The main troubles in my academic experience can be summarized in two popular (if somewhat cheesy) sayings:

  • "Careful what you wish for" and
  • "With great power comes great responsibility"

Throughout my high school and undergraduate education I kept (naively, I now reckon) chasing the dream of ultimate academic freedom, where I would be able to study freely and learn at will, unencumbered by artificial constraints like scheduled classes, deadlines, curricula, etc. So I went after it, first getting a master's and now a pursuing PhD, but now that the classes and assignments are finally over, I find myself unable to handle the freedom I wished for. It wasn't even a sudden change: at each step, as the external support/control structures grew thinner, I had to rely more and more in self-discipline, but I failed to recognize my ineptitude on time.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that this issue isn't new or unique (indeed, the two most voted questions on this site deal with this kind of problem), but here's why I'm still asking this question: what I'm aiming for isn't tools or best practices; todo lists, well-defined schedules, website blockers, I've tried pretty much all of those, and I've also read a lot about procrastination, motivation, flow, etc. I've been battling these issues for several years now, and I've been through this cycle many times, attempting new tools and techniques that work for a while, only to find myself back in a self-defeating loop of procrastination. I recently decided to seek psychological counseling precisely because I recognized I wasn't able to deal with this alone.

Essentially, I recognize my dependence on a structured environment to be productive, but also (due to attempting and failing many times) my inability to create and maintain such external structures. I'm therefore looking for strategies to improve my ability to motivate myself to actually follow the rules I try to impose on myself. So rather than creating friction in trying to control my behavior, I'm seeking strategies that make it the path of least resistance to be productive and organized. My hopes, since all else has failed so far, is to use the fake it till you make it approach to eventually become an actual organized and self-disciplined person.

As an example, I have suppressed all sorts of notifications (a common advice), and don't keep my email or any such pages open in the background, to minimize the chance of interruptions. I also changed the chair in my desk to one that makes it less easy to slouch, based on the principle that body posture affects mental state. Setting defaults such as these essentially "outsources" decisions I would otherwise have to make consciously, thus depleting my willpower. I also use Beeminder to "outsource motivation", but it doesn't fit perfectly to every case. I'm interested in hearing how others dealt with the need to gradually develop the ability to self-regulate, particularly in the context of academia.

EDIT: I think my question was a little more pessimistic than it should (and definitely too verbose, sorry!). To be clear, my previous attempts did lead to some long-term improvement, but in a rather slow, two-steps-forward-one-step-backward kind of way. I'm not claiming those techniques don't work, but I believe it would be useful for many people to have a compiled list of environmental changes that "outsource" the need to make small decisions that otherwise have to be made each time, since most productivity advice focuses on the latter.

  • 2
    Grad school isn't the party that undergrad was. Read lots of papers in your discipline (once you've found your niche). Talk to lots of people. Network (as opposed to notwork). Stay curious. Ask questions if you're confused. And most of all, remember, at the end of the day, it's all on you.
    – nagniemerg
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 7:30
  • I've been hoping you'd get a good answer on this one since you posted it. However, on reflection, I don't think you're going to get much out of this. From what you've covered it sounds like what you're trying to do is avoid grit, and that's going to be more fundamental than anything else. As a former Beeminder user, I realized that at some point it becomes a useless crutch -- it's great for establishing a habit, but internalizing it is the key. It seems you need to start internalizing your self-regulation, but in the end, that's on you!
    – Matthew G.
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 22:12
  • Thanks for the comments. I am generally a pretty stubborn person and don't give up easily on projects (personal, academic or otherwise). But that perceived ability has been fed by the nature of my past endeavors, which usually provide progress indicators reasonably often. With the PhD I've realized how weak my ability to self-regulate actually is, without such indicators, and I am precisely trying to improve it, not avoid it :) I'm not seeking exclusively environmental changes (as opposed to internal ones), but I chose to focus this question on those, as they may (hopefully) work faster.
    – waldyrious
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


I recently finished High School and I'm about to start University. I had a similar problem when studying for my final exams. This really helped me so take it or leave it, here's what helped for me:

1) Don't commit to doing huge mountains of work, you will only find procrastinating easier. Only plan to do a small bit and if you don't get into the rhythm of things then that's all you have to do.

2) Go for a jog/run. I would go at a regular pace until I really wanted to stop, then I would go just a bit more, to the post ahead, then to the next post and so on, forcing myself to keep going. Then, with the same attitude in mind, I would study just doing one more paragraph, and the next, and so on. Little Victories.

3) Remember: Every time you fail or feel like stopping, somebody else just gave up and each time you keep on trying, you do better and better than the people who gave up when you didn't.

I hope this helps.

  • Thanks, the suggestions (especially #1) are really good. In the spirit of correctness, though, since your post doesn't technically answer the question (one-off, environmental changes that "outsource" the need to make small decisions that otherwise have to be made each time), I will upvote, but not mark it as accepted. Hope you agree!
    – waldyrious
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 14:29

I have only one advice, which was and is the only working solution for me: change your environment drastically.

It looks like you tried hard to work in your office, and that you decided to suppress any things that can distract you from work. It also seems that it does not work at all. The problem can be the place instead of the furniture, or the potential distractions.

For me the solution was quite simple, and worked and still work very well : I NEVER work in my office. I think while walking or cycling or doing manual work. I wrote stuff on papers at home, in a bar, in a starbuck, in a public park, etc. And finally, I am going back to the office only for the things that need a computer (e.g. writing papers, grant proposals, and slides for the lectures).

After a while, you will probably have a routine : a walk in the morning, then a coffee in a place where you draft your ideas, then the rest of the day in the office, for the boring stuff.


In order to increase your mental toughness and resilience, a routine is necessary, and it takes time to get used to a higher level of work, some things that may help you out:

  1. a walk every day(to clean the melatonin from the bloodstream, it slows down thinking)
  2. a gym membership helps a lot ( you get a good night of sleep and it helps you stay motivated)
  3. 2 (coffee/tea) pauses, one in the morning and in the evening
  4. a time tracker app or notebook to track time and see how you handle yourself every day, and a timesheet ( i find that more then 40 hours makes you burn out long term )
  5. a weekend routine to destress (hobby, meeting friends, ...)
  6. a todo list of tasks/shores home related, daily things
  7. a community to join so you can help people in your related field, and get motivated doing so, or maybe a personal project

There are still some days you will find your self unmotivated, I try to push through and listen to podcast/show or work in library or outside of home.


I'm going to provide a different perspective: don't worry about it.

Feeling productive, efficient or organized doesn't really matter in the end. You graduate by producing creative work.

Unfortunately doing creative work meant

  • making far less progress than you expected given your effort
  • chasing lots of dead ends because no one knows the answer
  • spending lots of time iterating on ideas or writing with little guidance (your advisor isn't responsible for the paper or your graduation, you are!)

I believe the above is far worse for other creative endeavors (e.g., math) than my field (CS).

You just need to stay motivated by recognizing that it's not meant to feel a certain way, and grind.

You almost always need some luck. You get lucky by staying in the game. Then you will finally produce something worthy after a long grind. You will feel rewarded. And the cycle starts again, until you graduate.

In fact, if you are doing creative work (e.g., research) in your jobs, it's the same.

You simply get over worrying about things. The reward of creative work will keep you going.

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