Over the last 6 months I've started doing a lot of things differently. Some of these changes seem to have increased my work output a good bit and made me happier. I normally hesitate to share habits, but I'm pretty happy with these in particular, and even if they will work for only a few people I think they are worth sharing. Most of the habits I've adopted are fairly common, but I hope I can help people anyway by identifying the habits that have most helped me.
I'm curious to hear about alternatives that have worked for you.
Workflowy lets you edit a single collapsible outline. I use it very extensively. It is much more convenient than the network of google docs it replaced, and I use it much more often. It is much like other outliners, but (1) has a slicker interface, (2) works offline, (3) lets you recurse on and share sublists.
Workflowy is free to try but costs $5 a month. This may seem expensive for what it does, but if you use (or could use!) outliners a lot this is not enough to matter. After some searching Workflowy seems like the best option. I'm sure I like Workflowy more than most people, but I really like it, so I think it's worth trying.
Here is a skeleton of my workflowy list, which hosts many of the other systems in this post.
I have a checklist of tasks to do each night before sleeping. In the past I would often forget one of these things; putting them in a checklist helps me do them more reliably and makes me more relaxed.
Checklists for other occasions, particularly waking up and traveling, are also helpful, but are much less important to me.
I now maintain two todo lists: one with a list of tasks for each upcoming day, and one with a list of tasks for future events ("I'm in the UK," "it is Thursday," "I'm going grocery shopping"). Whenever I think of something I should do, I either put it under a future day and do it when that day arrives, or I put it with an associated event. Each night I check both lists and decide what to do tomorrow.
Beeminder is a service that holds you to commitments and tracks your progress. It has helped me a lot over the last months. I've experimented with a few different commitments, but two have been most useful: following a daily routine, and doing a minimum amount of work each day (on average). Beeminder has pretty low overhead.
I spend about 10% of my productive time reflecting on how things have been going and what I should do differently. I benefit from producing concrete possible changes each time I sit down to think. I realized how important this is for me recently; since I've started doing it more reliably, I have gotten a lot more out of reflection.
I do my work in uninterrupted blocks of 20 minutes, punctuated by 2-3 minute breaks. This is my bastardized, minimalist version of the pomodoro technique, which I arrived at by trial and error. I use Alinof timer, which was recommended to me by a friend.
I now record commitments on my calendar reliably and check it each night. I failed to do this for 6 months after finishing my undergraduate degree, which I think was a serious mistake. I became much more reliable at checking my calendar after adopting a daily checklist.
Whenever I start a new activity, I write down the current time and a description of what I just stopped doing. At the end of the day I spend a few minutes reading this log and estimating how much time I spent on each activity. This makes me more attentive to time during the day, helps me remember what I did throughout the day, and frees up attention. Sometimes I use the logs to try and notice trends. For example, I've been exercising on random days and measuring how this affects my time. I don't yet know if this helps at all.
Catch is a note-taking app. It is very minimal, and lets you record a voice note by pressing a single button. It has substantially increased my affordance for taking notes during the day, which I use to remember todo items and help with time logging.