to help me the most was when my workload tripled in the space of a week and I was forced to fuel the required increase in productivity with a huge amount of coffee and death metal. That probably doesn't help much, I realize, but it did work for me.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 10:28 PM on May 11, 2008

Set small short term goals. Meet them. Set new small short term goals. Meet them.


Don't be afraid to fail, though. Just make it up and go a little beyond.
posted by porpoise at 10:38 PM on May 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

I find myself in your shoes all the time. One time I asked my parents how they did what they did day-in, day-out. I wondered how they managed to start a new life here, work full-time, raise kids, do all the chores that needed to be done, and work basically seven days a week, etc. The response was really simple.

They just did it. There wasn't a question or choice involved -- you just did it. Life doesn't wait for you to be ready to do something, or wait for your mood to be just right. Your students aren't going to wait for you to be in the right state of mind to grade their papers; they expect something of you, and so you just do it. Whether or not you feel like it doesn't factor in. The same goes with your research/thesis, your classwork, etc.

Of course, if there are other factors slowing you down, try to approach those first. If in your hearts of hearts you don't want to be in grad school, then that will make it difficult to do your work. In that case, simply aim for finishing what you've started. If you're even mildly depressed, being a full-time student becomes very difficult, and focus constantly evades you -- in that case, visit one of your college therapists; they're experts in this.
posted by spiderskull at 11:01 PM on May 11, 2008

I'm like you, except when I really get determined to get something done. I think the trick is to have that determination kick in as early as possible. I'm afraid the way to make it kick in is the oft-repeated bromides, "break the project down into small pieces" and "give yourself deadlines." What I have not found is how to make that idea have any meaning at the beginning of the project rather than very near the end when I have to rush through each of those pieces as fast as possible.
posted by salvia at 12:21 AM on May 12, 2008

Lists and small tasks work for me.

Every morning I write a list of the 3-5 things I MUST complete that day. On my Palm Pilot I keep a more long-term list.

As for paper grading, I try to do 10 a day over the course of a week rather than all 70 at once. I realize that most of my peers do all 70 at once, but I feel like you do - fatigued.
posted by k8t at 2:17 AM on May 12, 2008

You have to find your personal motivation buttons and push them. Doing things the way others do isn't working for you and it doesn't work for me either.

What I do is use a system of reward for myself. If I exercise, I mark it on my calendar with a big red marker and a star. I do my daily writing, I take a nice hot bath with some special essential oils. I do some chore that I hate, I buy myself a nice treat, not every day of course, but once in a while.

I am very project-oriented: I love a start and finish but the middle can get really boring. Also, many people like to do things for others, or will do things for others (to help or because the boss tells them to). While in the middle of an ongoing project, I shut out all outside influences such as the phone, the email, the chat. Sometimes I have to go to a different place because I don't want to be distracted by the little chores that become so very important when I'm faced with a boring or unpleasant task. Can you pick a new place to take your papers and grade them? A new place that is only for writing? Such as take your computer to a park or coffee shop, no internet, and write with a nice beverage at hand, thus connecting a reward with your work?

The other thing that helps me is to realize this is an issue for many people, it's a human trait, and I'm not alone or a "bad person" for my failings, real or imagined. The trick for me is to avoid beating myself up for things I don't do (wasted energy) and reward myself for the things I accomplish. A little Pavlovian, but it works for me.

Also, new habits take at least 3 weeks to become ingrained. Trying to change all of your habits at once is setting yourself up for failure. Pick one thing you'd like to improve, work on that for a month, and then re-assess and move on to the next one. And stop beating yourself up, it's a waste of time.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:52 AM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can address all this at two scales: macro and micro. I can only answer from my own experience, but these should help. I used to be a disorganised procrastinator, but less so now.

Macro: I worked hard to create a good writing style which people will pay for. I quit, went freelance, and bought a house my family likes with a garden we adore. Which needs paid for. So I raised the stakes: I discovered something I take real pride in achieving for its own sake (tight copy that works for clients and readers), I made myself entirely responsible for whether I win or fail, and I gave myself a big, important reason to make sure I don't fail.

