I ran across a good post on time management on the Simple Dollar blog today. Reading it, I found it captures what I found worked well for me. What follows are the tips it suggests and my variants of them.
I've just capturing the titles here, please do read the full article for a lot more than what I have below. The Simple Dollar is an interesting blog, focusing on financial and productivity issues.
Avoid multitasking like the plague.
This is unavoidable at times, but I strongly agree.
Keep a notebook/PDA with you and write down your thoughts.
Like the author, I use EverNote from my iPhone or Mac. Though if I'm really in a hurry and I'll just send myself an email or jot it on my notepad, and then copy it into EverNote when I have a few minutes.
Keep an “inbox” and process it once or twice a day.
Just like the author I keep both an online inbox (a combination of my email inbox and EverNote) and a written inbox on a notepad on my desk. At the start of my day I process the online inbox, creating my to-do list (more about this in a moment) and at the end of my day I process the written one, moving any items still undone to my online inbox, meaning all my to-dos are online and available from anywhere (home, on travel, etc.) when I leave work.
Keep a project list - and focus on it at least an hour a day.
I also keep this list in EverNote. Certainly I hope to find at least an hour every day to work on stuff in it (if I don't that means I'm in meetings all day :-/).
Keep a SHORT to-do list for each day - four items, max.
At the start of my day, I review my inbox and project list and I select what I'm going to work on for the day. I limit myself to 2-3 large items that I know will take a chunk of interrupt-free time (typically writing or planning), and then I have a half dozen or so small items that will just take a couple minutes each (e.g. send an email, order something, set up a meeting, make a quick decision, have a quick chat with someone). Whenever I get time to work, I pick a item based on the length of time I have - if I just have a few minutes between meetings, I do one or more small items, if it's longer than say 15 minutes, I pick a large item and work on it. I like to have a number of large items in case I get blocked on one or reach a point where it just needs to percolate, then I can switch to another one and make good use of any interrupt-free time.
Check email only twice a day.
I fail badly here. What happens to me is that when I start thinking about something, my hand just seems to wander my mouse over to my email applications and check it. I don't know I could get away with just twice a day, but certainly checking less would help me keep more focused at times. Maybe I should try shutting down my email application as the author suggests...
File things once a day.
I'm lucky - I deal with very little physical paper in my work, so I find I only need to do this weekly. I have a Friday routine where I go through a weekly maintenance of filing paperwork and checking deferred tasks and pending stuff.
Start your day with your major creative or thought-intensive task.
Agreed. I have two peaks in my productivity - first thing in the morning and after about three in the afternoon. Post lunch is definitely my low point - I've learned to use this time to read through old email, read papers, and other stuff that doesn't require peak brain power.
Take lots of microbreaks (or at least switch to very different tasks regularly).
I can't say I have found these to help with energy lulls. I do find that making time for brief unstructured conversations with colleagues is often beneficial. Many good ideas and problems have been solved walking to the coffee shop.
Obviously it is unavoidable at times, but I do find at times taking a break revives one and it worth it in the long run. Sometimes this means 15 minutes during a late night push. Other times it means taking an evening off during a really busy stretch spanning a week or more. And when you do this, you have to make yourself OK with it - if you are feeling guilty when you do it, it just is not effective since your mind never gets into a relaxed state.