I think this is a great subject we should explore more around here, thanks for asking. I'll let you in on something I've been doing for some time and has changed how I approach work, something I'm doing right now that's changing my whole schedule, and lastly something I plan on implementing soon.
Old friend: Structured Procrastination
I won't say so much about this one as the method's inventor says it better than ever I will explain it. I hear he also has a book published now, can't wait to read it.
But put simply, it's about taking advantage of big and demotivating tasks by using them as fuel, instead of being paralyzed by them. The brilliance of it for me is in the insight that, instead of wasting time doing nothing because we wanted to be writing an article but feel pressured that we ought to study for exams instead, we should acknowledge the fact that writing the article (which should be something important in the long term, but not urgent) deserves our attention just as much, and get straight to doing it, ignoring studying for the exams for the time being, so that we use our time to do something useful.
We procrastinators wouldn't get around to studying anyways, so it's either do something useful or do nothing. It works very well for my twisted brain, in that the more I think of studying for the exam, the more motivated I get for writing the article right away, on the spot. This is the procrastinator's "just do it" (Nike never said what it was we should do, right?)
Another timeless article that perfectly embodies this concept is Good Procrastination, Bad Procrastination, by YC's Paul Graham.
New kid on the block: Segmented Sleep
The one thing I am experimenting with right now, for the past two weeks, is segmented sleep. I had previously tried polyphasic sleep, but that's not for me, adaptation is too harsh to even get by a few days. Segmented sleep, on the other hand, is something people were doing before electricity hit us. It boils down to dividing your sleep up into two phases, usually getting up around midnight and purposely staying awake for a couple hours before going back to bed. It's been conjectured that insomniacs are nothing else than people whose body refuses to sleep in one big chunk.
It has been a wonderful little trip with the help of melatonin pills. I take 0.6mg a day, half an hour prior to bed time, which is usually from 5pm to 6:30pm for me. I always wake up at 8-8:30pm, drink some water, go to the bathroom, then sleep easily again within minutes, still under the effect of the pill. Somewhere from 10:30pm to 12:00 I wake up naturally without an alarm, and feeling great (if I have slept enough). I work, usually writing or programming, till around 2am and sleep till 4:30 to 5am, waking up to Sleep as Android's (see Sleep Cycle for iPhone) REM-optimized alarm.
I like this schedule because I get to sleep during the least productive part of the day, and wake up at the two times of the day I feel most productive. I call it the writer's wake schedule because between the first sleep and the second sleep you get a mellow mood that's unmatched by any other we get in the course of a normal life, and it's been considered the writer's perfect mood.
Prolactin is also what differentiates segmented sleep, with its
interval of "non-anxious wakefulness" that nearly resembles a
meditative state, from the tossing-and-turning insomnia we medicate
against. "Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from thy repose:
then hath the body the best temper; then hath thy soul the least
encumbrance," wrote the moralist Francis Quarles. (from a New York Times article)
You feel light and willing to work on anything, and focus and concentration get a high. I get to be both a night owl AND an early bird, how cool is that?
Next acquaintance: Clear to Neutral
This is the mothers' productivity advice. Haven't they told us all that we should tidy up our toys after we're done playing with them?
The main idea behind Clearing To Neutral is that you set yourself up for success. What that means is that any time you finish your activity, you do a little routine where you set it up so that the next time you start there is no friction. In other words, you setup your environment for next time. (from Lifehacker)
This actually also complements another technique really well, which is the 20 seconds rule to habits. That is, to really solidify a habit, you should ensure it never takes more than 20 seconds to get to it. Take working out at home--ensure that the clothes and equipment are all setup so that you can get going really fast. The concept of Clearing to Neutral then establishes that, as part of your workout routine, the last step should be tidying up everything again right away, so next time you can start just as fast. This way you can keep a habit strong going even in the face of procrastination and low energy.
Well, there you go, some of my more promising non-standard modes of thinking about productivity. They all steer clear of the rote advice of self-help to "just have willpower". To hell with that, I want to trick myself into working.