The Only Productivity Tip You’ll Ever Need

Ernest Hemingway woke each morning and began writing straight away.

He described his daily routine by saying, “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”

Hemingway’s routine — along with hundreds of other prolific authors, artists, and scientists mentioned in Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — hints at the most productive strategy I have found for getting things done and making daily progress in the areas that are important to you.

Let’s talk about the only productivity strategy you’ll ever need, why it works, and what holds us back from using it consistently.

Productivity, Simplified

No need to draw this out. This productivity strategy is straightforward: Do the most important thing first each day.

Sounds simple. No one does it.

Just like Hemingway, who produced an remarkable volume of high-caliber work during his career, you can make surprising progress each day if you simply do the most important thing first.

Why It Works

We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.

Being productive is about maintaining a steady, average speed on a few things, not maximum speed on everything.

That’s why this strategy is effective. If you do the most important thing first each day, then you’ll always get something important done. I don’t know about you, but this is a big deal for me. There are many days when I waste hours crossing off the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important tasks on my to-do list and never get around to doing the most important thing.

As you’ll see below, there is no reason you have to apply this strategy in the morning, but I think starting your day with the most important task does offer some additional benefits over other times.

First, willpower tends to be higher earlier in the day. That means you’ll be able to provide your best energy and effort to your most important task.

Second, in my experience, the deeper I get into the day, the more likely it is that unexpected tasks will creep into my schedule and the less likely it is that I’ll spend my time as I had planned. Doing the most important thing first each day helps avoid that.

Finally, the human mind seems to dislike unfinished projects. They create an unresolved tension and internal stress. When we start something, we want to finish it. You are more likely to finish a task after starting it, so start the important tasks as soon as possible. (Just another reason why getting started is more important than succeeding.)

Why We Don’t Do It

Most people spend most of their time responding to someone else’s agenda than their own.

I think this is partially a result of how we are raised by society. In school, we are given assignments and told when to take our tests. At work, we are assigned due dates and given expectations from our superiors. At home, we have tasks or chores to perform to care for our kids and our partners. After a few decades of this, it can become very easy to spend your day reacting to the stimuli that surround you. We learn to take action as a reaction to the expectations, orders, or needs of someone else.

So naturally, when it comes time to start our day, it doesn’t seem strange to open our email inbox, check our phone, and look for our latest marching orders.

I think this is a mistake. The tasks assigned to us by others might seem urgent, but what is urgent is seldom important. The important tasks in our lives are the ones that move our hopes, our dreams, our creations, and our businesses forward.

Does that mean that we should ignore our responsibilities as parents or employees or citizens? Of course not. But we all need a time and space in our days to respond to our own agenda, not someone else’s.

Not a Morning Person?

Does the word morning make you mourn? Does the morning sun remind you of the The Eye of Sauron? Can you think of nothing worse than rays of golden sunshine streaming softly onto your pillow?

No worries, night owls.

As I scanned the daily habits of hundreds of authors, artists, and musicians in Daily Rituals, I noticed an important trend: There was no trend.

There is no one way to be successful. There are just as many night owls producing fabulous work as there are early birds. But no matter what their particular routine looked like, every productive artist embraced the idea of protecting a sacred time each day when they could work on their own agenda.

I find morning to work best. Your mileage may vary.

The phrase “Do the most important thing first each day” is just a simple way of saying, “Give yourself a time and space to work on what is important to you each day.”

Click here to leave a comment.

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85 Comments

  1. Hola James!

    Brian Tracy calls this eating the big frog first. That one thing that’s unpleasant to devour. But once you bite into it, chew it, and swallow, your whole day goes better.

    Glad you wrote this piece. Instead of checking email, I’ll read that stack of books that doesn’t seem to get any lower.

  2. James this is another masterpiece from you! I agree with you all the way. I love to do other people’s agendas over my own and often times get so distracted by it that I don’t have enough time to help my own business.

    On one hand mornings will make sure that I do my priorities every day consistently. But on the other hand I feel that during the night time there are less opportunity for distractions. No kids crying, no phone calls and almost no emails.

    Thank you for keeping me motivated!

