As you're already aware, earning an instrument rating is a fun and rewarding experience that will provide you with added confidence and make your pilot’s license more powerful. But instrument flying is also unforgiving and requires more than just passing an FAA check ride — it requires a system of continuing education and proficiency.
First, a word of caution — while your instrument flying skills and cockpit management techniques will no doubt be sharp when you earn your ticket, more than likely, the majority of your training and check ride preparation was spent in the terminal environment. This isn’t a bad thing — in fact, the structure of the Instrument PTS practically requires it. But there is still a wealth of knowledge and skill to be gained during en route operations that will come with experience. The trap comes in the feeling of supreme IFR proficiency after the check ride with the possibility that not much experience has been gained in the cross-country environment: managing weather, planning for alternates, communicating with ATC or dealing with equipment malfunctions. In other words, you’ll need to commit time to determining what your personal limitations will look like as a newly rated instrument pilot.
Here is my advice for maintaining proficiency, gaining experience and managing personal minimums.
Fly IFR Even in VMC
Even in visual conditions, it’s invaluable to your development as an instrument pilot to operate “in the system” consistently. Doing so will boost your confidence and will force you to practice managing cockpit resources while adhering to IFR clearances. It also makes it easier to culminate your flights (even in VMC) with an approach. And then there is the ancillary benefit of having immediate access to ATC in the event of an emergency.
Tame the Avionics
Regardless of your panel’s complexity, there is technology to be mastered. Achieving the level of proficiency where control inputs become instinctive, while already task saturated, can literally save the day. Like anything, this is knowledge that will degrade over time, so study your manuals and take advantage of simulator programs and training videos. As a start, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with your aircraft’s autopilot/flight director and GPS.
Checklists and Flows
Aviation happens to be at the forefront when it comes to checklist usage. The safest operations I’m familiar with typically use multiple checklist styles and layers for added safety that will evolve with time and experience. As you become more familiar with an aircraft and operate in the instrument environment, you may consider “flows” — an organized and consistent pattern of moving around the flight deck to accomplish items required of the upcoming checklist. The checklist can then be used to ensure each item has been accomplished via your flow. The “checklist/flow” style has the benefit of a double check — your flow, having been developed from the written checklist, becomes the first line of defense against missed items, while your written checklist serves as a backup.