This is not a guide on how to be more productive. If you are already highly productive stop reading here.
What is productiveness?
This is a good question. Rather than go into a detailed explanation I will give two formulas. The first is P = D x E where P is your productivity, D is your discipline and E is your effort. The second is S/P where S is what you produce and P is again your productivity; it is a ratio of what you an actually produce versus what you are producing and a way to objectively see your productivity.
Productivity is, at its simplest, the measurement of the activity of something over any given amount of time towards a specific goal. In people being productive is very difficult for some specifically because they lack the discipline to stick to their plans and/or allocate their efforts elsewhere based on what they see as valuable, and that is completely normal behavior, but sometimes it gets out of hand like anything else.
So why S/P? An example is order. Let us say you take this test: http://mathquiz.biz/math-timed-tests/index-original.php You would take addition and enter your answers and see what you got. I guarantee someone will get at least one of these wrong even though it is simple addition or will take longer than others by some substantial amount as they think through them. So "S" is what you would produce the first time you took the test, and let's say you had a time of 80 seconds, now if we know that the average person could do it in say 30s giving some leeway "P" would be probably 40s. So S over P would be 80 / 40 or reduced down to 2 / 1. When being timed this means you are taking twice as long as you probably would if you were well practiced, disciplined, and truly a master of the operations. If we were to take the 100 question test let's presume that we know it is possible to get 100, so that is now our "P", but you got 60, so that is your "S". S over P is still the same, 60 / 100, but note that when talking about speed it is a reversed relationship; you want a lower S than P meanwhile if you are talking about accuracy you want an equivalent or higher S than P.
Anyway, three tips on how to improve the above ratio and how to grow discipline and channel effort.
1. Start Small
The first step to being productive is to not be terribly productive. I know that sounds backwards but in fact it is probably the only forward-thinking way to work; when a person states a goal, say to lose 20 pounds, if we were to put that into calories that is 70,000 calories. That does not sound easy. 20 is a small number so people instantly accept the idea that it is totally doable when not converting it into it's simplest unit. That isn't what think small is about, but it is food for thought, and maybe breaking down your task to what it really means in the grains of sand will put things into perspective.
Thinking small however is burning maybe 70 calories extra a day. That sounds like nothing but the goal isn't actually to burn tons of calories so much as it is to begin burning them consistently everyday. It is when you feel bad that you didn't do your 70 calories extra a day that you have achieved some form of discipline and awareness and ultimately habit. Establishing good habits and discipline is not a matter of having a ton of motivational posters or listening to upbeat music but instead just a matter of doing very little, very often.
The same is true of academia. If you want to learn something learn it slowly. If you want to be proficient at something study it often and in bits. What happens is that over time you simply expand and continue to do better and better, more and more, in less and less time, with less and less effort and while this sounds so terribly obvious the number one hangup I see in others is this one. They have all the motivational nonsense in the world but not a smidgen of discipline.
2. Be Mindful
"S" in S / P needs to be tracked. You need to track your progress. You see, this is the key to effort; when you do not track your progress you leak effort as though you were a cup full of holes because you are not keeping tabs on your inefficiencies. In the above math game where you got 60, for instance, keeping track of your score and taking the test once a day should yield better results but the greatest motivation towards effort is seeing those results. You also need to know your plateaus. There is a point where you will not get better and knowing when that point is keeps you from spinning in wheels doing the same thing and using the same methods without having more results.
When you are not aware of your effort and it's allocation and perhaps even misdirection you suffer a feeling of conflict that isn't necessary. "I know I can do better!" after the test. "I know I could have been more prepared!" after the interview. "I know I can find the time!" after the argument about how you spend yours. Effort is an amazingly complex thing because naturally speaking we want to use as little effort as possible on everything. It is why we play more games and do more things we find fun than things we find dreary or believe to be dismal; having fun simply takes less effort overall.
Part of this mindfulness is keeping a journal. The journal however is not just how you did, not just "S", because "S" is not a simple variable. While "S" is the objective performance of your person it can be effected by many things such as distractions and technical issues or emotional issues or even mental issues and physical ailments. Talking about how you feel when you take the test is also a part of understanding "S". Do you feel nervous when you take the test? Do you feel you don't know it? Are you overconfident and feel let down at the end of the test by your score?
When you know the answers to these questions you know how to allocate effort. If you feel disappointed then you are putting too much stock into your natural ability and too little effort into being consistently challenged and exposed to the material whether it be social rules or physics. If you feel afraid perhaps you are putting too much effort into studying and too little into understanding the material, or as I would call it, "being busy but doing nothing" and this is incredibly common where people will follow every rule someone gives them in a "How To" guide but still fail. They are so focused on following the rule that they themselves lack practical application and true understanding of what is being said.
So in short, understand your efforts, and know what you do and do not do well and how to work with yourself instead of against yourself.
3. Embrace Permanence.
This is probably the most controversial of all these tips but stop using motivational techniques to get things done. Stop listening to music while you are running. Stop listening to music while you are studying. Stop having the TV on in the background. Stop fiddling with your phone. Stop using Google and sit down with your textbook for a moment. Discard your pinterest. Take down your "I can do it!" sticky notes. Throw away your corny motivational posters that look like this:
Productivity comes to those who are their own motivation. You should be taking a picture of yourself holding that "A" on a test no one has ever aced, at the top of that mountain few people climb, or in that play as the lead role. What if your wall was covered in your trophies instead of random dead people's quotes? What if you were the one in the boardroom instead of idolizing Steve Jobs because he's "so much better than you will ever be"?
There is no such person who is productive but lives in the shadow of others. You can learn from your fellow man, yes, but it is your trophy wall that inspires you to continue forward not weird posters that say that you're special because you spent $12.99 on a completely generic message. Being productive is more than getting things done, because many things are done poorly, it is getting things done at the best capacity possible, not "done good enough to pass" or "done well in my opinion".
I know no one will read this but I had fun writing it anyway. If someone did want to try this for themselves just write a journal of what you want to improve, choosing one distinct thing, and then make a very, very small goal for yourself that doesn't push you to your limits but make sure it is a consistent demand versus an exhaustive one. I think my personal favorite is just to do 5 push-ups before a meal everyday and slowly moving up. Of course now I'm up to 30 and it is as easy as it was when I started at 5. The trigger is common and easy to recognize, the action is simple and short, and doing 150 push-ups a day routinely (I eat 5 smaller meals a day) with ease is sort of a good feeling.
(forgive the images, they are required)