  3. As a bit of a night owl myself, you won me over on this article when you said, “No worries, night owls”, and talked about the lack of trends of any particular group … much appreciated. As always, great article!

    • I’m another night owl… that doesn’t require much sleep! I love this piece… I’m going to start a “working out” routine first thing on my agenda.

      Thank You.

  4. Gosh James, I’m so very glad you included that last part about those people who are not ‘early birds’.
    I have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, so no matter how long I manage to sleep at night, I still wake up feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck! It takes me till early afternoon before I can focus on writing so reading the early part of your article had me “shaking” inside.
    I can’t say I am a true “night owl” nowadays, although I used to be, but I certainly fit between the “early birds” and the “night owls”.
    Your writing is a real inspiration to me.

  5. Hi James,

    Your article just stirred me up.

    I have started working on a book project I started 10 years ago and its all thanks to you.

    I am a fan and a great follower of your blog.

  6. Eye of Sauron! lol I have been laughing for several minutes about that line! Still laughing actually. Been fighting the flu all week and you cheered me up! Great to see that side of you, James. :) That aside, I love this article… As usual, you are spot-on. I was just talking to my husband about this yesterday and trying to teach him this concept. I will forward this to him. Thanks James. Keep up the good work! :)

  7. I am a strong believer of this.Its true when do the most important tasks early in your day rituals,your day gets done.Especially if have a busy and tight schedule.

  8. James,

    Hope life finds your well and “weller”. I’d like to get your thoughts as to the best amount of sleep time (I’m 41, and average active, do MTB and Martial Arts, work in Commercial RE in Miami Beach), and what times do you get up and zonk out. Thanks in advance.

  9. Thanks, I really needed to read this. I was actually just sitting here talking to my husband about why I couldn’t seem to make much progress on my current book (this is my fourth). I fiddle around and do many other things that are either maintenance or wasting time on social media rather than writing on the flagship book that is so important. I’ll set aside a block of time just for writing. Thanks.

  10. Awesome piece, you just changed my whole thought process and daily routine haha. I’m going to write a list of important things and do them tomorrow first.

  11. I work in a highly information-intensive field of business — just like everyone else in these days. All the channels we use and notifications we get are overwhelmingly distracting. I think most of us have something to learn from this article.

    And it really hit the spot on delivering what the headline says. Huge thanks, James. Keep on keeping on.

  12. Thanks for a well timed article. I find myself really stuck at present trying to get through an endless work load if other people’s priorities. A small piece of advice can go a long way.

  13. This is an excellent post by you, James. Starting your day with most important task always do good to you in many ways. As you have said, your energy level is high then, you can get more quality work done then. And you feel a sense of accomplishment.

    In many case, once you have done important tasks for the day, you will find you might do another of your important task during the rest of the day.

    The key to this strategy is identifying your important tasks properly. Then you can start on them one by one. Most people do not “separate” important from the unimportant. This is why they are left behind, and in many cases do not reach their ultimate goal at all.

    I also liked your concept of “the deeper I get into the day, the more likely it is that unexpected tasks will creep into my schedule and the less likely it is that I’ll spend my time as I had planned”. This is something new to me. I had not thought of this.

  14. Thank you for your another good article, James, for the same reason as you wrote, I do my workouts first in the morning so that any unexpected tasks woudn’t disrupt my workout schedule. Have a nice weekend, cause it’s already Friday here. ^^

  15. “There is no one way to be successful.” is the best point.

    Find what works for you…

    —and—

    do it.

    • Exactly!!
      Based on our own experience, caliber and skills, one should make ones own strategy to be successful.
      There is NO SUCCESS RECIPE as the duck(father of panda) says in the film KUNG FU PANDA.

  16. Since subscribing to your email last month, I feel my structure is re-gaining strength and a re- found sense of managing and achieving daily tasks is returning. By allowing myself to have a low expectation of myself and my abilities, I’m almost daily now feeling a sense of pride and pleasure in jobs and chores at home, as well as re -thinking my strategies at work. These were lost when my husband died 18 months ago. Thank you.

