How to Change Your Work Habits and Become a Success Machine

Throughout the year, Early to Rise been providing you with a blueprint for changing your life.

You may be motivated to get to work on your plan, but worried because you have never been able to work as hard as you know you will need to. You’ve made resolutions before. And you’ve even started to make improvements. But you have been distracted by problems and unexpected events. And you have stopped.

That’s the big problem you face now. How can you make sure you keep on working?

The following story, which dates back 40 years, explains how I did it.

How I Became an “A” Student

Near the end of my senior year of high school, Mrs. Bigsley, the career counselor, called me into her office.

“I’ve been looking at your grades and your aptitude tests and your conduct reports,” she said, thumbing through a stack of papers.

I waited expectantly. Mrs. Bigsley was the person in charge of getting students into good colleges and universities. “Maybe she’s seen the potential I have,” I thought. “Maybe she is going to help me get into an Ivy League school.”

She put the stack of paper down on her desk and looked up at me.

”In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such a complete waste of DNA,” she said. “Your parents are college teachers, are they not?”

I admitted they were.

“And your two elder siblings were ‘A’ students?”

“Yes, but…”

“And they went to top universities on scholarship?”

“Yes, but…”

“I’ve talked to Mrs. Crow, your homeroom teacher. And Mr. Dean and Dr. Mackel, too. They all say the same thing. You will never amount to anything that has anything to do with reading, writing, or math. Your grades support their opinion.”


”Your performance in high school indicates only one career choice as far as I can see: enlisting in the Army. I think you should talk to a recruiting officer. As soon as possible.”

I tried once more to protest, but Mrs. Bigsley – and apparently Mrs. Crow and Dr. Mackel and Mr. Dean – had come to a fixed decision. I was a complete and utter failure as a student.

It was the low point of my academic life. It was humiliating. I felt nearly defeated.

But Mrs. Bigsley’s low assessment of me made me mad. I stewed about it that night and woke up the next morning with a completely new frame of mind.

I decided I would no longer be a screw-up. From that moment on, I was going to be a good student.

I started immediately by enrolling at the local community college. (If you have a beating heart, they accepted you.) Then I planned my summer. When I wasn’t working, I would spend every waking hour reading and preparing for the classes I’d be taking.

Each day, I felt better about myself. I was learning what I should have learned in high school. Day by day, I was making progress.

Still, I was afraid that when I started classes I might revert to my bad habits. To make that scenario less likely, I found a “nerd” to share an apartment with and refused to sign up for any sports or pledge any fraternities. I also told my friends that I would be “out of touch” for at least a year. I explained my goals to them and asked them to respect me by leaving me alone until the following summer.

What I was doing, I realize now, was making a radical personality change. I was changing the way I thought about myself – not by thinking positive thoughts but by taking specific actions that made me feel like a good student.

When college began in September, I sat in the front row of every class, something I’d never done in high school.

I made it a point to always do at least 50 percent more than I was asked to do. If the assignment was to write a 500-word essay on religion, I’d write 750 words and include a glossary of impressive sources. If the assignment was to read King Lear by the following week, I’d read it twice. And then I’d go to the library and read critical essays about the play so I’d be aware of all the major interpretations.

I raised my hand every time a question was asked. And I turned in extra work, even when it would get me no extra credit.

In short, I turned myself into a full-blown hardworking, overachieving, ass-kissing “A” level student… and I made sure my instructors, and my fellow students, saw me that way.

In the beginning, other students in my classes did as much work as I did. But as the weeks went by, many of them started slipping. Each time one of them fell behind, I was motivated to work even harder. And I was thrilled when I got those early test scores back. I had never before understood how good it could feel to get an A or B+.

Those good feelings motivated me to push even harder. With each passing week, the distance between me and the other “good” students widened. And by the time freshman year was over, I saw myself as a completely different person. I was no longer the funny screw-up I’d been in high school. I’d changed into the “Teacher’s Pet” who sat in the front and had the right answer to every question.

Once my image of myself changed, my motivation became permanent. I was among the best two or three students in every class. I was going to keep that position, no matter how much work it took.

I maintained an “A” average for two years and easily got into City University – a tougher school – where I continued to perform as I had become used to performing. Two years later, I graduated magna cum laude.

Two years after that, I graduated at the top of my class at the University of Michigan. And later, at Catholic University, I received honors on my doctorate work.

To become the hardworking person you must become, here is what you should do:

  1. Get up early, and give your day a jumpstart by doing something meaningful… first thing.
  2. Work as late as you have to.
  3. Do at least 50 percent more than what is asked of you.
  4. Volunteer for challenging assignments.
  5. Educate yourself on the side.
  6. Become better than anyone else at the essential skills you need to accomplish your goal.

Becoming top dog takes a lot of extra time, so you’ll have to make significant sacrifices. If you are like most people, your biggest distractions will be television, the Internet, friends, and family. Get rid of your TV. Limit your “recreational” use of the Internet to one hour a day. And let your friends and family members know that you won’t be able to spend much time with them in the foreseeable future.

Work like mad until you’ve become number one in your class, job, or outside interest. When that happens – and it shouldn’t take more than six months – you’ll feel great about yourself. And once you experience that feeling, you’ll never have to worry about motivation again.

Well… almost never. Everyone needs a motivational recharge once in a while. But after the first time, you’ll understand exactly what you have to do to get yourself going again.

[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.]