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.