Block out effective work time with software timers
By breaking your workday into distraction-free blocks of time, you can give yourself the freedom to focus effectively.
When your workday is an amorphous blob of equally important to-do items, it can be challenging to pick one task and focus on it effectively long enough to get it done. But if you commit yourself to working on just one thing for a set period, you can take control of your time and free your mind from distractions.
Of all the methods I've seen for tackling this problem, one of the most interesting is the Pomodoro Technique. While it really is a whole self-consistent system worth checking out in greater depth, the essence of it is this: Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work on one task with complete focus until the timer runs out. Take a break and do something else for a few minutes, and then reset the timer for another session.
The advantages of the Pomodoro Technique are clear: By setting a timer for less than half an hour, you create a reasonable window of time during which you can focus on a single task. You don't have to worry about how much time is passing. The timer will let you know when the interval is up. 25 minutes is enough time to get some legitimate work done, but not so much time that you'll need to worry about missing out on other things, like incoming e-mail or what's happening on Facebook in your absence. As a result, you can put your mind to effective use without fretting over what you might be missing.
Choose a Timer
There's no shortage of free software out there that can help you put the Pomodoro technique to work. In reality, any timer--from a standard kitchen timer to an hourglass--can work just fine. But my favorite options are software based, because I do the vast majority of my work on my PC.
The timer I use on my own machines is a freebie called Focus Booster, which runs on the Adobe Air platform for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Focus Booster is simplicity incarnate. It's preset for 25 minutes, and you can't adjust the time. Start the timer, and it'll count down until it's done. Reset it, and it'll keep track of the number of 25-minute sessions you've completed since launching the app. That's it.
Another good option is SnapTimer for Windows, which adds the ability to set a custom time period.
There are also some good Pomodoro timers for smartphones. On the iPhone, I like Pomodoro Time Management Lite, which features an image of the iconic tomato timer sold on the Pomodoro Technique Web site. On Android, the less visually pleasing but equally effective Pomodoro Widget is a good choice.
Allot Time for Tasks
To get the most out of the Pomodoro Technique, it helps to know up front how long a given task might take, so I like to include estimates when I add a task to my to-do list. Some apps, like Remember the Milk, include built-in support for task durations, but if your preferred app doesn't, it's no big deal. All you really need to do is put an estimate in parenthesis after the task description (45 minutes), and you'll see it at a glance on your to-do list. This helps you pick which tasks you want to tackle first, based on how much energy you have and how long your list is. (Personally, I prefer to tackle the short tasks first, because I'm hooked on the high of checking things off my list.)