My friend, Benjamin Hardy, said, “If you start your day at 7 a.m., you’ve already lost the most important hours of your day. You’ve lost your chance to radically separate yourself — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — from the masses.”

Even as a guy that gets up at 4 a.m. every day, I think this goes a little overboard.

You see, it’s not about the hour you get up, it’s about what you do with the hours that you are up. It’s not the “when” that matters, but the “what.”

Growing up, my best friend’s dad, Mr. Aitcheson, would often sit us down in the kitchen of their farmhouse and teach us moral lessons through stories or demonstrations. This is one that sticks out to me:

He pulled out a big mason jar—the kind my mom would fill with pickled vegetables each fall. He took some rocks from his overalls and put them in the jar until they poked out the top.

“Boys, do you think the jar is full?” he asked.

Brian, my friend, and I nodded. We turned to go and play.

“Wait a second,” he said. He pulled out some smaller pebbles and added them, tapping the jar a few times on the counter to spread the pebbles out. “Now is it full?”

“Yes, Dad!” Brian yelled while rolling his eyes.

“Is it?” his father asked. He then took out a bag of sand and poured it into the jar, filling every last inch of space. “Now it’s full,” he said with a smile.

“You see, boys, the rocks are the big projects—like feeding the pigs each morning,” he explained as he tousled Brian’s hair.

“The pebbles are things that matter but you could do without—like doing all of your homework.” And then, as a quick aside, he murmured, “Don’t tell your mother I said that.”

“Finally, the sand represents the filler, like watching television.”

“Boys, make sure you spend time on what really matters, because if you waste your time on the filler, you’ll run out of room for what’s important.”

Fast forward 30 years.

The problem I see as a coach is that too many ambitious people—perhaps even you—are cramming their days with filler. Worst of all, you’re giving your morning minutes away to things that don’t matter, like social media, checking the latest sports scores—even hitting the snooze button.

But if you want to get ahead in life, you have to do the things that matter the most in the morning.

“In the morning we have the greatest discipline, willpower, and intention,” writes Daniel Pink in his new book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.”

“Research shows that we tend to move through the day in three stages—a peak, a trough, and a recovery,” he said in an interview with NPR.

“During the peak, we’re better at analytic work—work that requires heads-down focus, vigilance, attention, and batting away distractions, like auditing a financial statement or writing a legal brief. For most of us, that’s the morning.”

“Boys, make sure you spend time on what really matters, because if you waste your time on the filler, you’ll run out of room for what’s important.”

“Do the first things first every morning” has been a lesson repeated since the dawn of time. But we still fail to grasp it.

Unfortunately, too many people are caught up in perverse forms of procrastination. We’ve read that “this guru meditates” and “such-and-such expert spends 30 minutes journaling” and “so-and-so celebrity does 90 minutes of yoga each morning” and we decide to copy everyone else’s routine. The next thing you know, you’re getting up at 4 a.m. just to prepare for the day ahead, but not actually getting anything done.

A little bit of meditation, exercise, devotional time, and so on is fine, but if it’s crowding out time that should be devoted to your #1 priority in life, then it’s doing more harm than good.

Step back and take a deep, long, hard look at your morning routine. Is it working for you? Or against you? Don’t be afraid to go against the crowd.

Most of the things the “gurus” teach are neither necessary nor sufficient for success. For instance:

  • You don’t have to meditate to be successful.
  • You don’t have to get up before 5 a.m. to be successful.
  • You don’t have to do yoga to be successful.
  • You don’t have to journal to be successful.
  • You don’t have to do SoulCycle to be successful.

But you MUST be proactive if you want to be successful.

That starts with figuring out the best morning routine for YOU—not for someone else—and applying those best practices to win your mornings and own your days.

Put another way, you must fill in your mornings with big ROCKS instead of grainy filler.

The way to do that is to plan—ruthlessly—for the next morning.

The end of the day is the perfect time for planning, because as Daniel Pink says, “During this third period, the recovery (after the peak of the morning and the trough of the afternoon), we’re good at more creative things because we’re in a slightly better mood but less inhibited.”

Here’s how to use this end-of-day routine to plan your Perfect Morning:

Step 1 – Set an alarm for 5 minutes before bedtime each night and do ruthless planning for the next morning.

Step 2 – Using a journal to map out your morning, write down your #1 task (ROCK) in your first 90-minute work block of the day.

Step 3 – Be crystal clear about what you must accomplish in order for you to “win a victory” before the day gets away from you. What’s the outcome you want? What specific steps do you need to take?

Step 4 – Identify and eliminate all distractions that could get you off track during that 90-minute work block. That means phones, computers, televisions, books—anything that draws your attention away from your #1 priority.

Step 5 – Plan a small reward for getting the work done (10 minutes with family, quiet meditation, a walk, or social media). Limit this reward to 10 minutes!

Step 6 – Block out another 90-minute work session for your next priority.

Step 7 – Pick another reward for yourself after completion of this second work session.

Step 8 – Set aside time to work on communication (answering emails, making calls, following up on meetings, etc.). NOTE: If you’re a manager, flip steps 6 and 8.

Step 9 – Recognize that you’re only going to get two 90 minute sessions per day, so don’t over-schedule.

That’s it. Crafting this simple routine only takes 5 minutes—and it’s the key to dominating each and every morning.

In summary: Fill your productivity jar with your ROCKS first, and use a small amount of filler to reward yourself for doing the work.

As my time growing up on the farm—and our philosopher-farmer dad—taught me many years ago, you have to do the work and move the big rocks to earn rewards in life.


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Craig Ballantyne

Craig Ballantyne is the author of The Perfect Day Formula: How to Own the Day and Control Your Life. Craig has been a contributor to Men's Health magazine for over 17 years. Today he teaches his gift high-performing entrepreneurs how to squeeze more out of their days, increase their income, and make more quality time for their families in his Perfect Life Workshop and Work-Life Mastery programs. Craig used his own advice to overcome crippling anxiety attacks in 2006, and he'll teach you his 5 Pillars of Success so you can increase your income, decrease your work time, and live the life of your dreams. Learn more about Craig at craigballantyne.com

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