Most ambitious and successful people set goals and use task lists. I’ve seen those task lists. They’re usually handwritten on lined paper – pages and pages of “things to do” with no way to sort out what’s important.

I used to do that. But I was never able to accomplish my important, long-term goals that way.

I doubt those people do, either.

The time-management system I use now is more detailed. When you see it, you might think it’s obsessive-compulsive and nerdy – definitely not something truly bright and cool people would do.

But it works.

Since starting, I’ve accomplished a number of things I would never, ever have done otherwise. I:

  1. Wrote and had 24 books published – mostly non-fiction, but several were on culture and poetry. (Two of those books were New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers.)

  2. Wrote four screenplays. Three were made into movies.

  3. Produced four movies, one of which may not be terrible.

  4. Earned a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I won three first-place belts in the master’s division of one regional and two national competitions.

  5. Started a family charity that funded – and is running – a $2 million-plus community development center in Nicaragua.

  6. Relearned the French horn.

  7. Developed several financial products and services (such as Creating Wealth, the Legacy Portfolio, and the Palm Beach Wealth Builder’s Club) that I’m very proud of.

  8. Started a boutique publishing company. It’s produced books and records for unknown people who I think deserve to be noticed.

  9. Developed a 10-acre palm tree botanical garden. I hope it will one day be open to the public for free.

  10. Stayed healthy, kept my friends, enjoyed my family, and managed to increase my family’s wealth.

Before I developed this system, I never had time to write poetry or produce movies. I never had time to get involved with charitable endeavors.

I was very busy. And I made loads of money.

But my life was speeding by without any hope of being able to look back and think, “I did what I wanted to do.”

Have you truly done what you wanted to do?

Place a Priority Stake on Your Goals

To be more productive – and achieve more at work and in your personal life – you must place a “priority stake” in long-term goals that correspond to your core values.

Then, work backwards to establish year­ly, monthly, and weekly objectives.

Let’s say a long-term goal of yours is to become conversational in Portuguese. You must first pick a day – sometime in the future – when you hope to meet your goal. Mark that date down. Then, work backwards.

Establish yearly objectives, then monthly objectives, then weekly objectives.

You might find you must learn five new verbs and 10 new nouns. You are, in effect, setting and keeping a pace.

Based on your weekly objectives, create daily task lists. And then, here’s the key: You must make it a mission to complete each daily task.

But if you want to really change your life, you have to learn how to prioritize your long-term goals, relative to everything else in your life.

The most important lesson I learned came from author Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey presents a technique for prioritizing that impressed me… and became a central part of my planning process.

Divide your tasks, Covey says, into four categories:

  • Non-important and non-urgent

  • Non-important, but urgent

  • Important, but non-urgent

  • Important and urgent

In the “non-important and non-urgent” category, you’d put things such as:

  • Catching up on office gossip

  • Shopping online for personal items

  • Answering unimportant phone calls

  • Responding to unimportant emails

In the “non-important, but urgent” category, you’d include:

  • Returning phone calls from pesky salespeople

  • Making last-minute preparations for an office party

  • Attending a required meeting that doesn’t help your career

  • Planning for a meeting that doesn’t matter

In the “important, but non-urgent” category, you might include:

  • Learning how to write better

  • Learning how to speak better

  • Learning how to think better

  • Working on your novel

  • Getting down to a healthy weight

And finally, in the “important and urgent” category, you might list:

  • Making last-minute preparations for an important meeting with the boss

  • Making last-minute sales calls to key clients

  • Solving unexpected problems

When you break up tasks into these four categories, it’s easy to see you should give no priority at all to “non-important and non-urgent” tasks. These tasks should not be done at all. They’re a waste of time.

Yet, many people spend a lot of time on them. That’s because they tend to be enjoyable and easy to do… in a mindless sort of way. People are afraid to get to work on important tasks because they’re afraid of failure.

Even worse than spending time on tasks that aren’t important and urgent is spending time on those that are non-important, but urgent.

They should’ve been dealt with long before they reached the crisis stage.

Do the Most Important Work First

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 to have a better life, fill it with good days. The best way to do that is to organize your day according to your personal priorities and do the most important things first.

It’s easy to do, yet most people don’t.

Eighty percent of the people I know – 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 they complete tasks that help other people achieve goals – while ignoring their own.

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

It changed my life. Several times, in fact.

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.

In Summary…

Here’s how your New Year’s pledges fit into the goal-setting system:

  • At the beginning of each year (or the very end of the current year), contemplate your future by dreaming your best dreams… thinking about your responsibilities… and imagining what you hope people will say about you at your own funeral.

  • Identify your life goals.

  • Break down your life goals into five-year objectives.

  • Break down your five-year objectives into New Year’s pledges.

  • Now, here’s the trick: You absolutely, without question, must break down your pledges into daily or weekly task lists to make this work. Prioritize them according to importance and urgency. And devote your early morning hours to important, but non-urgent items first.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with this year who couldn’t accomplish what they wanted… because they were using some modified, watered-down version of this system.

A simple “to-do” list will NOT work. You have to use my system – incorporating important, but non-urgent life goals – into your daily tasks.

So today, I’d like you to spend the entire morning advancing further toward meeting your objectives.

Start by making a daily task list of only those objectives. Assign each one the amount of time you think you can devote to it, and then get to work.

Take no unnecessary phone calls. Keep your office door closed. Get at least 15 minutes of additional work done on each item. When you’re done, take a break. Reward yourself with a walk around the block, a cup of tea, or a shot of booze.

Well, maybe you should hold off on the booze…


Mark Ford
Co-Founder, Palm Beach Research Group

Chaka’s Note: Mark is still currently writing… but for a small, private blog. It includes articles on wealth-building and entrepreneurship, as well as personal entries. He’ll also continue to talk about his own personal investment portfolio.

If you’d like to keep in touch with Mark, you’re welcome to visit his website here.