You could do the same: find some strong internal and external reasons to motivate you to do what's needed. Perhaps you could decide to be the supervisor that students really want to have, because of your insightful comments on their work. And if you make sure your research is equally as sharp, if not more so, you get a great reputation, and even better: funding for more research.

Micro: I got organised, as it was the only way to stay on top. You need a system, and approach, and discipline to do it. Approach: I recognise that I work in small, intense periods of time. So I accept that I might only write for 15 mins, and then take 10 mins off, but this ensures those are 15 really good minutes. Every week starts with a plan for the week, which includes the 'big' chunks - each overall job I'm working on. Each day starts with a new list: the small-scale chunks that make sure each job gets done on time.

You can, too. Read 'Getting things done'. Break everything into small chunks. Set goals and deadlines and then reward yourself with something else for a bit. So for me, if I've got five case-studies to write, I reward myself in bet ween each one with some time on MeFi. In your case, if you know your comments start slipping after X student papers or texts, break the pile up into groups of X-2 papers or texts, and allow yourself some time off in between.

Put workouts into your plan for each week and day, too.
posted by dowcrag at 6:38 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice in this thread that I would echo, but the thing that has helped me the most is to separate the "drive" question from the "getting things done" question.

"Drive" is something you either have, or don't. I don't believe you can develop it. But that's not a bad thing. Drive does more harm than good in the world, if you ask me.

When I accepted that I was never going to be driven to do things, I could begin to see other reasons for doing them. I no longer felt the need to pump myself up to get things done; it never worked anyway. Instead, I do things so that my life will be more as I want it, which is to say, quiet and contemplative. Mowing the lawn, paying the bills, getting social and work obligations taken care of promptly: all these things are undertaken now in the spirit of clearing the way for personal peace and quiet. I realized that they don't need to be done perfectly, just well, and that realization neutralizes the main constituent of procrastination, perfectionism. Just move from one thing to the next getting them done and pretty soon life is clean, quiet, and orderly.
posted by bricoleur at 7:36 AM on May 12, 2008 [104 favorites]

I like a lot of the advice in this thread. I do tend to think of my self from day to day as different people. There's nothing weird about that. I also fully acknowledge that I'd probably be that guy who'd bop his 12-year old self if we were to ever meet. He didn't do me many favors.

Breaking big things into small things is all well and good, but for me it does not work to think in terms of what I have to do. I'm very contrary. No, instead I think in terms of what I get to do. I mean, c'mon, you're in grad school studying for a Ph.D. A lot of people would love the chance to do that but can't for reasons of motivation, economics, or geography. You're already most of the way there. And, if you're doing it right, you should be studying something you love. You're not grading papers, you're engendering the love of your subject in the next generation of great minds in your field. I'm considering grad school, and among the reasons in the pro column for me is the ability to further research in my chosen field and to share my knowledge with others (by teaching and writing books). Man, just thinking about it gets me jazzed. But the grass on the other side always looks greener. Is there something you'd rather be doing? Can you get some time off or do that thing part time, whether it's working construction, helping in a soup kitchen or the Peace Corps, or working in Investment Banking? And if there's nothing you'd rather be doing, then what's missing?

If you're cynical about it, it requires a little trickery. But if you really stop and think about it; all the advantages you have that you take for granted, all the comforts in your life, all the joys (it's easy to focus on the negatives), you should really be excited that you get to do whatever it is you're doing. Don't force yourself. Take some time and find the positives; the reasons why you're doing this in the first place. Embrace them. Be a math prof rock star.
posted by Eideteker at 11:59 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Master Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no Try."
posted by RussHy at 7:14 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

A few suggestions:

* For concentration: I agree that 45min to an hour is about the maximum for any one session of sustained concentration. Take breaks & do something else 'productive' for a while in between. Clear clutter, delete old emails, review your schedule for next week & next month, pay a bill, organise your laundry or wash some dishes - alternating intellectual activity with 'practical'. This also helps chip away at unwelcome tasks over which you might also procrastinate.

