On building discipline

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot on how to be more disciplined. I’ve never had a high level of self control - in a try-to-evade-doing-my-homework-at-all-costs kind of way. And while that attitude thought me how little of our daily tasks are truly important, it’s also an unhealthy attitude; sometimes even literally, for I find it hard to get myself to exercise regularly and not eat too much.

I consider being unable to motivate myself unhealthy, because in the end it makes me feel unproductive and unhappy. So I did some soul searching to define causes for my undisciplined state, and tried to find methods to improve this. The methods below might not work for everyone, but there might be a couple that work for you.

Make goals easy to reach

Maybe you know the feeling: there’s several weeks worth of work on your plate, and you just don’t know how to get it all done. The amount of work has a paralyzing effect. You feel like a deer caught in the headlights - knowing that you can’t do a thing before the inevitable deadline hits you hard. A trick that helps me is to break up a goal into a lot of small subgoals. This will make the big goal more reachable. For example: if you attempt a thirty minute workout with no pause, you probably won’t make it. You probably won’t even want to start. But if you attempt 30 one-minute workouts, you’ll be able to make it. You won’t focus on the complete workout anymore, but just on the current exercise. And you know you can push yourself to finish at least this exercize, no matter what comes next.

Take care of yourself

Staring at your screen for a couple of hours probably won’t help you solve that particular problem you’re facing. Neither will working to 3 AM on tuesday do any good for your wits wednesday morning. 80 Hour work weeks might sound cool and very dedicated, but I don’t believe it’ll do you good in the long run. Taking care of yourself will make you a better person, professionally.

That’s why I like the Pomodoro technique. Seriously, try it. It helps, because it forces you to take breaks between work. Stopping for a couple of minutes while you’re in the middle of something might sound counter-intuitive, but it’ll help you sustain your pace for a longer period of time (a working day, for example) because you’ll know how to continue when returning to work. It’s true because it worked for Hemingway. And you won’t have one big thing to work on anyway, since you’re already following the advice in my first point and broke your current task up into a set of small subtasks. Good for you!

Also, while we’re on taking breaks: Take good breaks and avoid screens. Screens do not calm your mind. Go for a walk, play a physical game, do a workout, read a book - it’ll allow your mind to work on the problem in the background. Psychology says it works!

Set deadlines

For me, deadlines help. Sometimes it’s hard to to motivate yourself, and having a stick to whack yourself with might just get you to push a bit harder. So once I break a task up in little subtasks (as you’ve probably done too by now), I add a deadline to those tasks. Sometimes it’s as simple as planning what subtasks I want to finish today. I hold myself to it, and it makes me move a bit faster.

Reward yourself

I don’t know about you, but the best thing for me after a week of hard work is to reward myself with a nice quality beer on friday night. And knowing I’m gonna get that beer makes me work a little harder on fridays. I try to do this for smaller tasks too (not the alcohol, that’d be a bit much obviously): when I finish a subtask, I reward myself with a slightly better than usual lunch or an extra cookie or a slightly longer than usual break or some time to work on a side project - you name it. I try to find things I like, and I get to have them if I do my chores. That sounds like I don’t like my job, but that’s not it. It’s just that everyone has tasks they like - those are probably already finished - and tasks they find a bit harder to finish. That’s when setting rewards might help.

Switch between tasks

If a task bores you, it might be hard to finish it. And it’s no use pulling on a dead horse, right? So instead of ploughing through the task, switch it up! Find another task to work on and come back to this task later. Doing this helps me to stay productive instead of staring at my screen for a time without actually producing anything.

Get your work out of your computer

Staring at a screen all day can totally kill your creativity. That’s why it’s a good idea to get your work out of your computer. That might be hard for those of you who are stuck in research or programming, but still: find a way to avoid your screen for some time, while still working. Get a whiteboard to draw your solutions, wireframes and brainstorms on. Discuss your problem with a colleague to validate your way of thinking. Actually visit your customers. Do a 5 minute talk on your task and its obstacles for your team. Find something - anything - to look at your work from another way than your computer. It will make the task more fun to work on, help you find creative solutions and thus make your work easier to sustain.

Kill distractions

I have a love-hate relationship with my phone (as I believe almost everyone has). It’s one of the most time-saving devices I own, and simultaniously one of the most time-consuming. When I’m working, it’s usually the latter. You’re focusing, really getting in the flow, and *ding* a notification on something totally unimportant pops up. Bye-bye focus. Or maybe you’ve got a big document to review, and during the couple of seconds you have to wait for your text editor to load you decide to visit twitter - and suddenly you realize you’ve spent 40 minutes on nothing.

The good news is: it’s fixable. You will get more work done if you kill distractions. There’s smartphone apps and browser extensions that prevent you from using your device for anything other than work. My favorite is Forest. Or you could switch your phone to “do not disturb”. Turn off Slack for a couple of hours. And when you actually got some work done, reward yourself with a quality break. Or, you know, work hours nobody is working or even awake. Saves you the trouble of installing and configuring an app.

Find your focus hours

Every person has its own rythm. Some of us are early birds, while others are night owls. It’s important to know when you’re at your best, so you can plan your work around it. Try to use the hours you’re most productive for the tasks you deem most important. If you have to focus on a task by yourself, try to get in a state of flow. If you’re cooperating or in a meeting, make everyone kill their distractions and shut the door. Find your focus and get your best work to the next level.

Find your favorite work place

Your environment has a great influence on your productivity. Feeling down or unproductive? You might miss out on some precious sunlight. Not that productive when working from home? Your chair might not be comfortable enough. Hate the office days? Bring your own coffee machine (you hipster) or buy better headphones. You get the drift: the quality of your environment determines the quality of your work. So go and create a Pinterest board with how you’d like your work place to look and feel, then drive to IKEA and make it so. It’s quite the investment, but it’ll make your work better for sure.

Find supporters

Work is hard sometimes, there’s no shame in that. And it helps to talk about the highs and the lows. Find people who will listen to what bothers you, and cheer for what you’ve accomplished - maybe your SO, friends or colleagues will listen. And make sure to brag a little. Bragging will increase your confidence, which in turn will increase your feeling of success, which reinforces good behavior. Also, when people are enthousiastic about what you do, you’re not gonna let them down by having to tell them you did absolutely nothing today, right?

Build a habit

One of the coolest habit-forming devices I’ve seen is the every day calendar by Simone Giertz. It’s basically a device that allows you to push a button every day when you’ve succesfully worked on the habit you want to change. I like this device so much because of its simplicity: you get to reward yourself by pushing a button every day. And the results are even cooler: if you can change your behavior and turn it into a habit, you will internalize the behavior and it will become part of your everyday life. Some habits I try to build are: trying to start every day with planning the work and meetings for the day, trying to check my code thoroughly before I commit it to source control, and trying to eat 6 times a day instead of 3.

The funny thing is: habits actually get easier to do the longer you’re building them! Suddenly arguments like “it’s not like me to commit unchecked code to source control” or “I’m not someone who goes through their day unprepared” are actually true! Knowing you’ve already done something a couple of times will give you strength to do it again, today.