Rise Early and Catch the Golden Worm

I zonked out at 10:00 last night and woke up seven hours later. I got up and stepped into the shower. Forty-five minutes later, I was in the office. It’s 7 o’clock now, and I’ve already done 16 things.

For me, going to bed before midnight had always been unthinkable. It was capitulating to a dull life. But as someone’s mother once told me, nothing good happens after midnight. And it’s true. Ask yourself: Name one thing that you do and/or enjoy more after midnight that you can’t do/enjoy better the following morning? No … not even that!

Every successful businessman I know (or have read about) gets up and gets to work early. It’s such a universal trait of accomplished individuals, I’m tempted to say it is a secret for success. “Early to bed and early to rise,” Ben Franklin said, “makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” I used to think that was propaganda from a Puritan. Now, I think it’s an observation from a very wise man.

Healthy, wealthy, and wise. Today, let’s talk about how getting up and getting to work early helps you achieve those goals – since my guess is that’s the primary reason you read ETR every day.

In my experience, there is no better time to collect your thoughts and plan your day than early in the morning when the office is quiet. Not only are you undisturbed by phone calls and interruptions, but ahead of you is the potential of an unopened day. The solitude promotes a kind of relaxed, contemplative mood. You feel free to think in an expansive way. Later on, when the place is noisy and the pressure is on, it’s difficult to pay attention to what’s important. You feel your attention drawn in several directions at once. You feel the pressure of deadlines. And you may be hit with bad news, which could put you in a bad, unproductive mood.

A Near-Perfect Morning Routine

Over the years, I’ve studied hundreds and experimented with dozens of time-saving techniques and organizational systems. The simple three-step program that follows is the best of the best.

Step One: Getting Healthy (6:30 to 7:00)

The first thing I do every day is run sprints. After a four- or five-minute warm-up, I run eight 50-yard dashes, with 30 seconds of rest in between. Then I do a serious 10-minute stretching routine (yoga moves, mostly). Finally, a cold shower and a fresh set of clothes.

The whole routine takes about 30 minutes, but it will completely renew and invigorate your health. This workout is a condensed version of everything I’ve learned about health and fitness for the past 45 years. (I got interested in the subject when I was 10!) And it has dramatically improved my health. For example, I no longer have the back, shoulder, and neck pain that troubled me for so many years. I am as strong as I was when I was playing football in college. And I rarely get sick. (You’ll learn all about this program and why it works so well from ETR’s health expert, Jon Herring.)

Step Two: Planning Your Day (7:00 to 7:30)

I didn’t always plan my days. I managed to get rich before I developed this habit. But since I’ve learned how to plan, my productivity has quadrupled. If you use this system, I’ll bet you see the same improvement in your own life. I begin each day with a list of “to-dos” that I’ve usually created the night before. I add to that list by going through my inbox and selecting any items that are important enough to make it to my daily list. After my list is completed, I highlight all tasks that help me accomplish one of my major long-term Life Goals.

I used to scan my e-mail for things to do, but found that I couldn’t resist the lure of trying to “knock off” a bunch of little things that wasted my time and drained my energy. Now, I scrupulously avoid e-mail in the morning. In fact, I don’t even open it up.

I check phone messages and faxes and add any important items to my daily task list. Again, I don’t respond to anything at this point. My job is simply to organize it all, to figure out what I will do today and what I can delegate or do later.

Now, comes the fun part. I get out a clean sheet of paper – or even an index card – and write the date on top. Referencing all the inputs I have just gathered, I select 15 to 20 that I intend to accomplish before the end of the day.

Be realistic when you do this. There is no way you can do more than 15 or 20 significant things in a 10-hour day. And you don’t have to work more than 10 hours a day to accomplish everything you need.