  17. As someone else mentioned on the thread, yes, Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog” technique is marvelous, and another technique he applies to doing the most important thing first, is “Thin Slicing”, which means to take that most important task, and slice it like deli meat into accomplishable mini-tasks. I’ve been trying to finish a travel guide I started writing in 2003 (OMG, I know). I also write my best first thing in the AM, so this article has inspired me to friggin HIT IT right when I wake up mañana, and set plan out a few paper-thin sliced tasks right now in preparation for bed. We’re talking SUPER THIN, as in “Choose 2 photos to go with the Florence Page”, rather than “Design Florence page.” Once I’ve found two, or even one inspiring photo, I know the juices will be flowing and I will want to pull another to stack above or below it. Thanks again James, have been loving your articles. Remember folks! Hit it first thing and slice it thin!

  18. Thanks James! That reminds me of Stephen Covey’s mantra to put in the big rocks first. I need to start putting this simple rule into practice at my job. I get in before anyone else, and on a good day, I might get 2 hours of quiet time before the other employees arrive. If I start it by opening my email and/or reading blogs (this one included), I’m sunk. Worse yet if I start reading any other online blog I subscribe to–they are always interesting… and distracting.

  19. Can’t thank you enough for this tip (and all others). Needed this boost more than ever right now. You have a way of wording things that touch my personality to the ‘T’!

    Cathryn

  20. This is a great tip, James. I have been doing this for awhile and it really works! Thanks for sharing.

  21. Great advice I love this article. I just started following you. I, too, am in the transformational business. It’s rare I respect and admire someone’s words. I seem to be enjoying your thoughts and ideas thanks for sharing. I genuinely appreciate the spirit in which you share as well.

    Sincerely,
    Tiffany

  22. So true! That is why I exercise in the morning. Otherwise, it never gets done. Also, our cortisol levels are high in the morning so we can deal with stress better.

  23. Hi James,

    I really enjoy reading your articles. Thank you for sharing. :)

    I haven’t been a member of your newsletter for long however, if I may make a comment, I’d love to see a picture along with your stimulating words!

    Best,
    Lina

  24. Informative and well written. Here’s my question. What would be the remedy to perfectionism and procrastination? You know, “I can’t finish/submit this because it’s not perfect. It’s missing something.”

    • Go for the “c” and get it!

      Don’t indulge the thought for the “a”, do nothing, and earn the “f”.

      GO FOR THE C…AND GET IT.

  25. The whole article resonated with me – thank you so much! This quote is the one I will carry with me today as I search for the alternate-agenda balance:

    “Every productive artist embraced the idea of protecting a sacred time each day when they could work on their own agenda.”

    Peace.

  26. Good stuff and good food for thought.

    A minor issue for me — you say that what matters most is moving my hopes, my dreams, my creations, and my business forward. That can sound a bit narcissistic — I’m guessing you don’t mean it that way.

    I think that sometimes the most important stuff is the stuff that isn’t about me at all, but about how I serve others in my life.

    • Good distinction, Alex. I could have made that more clear as it definitely wasn’t intended in a narcissistic way. In fact, I often find that the best way to satisfy my hopes and dreams is to put the important people in my life first.

      My intention with that line was to distinguish from doing the most important thing that you are ordered to do (by your boss, etc.) versus doing the most important thing for you to become a better person.

      In any case, thanks for reading!

  27. Great point, James! Just yesterday I found myself getting caught up in busy work and doing small tasks when in fact I should have been working on more important and bigger projects. I tend to have more energy at night but I feel better when I get important things done first thing in the morning.

  28. Noise Canceling headphones have helped me focus on my writing. Originally I bought them to drown out the nebulizer sound by cranking up soft Zenith music on Psndora. Now I escape the Significant Otter’s stupid YouTube videos, extend his privacy when his phone rings, vacuuming is going on, anything that might distract. Mine are cheap Sony knock-offs, but they send the message that I am :at work.”

  29. “Does the morning sun remind you of the The Eye of Sauron?”

    Thanks James for a good laugh; I’m definitely not a morning person. Again, great post!

  30. Another great blog James. Your weekly messages truly give me a moment of pause each day and remember what is most important in my life, business, and what I value in general. All the best.

  31. Hi James,

    You’re so right. Daily discipline is really important to be sure to reach your long term goals.

    Actually the risk is a temptation of procrastination for your long term goals due to short term daily new emergencies, that unfortunately occur permanently.