* For getting up in the morning: sometimes I set my watch so that 0:00 = time I should wake up. The day is generally therefore split roughly into 0:00-12:00 = work & administrative stuff (chores, shopping etc), and 12:00-24:00 = recreation, including sleep. If I oversleep to 01:30 or whenever, I feel I've robbed myself of that time.

* For working out regularly: just find something you actually like to do, and look forward to. Whatever floats your boat. It might be tennis or swimming at the beach or jogging at sunset or kicking a football around in the park. Better yet, have a few up your sleeve, to suit your mood. Knowing when & where eyecandy is to be found can help, too (eg jogging in the park at dawn & sunset, at the pool early in the afternoon, gym after dark)

* As a general point, and related to the first one: being aware of all the various things you need to do is important, whether you keep lists or use some other system. The point is that you should try to minimise *unproductive* procrastination time. As an example, you could grade a paper, then maybe clear any old or expired food from the fridge. As you do so, note what needs to be replaced & jot it down on your shopping list. You might also see something that needs to be used soon, so you look up a recipe using that ingredient, & jot down whatever else you need to buy. Mark another paper, then go shopping. Mark another paper, then prepare dinner. Read a bit, then wash the dishes. Another paper, perhaps, then sort your laundry. I'm sure you get the point by now. It's not so much about discipline as it is about switching from task to task before you get too bored & before your efficiency dies away.

* Finally, my favourite lifehack du jour: every day, ensure that you do at least one thing - no matter how tiny - to tidy every room in your house or apartment (extending this to your balcony, garden or even car, as appropriate). Sometimes it might be something huge & obvious, like a pile of dishes from last night's dinner party; at other times it might be just dusting a single windowsill, or putting a CD back in its cover. Either way, it's the same "chipping away" approach that keeps the work-to-do under control, and within reasonable limits. I also find that once I start with a tiny thing, it often ends up with something much larger, like rearranging entire bookshelves or clearing out the medicine cabinet. It's quite infectious, especially because you've allowed yourself the right to stop whenever you want, instead of pencilling in "saturday afternoon: vacuum house" as a horrible, huge looming task.

This is all in a spirit not so much of "becoming more disciplined" but more like "getting things done when you're easily distracted & not particularly disciplined". Hope any of this can help.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:58 PM on May 12, 2008 [20 favorites]

Are you me? My boyfriend totally thought I was the one who wrote this question before he looked at the name attached to it. I'm in the same place in a PhD program and go through the same procrastination techniques and anxieties about my work ethic.

The one piece of advice I can offer (and that I really need to learn to take myself) is to work when inspiration and that desire to work strike -- it's hard to find those moments and you shouldn't let them just slip away. I've been slacking lately and the other day, I felt that feeling to get up and go to work, and didn't take it because I was watching TV/needed to make a call/it was my day off/whatever excuse it was at the time. Just drop all of those things and get up, go to your computer or books and start working when the motivation hits. Perhaps that can start the ball rolling towards good work habits.
posted by pised at 8:11 AM on May 13, 2008

I'd also like to be able to get into a habit of writing regularly, and not having to churn out 20 pages in a night.

Other issues include things like working out regularly, sticking to a healthy diet, and just getting out of bed in the morning

It sounds like you're suffering from graduate school's lack of structure. This is the number one hurdle that graduate school presents: you've managed it so far by being intelligent and capable in a crunch, but the transition from student to scholar requires you to become almost completely self-directed. Your advisor should help you with this, perhaps by creating artificial deadlines that you can use to stimulate that last-minute feeling, but she can't make you get up in the morning and start working every day. That's ultimately up to you.

More than comprehensive exams or course work, the capacity to face up to an enormous expanse of free-time and a potentially infinite number of useful and useless projects is the major obstacle to be surmounted in graduate education. The dissertation can be the first time a graduate student has to face this fundamental absence of external pressures, so it may be the first time you realize you were depending on the due dates your professors and the department supplied. It's possible, though not advisable, to spend a decade reading and researching before defending your dissertation. Why not watch another episode of Dexter before your get started, why not go out for beers, why not read the comments in a massive metafilter thread, or otherwise let your free time lapse until you've only got enough time to finish the absolute necessities?

