My first rule for maximizing productivity in small blocks of time is to dedicate time to a specific goal, and schedule it on my calendar.
An hour of time that has no declared focus often turns out to be exactly that — unfocused, scatterbrained, not dedicated to any one thing. In an unfocused hour I might feel like I make a bit of progress on several things, but rarely will I feel like I made significant progress on any one thing. Spending 10 minutes each on five things feels much less productive than spending 50 minutes on one thing. If I dedicate an hour to a specific task or project, I feel more focused from the start. There's nothing forcing me to stay dedicated...but having an intention gives me something to return to when distractions beckon.
The benefits compound when I schedule this dedicated time on my calendar. I feel more in control of my day. Control is a big thing for me — my worst days are the ones where I feel like I have no agency in what I'm doing. Dedicating time on my calendar for work that I want to accomplish satisfies my need for autonomy.
Recurring dedicated time on your calendar is a great way to build a practice, too. I've been using this strategy to strengthen my writing practice.
The hardest part about scheduling dedicated time is the discipline required to use it for its intended focus. For my first six months at Artsy, I had a weekly block of time on my calendar for "sharpening my tools" (h/t Jon Allured). I never once used it for its intended purpose.
What's the difference between the hour of sharpening I never did and the hour of writing I successfully dedicate every Monday? I think it's about specificity. I never really had an idea of what I'd do when it was time to sharpen. I wanted to keep my dev tools up to date, but that was such a nebulous goal that I never knew where to start.
With my writing hour, my goal is smaller — work on a blog article. Even if I don't know what the article is about yet, I know where to start...
And I'll tell you all about that later, in Rule 4.