Of the 15 or 20 items, highlight four or five of them. These should all be “important-but-not-urgent” tasks. (The urgent tasks you have to do. The important-but-not-urgent tasks are the ones that will advance your Life Goals. They are critical to your success, but you will almost certainly fail to do them unless you make them a priority. That’s why you are highlighting them.)

To the right of each item, you might want to indicate how much time you think it will take. (I run a subtotal of the accumulating times to the right of that so there is some relationship between what I want to do and how much time I have to do it.)

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to structure all of your tasks so that none lasts more than an hour. 15-minute and 30-minute tasks are best. If you have something that takes several hours to do, break it up into pieces and do it over a few days. It will be better for the extra time you give it … and you won’t get crushed on any one day.

This whole process takes less than 30 minutes, yet it saves me hours of wasted time every day. More importantly … it helps me focus on what is truly important to my career. (At the beginning of the week, when I’m creating a weekly task list in addition to a daily one, I allocate an extra half-hour. Once a month, I create a monthly list that takes another additional half-hour.)

If you adopt this simple organizing and planning system every morning, you will see how well it works. Before your colleagues, competitors, and coworkers are even sipping their first cup of coffee, you’ll have figured out everything you need to do that day to make you healthier, wealthier, and wiser. You will know what to do, you will know what your priorities are, and you will already be thinking about some of them. You will not have to worry about forgetting something important. And you will have a strong sense of energy and excitement, knowing that your day is going to be a productive one.

Step Three: Giving Your Day a Boost (7:30 to 8:30)

Here’s the best step. Select the single most important task of the day – the one, highlighted task that will best help you accomplish your most cherished Life Goal – and get to work on that.

Don’t worry if something else is more pressing. Don’t pay any attention to what everyone else wants you to do. Heck, it’s not even 9:00 a.m. yet. It’s your time, so spend it on yourself!

If you are having trouble figuring out what your most important task is, ask yourself this question: “If I knew I was going to die in a week, which task would be most important to me now?”

Start with that task. Chances are, it will be something that moves you toward a goal that you have been putting off for many years. There is something in your mind that has so far made it difficult for you to accomplish it.

Don’t worry about the negatives. As I said, this time is for you.

If you spend the first working hour of every day on something you deeply care about, it will give you more energy and a better feeling than you can possibly imagine. How do I know this is true? Because it’s how I feel every time I do it.

This little three-step program is a truly health-giving, wealth-making, life-changing routine. It has totally transformed my life. I am sure it can do the same for you.

Remember, the entire three steps will take you only two hours. If you start working at 6:30 (and you should!), you’ll have done more by 8:30 than your friends, colleagues, and competitors do all day!

Try it tomorrow and tell me if it doesn’t work wonders for you!

A Clever Way to Keep Track …

This system can be complemented by a file-indexing system that a famously organized newspaper publisher showed me several years ago. It requires two accordion folders – one with a pocket for each month and another with pockets for 31 days.

As you go through your e-mail or read correspondence and memos, put aside anything you want to follow up on. Place it in the first accordion folder – in the pocket of the month in which you intend to address it. When that month arrives, there will probably be 30 or 40 sheets of paper stuffed inside. You sort through them and place them in some kind of manageable order in the second accordion file – in each of the days of the month. Then, as each day arrives, you simply extract from that day’s pocket the material you’ve filed there. This is a very easy way to keep track of all your vital data and correspondence without resorting to large, messy stacks of paper.

Success Is What Happens When You Do a Little Bit Extra Each Day

I suppose it’s possible for success to come in a single windfall, but most often it arrives bit by bit. My three-step morning routine is a way for you to make yourself super-healthy and give yourself a significant advantage over the people you compete with.

It actually gives you four advantages. You are smarter, fresher, and more enthusiastic – which makes you feel better and enjoy your work. You get a whole lot more accomplished than you would otherwise. You drastically reduce or (some days) eliminate emergencies that interrupt you and drain your energy. And, most important, you spend a much greater percentage of your time doing things that move you along toward the goals you desire.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]