I maintain a regular sleep schedule and almost never procrastinate. This is a huge improvement. I struggled for years to make this happen with willpower (hey, self, get off Reddit! go to sleep!) and was mostly unsuccessful. Over the past year, I’ve used external tools to turn me in the right direction. Sometimes they work by making the “right thing” much easier to do than the “wrong thing”, and sometimes they block me entirely from doing the “wrong thing”.
A theoretical framework: Discounting and time inconsistency.
Say that you have to choose between getting a marshmallow today and two marshmallows a year from now, and you choose the marshmallow today. Then say you have a choice between one marshmallow in five years and two in six years, and you choose two. If I wait five years and again ask you the “now or a year from now” question and you say you want one today, you’re being inconsistent: That decision reverses your choice from the initial “one in five years or two in six” question. This is the quick version of David Laibson’s model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting, which describes a person who treats the present as if it is special, but doesn’t value the future dramatically higher than the slightly-farther future.
I used to think about problems like procrastination as if I have two different preferences at the same time. I want to look at funny pictures of cats, but what I really want is to get my essay done early, and then have free time to look at funny pictures of cats.  The quasi-hyperbolic discounting model proposes something different: I only have one preference at a time. In the future, I want myself to be a good student and get essays done early. But right now, the benefits of another five minutes goofing off seem well worth the costs of cutting out five minutes somewhere else.
This way of looking at inconsistent behavior suggests a natural solution: If I know that I and my future self won’t agree on what she can do, I should try to constrain her actions. A way of constraining my future actions is a “commitment device”. Here are a few commitment devices that help me.
Leaving my laptop at school overnight.
I used to spend way too much time on my laptop in the evenings: In between tasks I would get distracted by a New York Times article that looked really important, checking the weather, or answering emails. I would get to bed much later than intended and was much less efficient than if I had tackled necessary tasks earlier and left unnecessary ones to a time when would be more alert.
Now, before I leave for home at the end of the day, I check the next day’s weather, print anything I need to, and jot down a plan for the next day. Then I leave my laptop in my locker and go home. This hasn’t just saved me from inefficient end-of-day laptop use; I also get cooking and cleaning done more quickly once I’m home.
Setting an alarm to remind me to go to bed.
This one is a reminder, not a rule. I figured out what time I would need to leave work in order to be able to get up at 7 am each day and set an alarm for that time. Then I head home once I wrap up what I’m working on and get everything organized for the next day.
Melatonin for healthy sleep habits.
The best way to be alert in an 8:30 am class is to regularly go to bed eight hours before the time I need to get up for my 8:30 class. If I go to bed early but am not used to going to bed that early, I will sleep poorly and feel groggy in the morning. When I need to be alert in the morning but haven’t been maintaining an early sleep schedule, I take 1 mg of melatonin, the hormone your body makes at night, about half an hour before bed. I will wake up about seven or eight hours later feeling quite peppy. It is also helpful for the first few days of shifting to an earlier sleep cycle. The drawback is that if I take melatonin and am woken up too early, I will feel bad until I can go to sleep again.
This one goes under “commitment devices” because once I’ve taken melatonin, I will become very sleepy and dysfunctional within an hour, so I have to head to bed without procrastinating or trying to get more work done. However, aside from the transition off Daylight Savings Time, I haven’t needed to use melatonin as a commitment device since I’ve started leaving my laptop at home.
Blocking distracting websites.
I block Reddit and Facebook using the Firefox add-on LeechBlock. It allows these sites only between 9 pm and 9:30 pm. I customized it so that I can’t easily disable the app, and uninstalled Chrome since, last time I checked, Chrome doesn’t have a productivity app that is difficult to disable.
CSA share as a vegetable commitment device.
I get lots of vegetables from Enterprise Farm every week. In addition to being fun and teaching me about what grows in my area in different seasons, this forces me to eat vegetables since I’ve paid for them ahead of time and would have to pay a lot more to eat something else.
Using friends to stay on task
I make a point of telling people my plans: “I’m going to go for a run and then work on the micro p-set, so let me know if you want to talk about that. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm.” This is usually enough by itself to get me to follow the plan, since I don’t want to look like a flake or let someone down. I’ve also told some of my friends that they should feel free to chastise me when I don’t look like I’m using my time well. Most of them are too polite, but feeling like the productivity police are nearby helps me anyway.
 I think that the model of having two preferences at once has some truth to it, but it hasn’t been useful for me in generating suggestions to improve my behavior. But here’s a technique from Paul Graham that implicitly uses the “multiple preferences model”: “If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.”