We all have the same number of hours each day to accomplish our goals. Nobody, rich or famous, has more than 24.
How we use those hours determines our success. Today, I would like to get back to a discussion we’ve been having on this topic in ETR for years, most recently last April.
I want to cover the two most commonly asked questions on how to allocate time for maximum productivity:
- How many hours, in total, should I work?
- What sort of activities should those hours be devoted to?
In particular, I am interested in the number of hours that should be devoted to planning and preparation versus taking action.
I have always resented any time I’ve had to spend to get ready to do a job. I want to get to it immediately. I don’t want to sit around researching the task, assessing potential problems, and then figuring out the best way to approach it.
This is especially true when I am inspired. Driven by some vision of what could be, I feel maniacally compelled to realize that vision as fast as humanly possible. People who work with me are sometimes stressed by my eagerness to get going.
I believe this drive to action has been a big factor in my success as an entrepreneur. But, in my early career, my disdain for planning and preparation was a major waste of time — mine and that of those who worked for me.
I can’t tell you how many construction projects and marketing plans I had to trash and start.
As time passed, I begrudgingly accepted the necessity of getting ready. I still have the urge to get going on any new project immediately, but I’ve trained myself to take some time to assess the situation and make plans.
The balance between planning, preparation, and action I found was expressed perfectly in the title of a book on entrepreneurship I published in 2008: Ready, Fire, Aim.
The idea, in a nutshell, is this:
- Action is the most important thing. Careers and projects are killed much more often by a reluctance to act than by acting too soon.
- Still, some planning and preparation is helpful.
- Get it roughly right as soon as you can, and then start. You can work out the kinks later.
Thus, Ready, Fire, Aim.
That is a good general guide for how to organize your time. But it doesn’t tell you how much time you should spend getting ready.
Earlier this year, I asked more than a dozen successful businesspeople how much preparation and planning they did each day. I was also curious to know how many hours they worked.
Here are the results of my little survey:
Seventy-six percent said they work more than eight hours a day. The range was wide — four to 12 hours. But the average was 9.3.
Most of them considered “planning” to be a vital part of their day. In fact, as a group, they spend an average of an hour doing just that. But all of them felt that “taking action” was the most important part.
For nearly all of them, the workday begins early — before 9 a.m. About half begin at or before 8 a.m.
Many begin working before they get to the office by reading e-mail or gathering information for from newspapers or online publications.
Not many — only about 20 percent — take work home with them at night. But a majority put in at least a few hours on the weekend.
- Many took pains to say they “make family a priority after work” and “spend time with the kids during dinner or at bedtime.” I couldn’t help but be suspicious of these responses. I didn’t ask if they were neglecting their families, but they seemed to want to assure me they were not. Maybe there was a little guilt going on there.
I thought it would be interesting to compare the results of my survey with my own practices, as well as with the work habits of Ben Franklin (ETR’s muse) and Donald Trump, America’s most visible entrepreneur.
A typical day for me looks like this:
Part One: Early Morning
- 6:30 Wake up, smile, think positively.
- 7:00 Walk or run on the beach, then yoga.
- 7:30 Eat a high-protein breakfast while reading the newspaper.
- 8:00 Read poetry, philosophy, etc., looking for one good idea.
- 8:30 Write/edit poetry or fiction.
- 10:00 Write/edit non-fiction book.
Part Two: Mid-Day
- 11:30 Go to office, meet with G, go over day’s schedule.
- 12:00 Do one important business task.
- 12:30 Jiu Jitsu
- 1:00 Have a protein shake while reading.
- 1:30 Business (Action!)
- 4:00 Two 15-minute meetings
- 4:30 Respond to e-mails.
- 5:00 Plan the next day.
Part Three: Late Afternoon
- 5:30 Go to Joe’s for espresso, and finish all priority tasks.
Part Four: Evening
- 7:30 Home, enjoying a glass of wine and a crossword on the porch
- 8:00 Dinner and conversation with K
- 9:00 Mindless entertainment
- 10:00 In bed reading
- 11:30 Lights out
Add it up and you have the following 24-hour breakdown:
- 7 hours of sleep
- 4.5 hours of planning, preparing, and reading
- 8.5 hours of action
- 4 hours of socializing and relaxation
How does this compare to Ben Franklin’s schedule?
Here’s how he recorded it in his autobiography:
- 4:00 Wake up and wash, breakfast.
- 5:00 (He didn’t say.)
