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 (audio book) — 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 tip you’ll ever need, why it works, and what holds us back from using it consistently.
No need to draw this out. This productivity tip is straightforward: Do the most important thing first each day.
Sounds simple. No one does it.
Just like Hemingway, who produced a 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.
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? 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 (audio book), 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.”
Why getting started is more important than succeeding
In 1991, Lindsay Davenport played in her first professional tennis match. She was 15 years old.
Over the next 20 years, Davenport would go on to have one of the greatest tennis careers in recent history. She won three different Grand Slam titles. She won the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal. She was ranked the Number 1 female tennis player in the world eight different times. In total, Davenport earned over $22 million in prize money throughout her career.
Let him ask her a question:
“Lindsay, sports can teach people a lot of lessons. What lessons did you learn during your time as a professional tennis player that you didn’t learn as an amateur?”
Davenport’s first response was to talk about how she had to grow up fast. She mentioned the power of the media and learning to live her life in front of a crowd.
But then she shifted gears and talked about improving at her craft and the lessons of competition, hard work, and perseverance. Those things, she said, were learned long before she became a professional.
In other words, to learn about what it’s like to live as a professional athlete, you need to be a professional athlete. But to learn the lessons of playing sports, you just need to play your sport.
Excellence isn’t required for growth
Our world is becoming more and more obsessed with comparison and validation. The style of thinking that is becoming dangerously common is “If you can’t be number one or number two, then you might as well not play at all.”
But according to Davenport, you don’t need to be a professional to learn the most important lessons in sports. You just need to bust your butt as an athlete, regardless of the level you’re playing at. I’d say it’s that way in the rest of life as well. Mastering your craft isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself.
To put it another way, you’ll learn more from the process of pursuing excellence than from the products of achieving it.
It’s more important to start, than to succeed
I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
What if the choice to be curious was all that was required to become smarter, stronger, and more skilled? What if the willingness to try something new, even if it felt uncomfortable, was all that it took to start the slow march towards greatness?
Are you curious enough to get in the gym and try it, even if you’ll look stupid?
Are you willing to be vulnerable and put your skin in the game to start your own business?
Are you eager enough to improve your work that you’ll battle through the frustration of producing something mediocre?
It all boils down to this: Whether you’ll end up being the best or the worst, are you willing to start?
The more I look at things this way, the more I believe that the willingness to start is the littlest thing in life that makes the biggest difference.
Step onto the field. Stand up in the meeting. Raise your hand in class.
Get under the bar. Walk up to the podium. Ask the first question.
Take a risk, get started, and contribute something. To your team, to your family, to your job, to your community. Whether or not you end up being number one in the world is irrelevant. Most of the time, the value you provide isn’t nearly as important as pushing yourself to provide it. This is especially true at first.
Having the courage to get started is more important than succeeding because the people who consistently get started are the only ones who can end up finishing anything.
Get started: life isn’t a dress rehearsal!
I often write about what it means to live a healthy life.
I can’t think of any skill more critical to the active pursuit of a healthy life than the willingness to start. Everything that signifies a happy, healthy and fulfilled existence — strong relationships, vibrant creativity, valuable work, a physical lifestyle, etc. — it all requires a willingness to get started over and over again.
Take note: being the best isn’t required to be happy or fulfilled, but being in the game is necessary.
Which stage will you step onto? What game will you play? How will you get started?
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