  32. James, it reminds me of the little book called “Eat that Frog”………………the stuff we that we perceive as difficult, don’t like or have a fear of is why as you say we jump to No 5, 6 or 10 on our list when we need to grasp the most important task and don’t move to No 2 until we complete on No 1…………..

  33. Great post! Actually, doing your number one task first thing in the day, gives you energy enough to fulfill the rest of your schedule.

  34. I’m another who is neither a morning person nor a night owl. My best work seems to come between 2 pm and 7 pm. That said, I am willing and wanting to try and bump that range up a bit to be more on-task earlier in the day. It means leaving not only email closed, but the entire Internet. I also sometimes just “give in” to an administrivia day, because it can feel really good and head-clearing to get my desk and my lists cleaned off.

  35. It is very important in life for you to do first what makes you happy. Failure to do this not only hurts your relationships with others but it also create internal conflict. To my knowledge, when you do what you love. People will flock to you. Always makes time for yourself. You are the most important person and if you are happy, everyone else is happy.

  36. Hi James,

    Just wanted send a quick Thank You, after reading your column titled “The Only Productivity Tip You’ll Ever Need”.

    I don’t remember where I first found your work, but after signing up as to receive your updates, I have come to enjoy them and appreciate your ideas.

    Please keep it up! And send me a note if you’d ever like to discuss video production.

    Take Care. Thanks Again.
    Nathan Shelton

  37. This is a great article about productivity. I was able to accomplish a great deal late at night when everything is quiet and no disruption. I guess you have to set the time during the day to accomplish your goals that you have set for yourselves, and be consistent. This is how I was able to publish my cookbook. Setting goals and time plus determination and following through.

  38. Thanks James this proves we will always make time for what we value. The problem is we need to value our time.

  39. Just wanna say that your blog have helped A LOT!!! I think about what you said when I am about to start something new. And I quote you all the time, but I didn’t notice that from the beginning! Thank you so much for your words that helps me so much on the way! Thanks.

  40. Thanks for the post, James. I have practiced it in the past and found that doing important things first thing in the morning is really productive. The problem I face is that sometimes momentum is lost and I relapse into my old habits of not utilising the morning time for important tasks. Then I have to start all over again. This post serves as reinforcement.

  41. You know, lately I’ve been reading quite a bit about this (also called “eating the frog”). Of course, it’s not a new concept; but it has found a new life in this 24/7 world.

    I have never been a fan of it. I was one of those who defined productivity as getting as much as possible done in a day. However, after reading your article, I have decided to finally give this a try. I will also try to do the hardest thing/s first, which for me is making phone calls (I hate phones).

    Thanks for another insightful, informative post.

  42. I read your articles every week from Nigeria. You’re doing an excellent job. Thank you very much.

  43. Whatever you want to do has to become a habit. You have to do it every day, every week.

    That is the mission building habits.

  44. This article has two main takeaways:

    1. The day gets better, If you do important task as the first thing.
    2. Carve out a time of the day to do important work.

    I have started a habit called “Monster-Slaying”, where I carve out a time in the day to do hard, boring but nevertheless important stuff. (taxes, passport renewal, etc.) Every time I encounter a task that is important but not essential and boring, I put it in this list. If I spend at least 10m every day, slaying monsters, I can enjoy rest of my day guilt free. :)

    After reading this article, I have realized that I need to start an “Essential Hour” habit, where I do things that “move our hopes, our dreams, our creations, and our businesses forward.”

    Thanks for sharing.

  45. Great post. I’m a morning person by nature (I writing this at 4:25 am) and this allows me to read, reflect, and feed my mind before life gets busy each day. It also gives me time to make a list so I pencil in times for exercise each day.

  46. Very useful advice!

    You can also think of the phrase “Do the most important thing first each day” as a way of saying “Do the most important thing at your most productive time of the day”. Whenever that is. :)

    I’m an early bird, and I see clearly how my productivity decreases as the day goes…

    I still have to think of a way to make this work for me, because I leave home very early to go to work. So my morning time is usually already taken. :/ And the important projects I would like to dedicate are outside my job. But… I’ll figure it out! ;)

    This is normally what happens if you have a full-time job. In a way this makes it easier if you are a night owl, because you have your best time all to yourself!