To be a quality scholar, you'll have to learn to steal time from yourself and from your students and devote it to the dissertation, the article, the next book: to overcome the 'good enough' impulse. If you stay in the academy, you'll still write papers the night before they're due, but eventually it'll be because you were so busy writing other things, prepping classes, and editing the page proofs for your book to get to them earlier.

So how do you start? Assuming there's no underlying depression (which would be rare in the average post-comps grad student: it's like postpartum depression) you should start by recognizing that you're going to have to become a harsh task-master for yourself. Here's how I did it: one night, I went to bed early, thinking about what I had to do the next morning, and when the alarm went off, I got up and did it.

The first day, it was about noon before I went online, got distracted in a flamewar, and dropped my dissertation for the day. However, I also went back to the gym. But the next day, I did it again, and I lasted a little longer. Sometimes, I tore myself away from the internet and the distractions and got back to work, sometimes I didn't. But I kept waking up, kept exercising, kept sitting down to write, and eventually the days and pages added up. I read Getting Things Done and ignored most of it. I made lists of books and articles I was going to write, and then I checked things off.

I still mostly eat badly, but I'm getting better. I still read more metafilter (and bookforum, and A&L Daily, and than I should. The dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. You'll only write it if you can develop the endurance to go back to it day after day. Always spend a little time on it; fifteen minutes, even, if that's all you've got to give that day. The flipside of this is that you can't use the fact that you took yesterday off to spend today berating yourself and not working on it.

Good luck! E-mail's in the profile.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:15 PM on May 13, 2008 [9 favorites]

I second the recommendation to read "Getting Things Done." Good book, and even if you apply just a few of the tricks, you'll be more productive and focused.

His best idea is to get stuff out on paper/lists. Half of the problem when you feel unfocused or overwhelmed is that you've got all your to dos in your head. Getting them down on paper (or in something like Ta Da or Don't Forget the Milk or whatever it's called) frees up brain space to concentrate on...

Your top three. The best tip I've had lately is the the Top Three tip. When you sit down to work, have a sticky note with your top three things to accomplish that day. Don't answer the phone, don't look at the web, don't check your email, or your main to do list until you get those three things done. They can be small things or big things.

The sense of forward motion and accomplishment you get by knocking those three things off, usually before noon, is tremendous.
posted by Zinger at 2:06 PM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

"just getting out of bed in the morning when I need to rather than hitting the snooze button 10 times."

Go to bed earlier. I finally cured the snooze habit by reconciling myself to the fact that I'm the kind of person that requires 7.5 hours of sleep a night, more if I've been exercising heavily. Now I wake up just before the alarm most days. If I don't, its a good indicator that I've been shorting myself.

The benefits of greater sleep will likely carry over into the other areas you are asking about. Sleep deprivation impairs concentration and the good judgement you need to keep from succumbing to temptation.

Another tip regarding focus: Listen to something on headphones while you work. I find that this helps fill the gaps in concentration, and keeps my mind from wandering to a genuine distraction. The audio has to be something that you can listen to in the background and not feel compelled to focus on. I use NPR and KCRW programs like Fresh Air and To The Point, sometimes playing the same program a few times since I'm only really focusing on a subset of the program with each hearing.

If the task at hand requires particularly intense concentration and/or reading comprehension I'll switch to instrumental. Rousing movie scores that allow you to follow the plot subconsciously are a good choice, I'm partial to Howard Shore's LoTR, and anything by John Williams. The Niebelungenleid is great too since I don't know German but can follow the story.
posted by Manjusri at 6:27 PM on May 13, 2008

Make an oath to email your advisor, say, every Wednesday and Friday. Yep, twice a week, because you're hardcore like that.
posted by proj08 at 8:36 PM on May 13, 2008

I hear you. I totally lacked the personal motivation to get any assignment in grad school finished in a timely way. I would procrastinate for everything. EVERYTHING.

Towards the end of that time, I discovered one thing that really worked for me.

I found a friend who was in the same boat.

Together, we kept each other going. We'd force each other to push through a horrifically complicated assignment. We'd talk through ideas and process the texts we were reading. We'd write and complete "to do" lists. Sometimes we'd completely blow off schoolwork and take a much-needed run or even (*gasp*) watch a movie.

