Mark Ford

From Mark Ford, founder, Palm Beach Research Group: When it comes to personal productivity, we all have the chance to have good days or bad days.

Good days are those that leave you feeling good because you’ve accomplished your most important tasks. Bad days are those that leave you feeling bad because you’ve failed to do anything to advance your most important goals.

If you want a better life, you must fill it with good days. The best way to do that is to organize your day according to your personal priorities—doing the most important things first.

It’s easy to do. Yet most people don’t.

Eighty percent of the people I know—and I’m including all the intelligent and hardworking people I work with—do exactly the opposite.

They organize their days around urgencies and emergencies. Taking care of last-minute issues that should’ve been addressed earlier. Or completing tasks that help other people achieve their goals… while ignoring their own.

Doing first things first is a very simple discipline. Yet its transformative power is immense. It can change your life—literally overnight.

It changed my life. Several times, in fact.

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I’ve used this technique to write and publish more than 20 books… write a half-dozen movie scripts… produce two documentaries and two feature-length films… become moderately fluent in two languages… create a community development center in Nicaragua… lose 20 pounds… and learn to play the French horn.

One year, I used the technique to write a poem every day for 365 days. The year after that, I used it to get that book of poems published—and to write six other books.

It’s the single best technique I know for change. And it’s the fastest and easiest way to turn your life around if you’re not happy with the way it’s been going so far.

Doing first things first.

Here’s what I do:

  • I get up early. Not crazy early. Most of the time at 6 a.m.
  • I spend the first half-hour doing something that opens my mind. These days, it’s walking for 30 minutes while listening to TED Talks or poetry or fiction.
  • I start work early—usually one hour after I wake up (i.e., 7 a.m.).
  • I spend my first hour of work doing something that advances my most important but not urgent goal.
  • If I’m going strong, I spend the next hour doing the same thing. If not, I switch to a task that advances a secondary important but not urgent goal.
  • I spend my third hour on another priority.
  • Only after four hours of doing important work do I allow myself to deal with less important work—and other people’s urgencies.

There are two things I don’t allow myself to do first in the morning:

  1. Read the newspaper.
  2. Read email.

These activities are bad for you in the morning. In a nutshell, they’re mostly about problems—problems that sap your time and energy and put you in an unproductive state of mind.

By starting out with a positive mindset—and giving my first and best hours to what matters most—I’m living a much better life now than I ever have before.

I follow this routine strictly five days per week. On weekends, I find at least two more hours each day to devote to priorities.

In a year, this averages to about 600 hours. Six-hundred hours may not sound like much, but it is.

Six-hundred hours is 15 40-hour workweeks. That’s almost four working months! Think about it.

Here’s what you can accomplish in 600 hours:

  • Learn to speak a foreign language with moderate proficiency.
  • Become a reasonably skilled ballroom dancer with a good command of the swing, the foxtrot, the salsa, and the hustle.
  • Achieve a blue belt in Brazilian jiujitsu or a brown or black belt in one of many other martial arts.
  • Develop a decent singing voice and feel comfortable singing at parties.
  • Write five 60,000-word books on a subject you know.
  • Write and edit two novels or 365 poems.
  • Write, direct, film, and edit a 30-minute movie.
  • Start a multimillion-dollar side business.

Do any of these things sound interesting to you?

  How I organize my workdays

Now, let me show you how I organize my workdays to tie into my long-term goals. Below is the exact schedule I followed this morning:

6:00: Woke up. Walked along the beach listening to a TED Talk, followed by a 10-minute swim.

6:45: Breakfast. (Three eggs, scrambled. Coffee, black. Half-slice of potato bread.) Talked to Julio about plans for landscaping the “swamp house.”

7:00: Revised two poems written last year.

8:00: Wrote a new poem.

8:30: Began an essay for Creating Wealth on the question asked in the TED Talk: What matters most in starting a business?

9:30: Considered for a moment doing something else. Decided to push on.

11:00: After writing 1,600 words, decided to do something else. Began this little essay.

11:45: Got dressed quickly and rushed to the office.

12:00: Trained hard for an hour with Vitor and Eric. (My “training” is jiujitsu, a form of wrestling that includes chokes and submission locks. It’s supposed to be a young man’s sport, but you can do it, I’m quite sure, through your 70s.)

1:30: Met with Giovanna, my executive assistant and memory. Went over calendar, task lists, etc.

2:00: Luncheon meeting in my office with a colleague.

2:30: Meeting with my managing editor, Lindsey.

3:30: Phone call with a marketing consultant.

4:00: Met with a partner to discuss real estate holdings.

I don’t take any meetings until after my midday workout. (I’ve trained everyone I work with not to expect to be able to interrupt me in the morning.) Beginning at noon, my day takes a dramatic turn—from a schedule devoted to my primary objectives… to one that’s devoted to others’ needs.

Most of the meetings scheduled during the afternoon, for example, accommodate the wishes of others. They have time to see me each day, but it’s only after I’ve taken care of my own top priorities.

4:30: Returned phone calls to several colleagues.

I return phone calls in the late afternoon. It’s not a top priority for me. It’s as simple as that.

5:00: Got back to this essay.

If I have a spare half-hour during the afternoon, I devote it to an important but not urgent task… like writing things that don’t have to be done by a specific deadline.

5:45: Reviewed and returned emails.

My penultimate task of the day is to review and return emails. I used to do it twice per day. Now I do it only once.

6:15: Planned the next day.

This is the last task of my workday.

6:30: Had a yoga/Pilates workout with John, my trainer.

Feeling good about accomplishing most of my priorities, I sometimes reward myself with a half-hour of easy stretching.

7:30: Got home for dinner on time!

None of what I’ve said so far should astound you. It’s all good common sense.

But it’s one thing to recognize a good technique.

It’s quite another thing to learn to use it.

Most people who read this essay will think to themselves, “I should do that. I should wake up early and spend time working on my dream.”

They’ll think it, but they won’t do it.

They may get into the office earlier. But when they do, they’ll probably turn on their computers and read their emails.

People sometimes ask me if it’s really necessary to get up early. “I’m a night person,” they say. “I get my best work done after dark.”

“Sure you do,” I think when I hear that.

I used to say the same thing. But I was wrong. And I think you’ll change your mind if you allow yourself to experience the natural, unbeatable advantage of doing your most important work when your body is fresh and strong.

Get up early. Get to work early. Do your important but not urgent tasks first.