    Thank you for the article!

  47. Great article James, I agree. It’s something I’ve “discovered” recently and it’s made a difference.

  48. I find this piece brief and to the point, emphasis on what is one’s agenda and the importance of that. I endorse the night owl concept, which I seem to fit into; it’s the time I found I usually used to study best.

    These day due to lack of sleep over the years, contributor to high blood pressure etc. I will now have to switch to the mornings, because with sleep (popular quote is true!). “Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

    Thanks again for science piece!

  49. Dear James,

    Its so true!!! We hardly give ourself the time and space needed. Being an early bird, off I am catering to others needs and was never conscious of my needed time and space. Now that I have read your article my conscious has really woken up in giving the needed time and space for myself.

    Thank You James.

  50. Valuable insight into the importance or prioritisation. Make a habit of doing the important things first and your productivity growth WILL follow.

  51. Sometimes the best advice is the simplest! I often get so wrapped up in all the tasks that I forget my ‘bread and butter’ as we say in the UK – creating the Art. Thank you for giving me a nice slap across the face!

  52. Hi James, what you said is so true. It is only when I go for a walk first thing in the morning that I feel better about myself and do the rest of the chores more willingly. When I don’t, then guilt sets in for everything that I do for the rest of the day.

    Like you said in another article, scheduling and adhering is important. Simple. Yet not so simple it seems, for mortals like me!

  53. Love it! Thank you James, for your comment about “night owls”. It’s nice to know I am not alone, nor am I a freak of nature because I don’t conform to the so called norm, and there is not a set norm. Reading your comments confirms what I’ve wanted to know and frees me from all the nay-sayers.

    And, yes to “getting started is more important than succeeding”! I often find myself paralyzed and not able to start something because I hate to be interrupted, or I feel there is not enough time to complete the task. So often times I won’t start something because I am not sure I will be able to finish it when I would like to. Hence, the spare bedroom where all my projects that are waiting for me to start and, or complete are waiting for that perfect day.

    Your comments have inspired me… Thank You!

  54. James, another great post! I agree wholeheartedly. Probably the biggest reason I see people failing in ANYTHING is lack of consistency. I give this advice to my women and mom entrepreneurs all the time. It’s not the one with the most beautiful website or the perfect tagline that’s earning the income they want, it’s the people that are getting important business building tasks done consistently. James, I just shared your quote on my facebook status, “Productivity is getting important things done consistently.” Love this and love this article!

  55. I’ve found this extremely effective as well. I am most definitely not a morning person, however I am most effective at writing (book or blog) when I get up early and write before I do anything else. I often feel sleepy, but weirdly I can still write. It is probably a combination of factors: I am dragging myself out of bed early to write – so this forces me to not get distracted or else it is not worth getting out of bed; it is easier to harness the power of the subconscious when you first wake up; and like you said, less distractions from the world.

  56. Brilliantly simple tip James. Having said that, the simplest things can often be the most difficult to do.

    The first thing I tend to do each day is some kind of marketing for roughly an hour. This is because I realised that getting and keeping customers is the most important thing a business owner should do.

    This certainly isn’t easy though, especially when I have clients breathing down my neck for results. But, if I didn’t do the marketing I’d have no clients.

  57. This is a wonderful piece.

    I am the early-bird type and this article has just motivated me in setting my priorities around that time of the day when I am most energized mentally.

    Thank you.

  58. Hello James,

    I want to congratulate you on your work. It’s inspirational, thought provoking, stimulating, informational and best of all easy to read! I’ve been reading your articles regularly for a few months now and some I saved to refer to….this one in particular is a case in point. Thank you for helping this 54 year old young man to continue learning and growing!

    My best wishes to you!
    Gustavo (Gus) Pereira
    Lynbrook, NY

  59. James,

    Great post and a reminder for me to keep trying and actually doing the most important thing in the morning. But most days several tasks compete for “most important”.

    How do you determine what is?

  60. Inspiring and motivating…productivity made easy, gosh how many times we rush things half baked just to get them done. Important lesson doing the most important things is getting things done. Thank you.

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