- 8:00 Work.
- 12:00 Read while eating lunch.
- 2:00 Work.
- 6:00 Think about “What good have I done today?”
- 6:30 Relax and recreate.
- 9:00 Sleep.
Because Ben left three morning hours unaccounted for, it’s difficult to estimate his time blocks precisely. But assuming those three hours were equally divided between leisure (he was devoted to it), reading, and work, his 24-hour breakdown would look like this:
- 7 hours of sleep
- 3.5 hours of planning, preparation, and reading
- 9 hours of action
- 3.5 hours of relaxation and recreation
That’s remarkably close to my schedule. Being a fan of Ben, I’m happy about that.
What about Donald Trump?
He gets up early too — usually at 5:30. He spends several hours reading newspapers. (He reads half a dozen at a time.) He arrives at the office at 8:30 and works till dinnertime — or, if he has no dinner plans, till about 10:00 p.m. He’s usually in bed by 11:00 or 11:30.
His workday consists of non-stop meetings and phone calls. Being in the construction and development business, it’s safe to assume that one-third of that time is spent on planning and preparation.
So, roughly speaking, his 24 hours would be broken down as follows:
- 6.5 hours of sleep
- 5.5 hours of planning, preparation, and reading
- 9.5 hours of action
- 2.5 hours of relaxation and recreation
Interesting, don’t you think?
Do this right now. Take a look at yesterday’s calendar and figure out how your workday compares.
Remember, these are typical hours for entrepreneurs. If you are a doctor or a dishwasher, you might have a very different schedule.
Nevertheless, my guess is that — despite what we wanted to believe when we bought and enjoyed Timothy Ferriss’s book The Four-Hour Work Week — being successful in life requires three or four hours of getting ready every day and eight or nine hours of taking action.
Jason Holland, ETR’s former editor, did some additional research on this topic. Here’s some of what he found:
- The results of one study done by psychologists Linda Stroh and Jeanne Brett indicated that managers who work longer hours are more satisfied with their work lives. Those who work the longest hours also make more money.
- Twenty CEOs and executives surveyed about their daily routines for Yahoo! Finance are, without exception, early risers. They wake up before 6:00 a.m. and spend their first few hours exercising or “gathering information” from newspapers and online sources. Some of them also check their e-mail. Lou D’Ambrosio, chief executive officer at Avaya Communications, for example, is “on e-mail literally within one minute after waking up.” He says he spends an hour at home in the morning doing e-mail to jumpstart his day.
Longtime ETR readers know that I believe e-mail is the wrong way to start your day. It will besiege you with dozens, if not hundreds, of OPPs (other people’s problems). It will drain your energy and waste your time. If you can possibly avoid it, it is much, much better to do your e-mail once a day, in the late afternoon, before you leave the office.
None of what I’ve said so far should astound you. It’s all good common sense. It’s what we’ve been saying at ETR for years.
But it’s one thing to recognize a good practice and quite another thing to use it.
Most people who read this essay will think to themselves, “I should do that. I should wake up early and spend that extra time working on my long-term goals.” They’ll think it, but they won’t do it.
To maximize your productivity, try it for a few weeks and see how it works for you. And since how the way you begin your day has a major effect on how productive you will be in the afternoon and evening, follow these four easy rules:
- Begin with a high-protein meal for long-term energy production without a mid-morning crash. For me, it’s two eggs on a slice of high-fiber toast, several glasses of water, and a cup of coffee.
- Do something physical to wake up your body. For me, it’s a combination of walking or sprinting and 15 minutes of stretching (usually yoga).
- Make your first task a meaningful one. By meaningful, I mean an important-but-not-urgent task, something that will move you along toward a long-term, life-changing goal. For me right now, that involves writing poetry or fiction. For you, it could be something related to making money or advancing your career.
- Do something to stimulate your mind. I like to read poetry or philosophy. I know it sounds pretentious, but it works for me.
By the way, my informal survey produced a number of very interesting comments and suggestions, some of which I’m incorporating into my own workday.
One of my respondents, for example, said, “My whole day is determined by the first hour. If that is spent well then I know the day will be good. If something interferes and I don’t get that good hour in, I find myself fighting to get meaningful work done. Nowadays I do that meaningful work at home. And I do it on a yellow pad. I’ve been pushing back the hour I come into the office. Now I’m coming in about 11:00 a.m.”
If you’d like to read other comments from my survey, go here.[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.]