Bottom line, the quality and timeliness of my work improved drastically. It helped a lot just having somebody else to encourage me and vice versa. Plus it helped to have somebody to bitch to when things got overwhelming.

Smartest thing we ever did: found a bunch of local coffee shops that had free wi-fi and bottomless cups of coffee or tea. We'd camp out all day, sitting at tables with semi-uncomfortable chairs. We wouldn't leave until both of us had completed our "to do" list for the day. It was torture sometimes, not gonna lie. But the satisfaction (and the rum & coke) that came at the end of the day made up for all that.
posted by hydrate at 11:48 PM on May 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

anotherpanacea makes a good point. It takes some time, and some trial-and-error, to develop good work habits. The first time I tore myself away from [planning weekend activities or chatting or whatever], it was super-painful. It felt weird and fake, and I quickly slipped back into [daydreaming about planting a garden] without barely noticing.

After a while, you get yourself accustomed to working and build that muscle. You get better at getting to work, you can focus longer, you prevent the crash of focus by giving yourself shorter breaks, you notice you've spent a little time goofing off and should probably get back to work, you build some momentum toward achieving your goal which makes you actually want to work, and you figure out what work pattern fits your style and lets you keep going. Just keep trying until you start to find what works for you. To get there, one big help for me was to keep part of my attention watching when I was working and when I was not, just noticing it. When do I switch from working to goofing off? Do I always seem to need a long break around 3 pm? Et cetera. I also try to actually enjoy my non-work time more and have truly relaxing or fun breaks. Seeing the enjoyment of getting work done, and the enjoyment of a real (guilt-free, deliberate) break, made mindless goofing off seem like a much less worthwhile use of time.
posted by salvia at 1:17 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a graduate student, it's hard to be motivated to do something when there's a fuzzy deadline for it. My schedule is more structured than yours, since I'm only taking classes, but two of them are project classes, so I can sort of relate. You might find this technique useful.

What I do is plan out the week ahead of time, every Sunday. I write out what I want to accomplish each day, and try to balance it out as much as possible. If I have a lot of classes MW, then I schedule less work for that day, and days without classes will be heavier on homework assignments. Every day, I just do what's on the list, and if I finish and have extra time, then I can relax for the rest of the day!

This method has the advantage of giving you something to look forward to every day, not just once in a while. It also motivates me to start early, because I know I'll get the same amount of relaxation time, regardless of when I start, but if I take it after I'm done with my work for the day, then it's guilt-free, which is way better.

I try to be flexible with it, so that if something comes up, I can shift things around. But having my week planned out ahead of time is really useful, and keeps me from slacking off or getting too stressed out.

Since your schedule is less structured, you might start off by asking yourself "What do I need to get done this week to feel like I spent my time well, research-wise? What do my students expect of me this week?" The idea is similar to getting the big things in first, so that you know what the major chunks of your day will be, and then fit in the small things, the more enjoyable side of life, in between the chunks.

With regards to exercise and eating a healthy diet: it's easy to be really gung-ho about something and then slowly forget about it as more important things pile up. Write a reminder list of constant goals that you want to keep in mind, and tape it somewhere prominent. Rewrite that list every week or so, so that it forces you to keep it in the foreground of your mind, rather than letting it slowly get pushed to the background. It's hard to do something if you never think of it.
posted by jasminerain at 11:38 AM on May 14, 2008

Jerry Seinfeld was once asked for advice on writing. He said "Get a big calendar. Mark a big giant X on the calendar every day you write for an hour or two. After a while, you will look forward to seeing those Xs." I've never done it, but it sounds like good advice.
posted by xammerboy at 4:51 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

strive towards an unattainable goal and do anything you can to acheive it
posted by thewood12 at 9:53 PM on May 18, 2008

I find that sex, or simply masturbation, helps me get over my lack of concentration...which has led me to believe that sex (or lack of sex, rather) is usually responsible for my inability to concentrate.
posted by Return_of_the_Never _Been_Here at 9:48 PM on May 19, 2008

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