I have a tendency to take on huge digging projects. Not mining projects; digging projects.
For surface digs, these are usually there to add flair to the map; such as a 20m x 20m sinkhole completely finished with stone, and with access minecart tracks to subterranean mines and such; and sometimes they are loooong minecart tunnels (a recent project saw me digging a 3m x 3m x 2800[sic]m tunnel).
The problem with a lot of these projects is that as this is on an SMP server, my access to TNT is somewhat stunted; digging takes forever.
For tunnels there's not a lot to be done for this; but for pits I'm intensely curious as to wether or not I'm using an efficient method of digging:
Usually I'll use a mix of horizontal and vertical digging; digging first down to however deep I need the pit, expanding to cover the entire projected area, and then using the original shaft to create a staircase to go back up to the surface, and digging straight down in 4x4 squares until done.
I've also tried taking off one level of dirt/stone at a time, but the problem with both these methods are that they are intensely monotonous.
Are there any other, less soul-crushingly repetitive methods that can be employed?
(Might be tangentially related to Movement and digging/mining speed.)