Your Most Important Thing Is Not Enough


The Other MIT in My Life

One of the most persistent and popular strategies in the online productivity community is the notion of tackling your most important thing (MIT) first thing in the morning.

The motivation is self-evident. Our days are increasingly filled with distraction and unexpected disruptions. If you make a point of doing one important thing before exposing yourself to that onslaught you can ensure that you make continual progress on things that matter .

I’m not sure about where the idea originated. My research suggests it was adapted over a decade ago from Julie Morgenstern’s book Never Check Email in the Morning by Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani. I first heard about MITs through Leo Babauta (a major inspiration) in the early days of Study Hacks, but continue, to this day, to hear people talk about their commitment to the strategy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to dismiss this advice, as I know it has helped many people transition from chaos to less chaos. But I do want to urge those who are serious about their effectiveness to look beyond this suggestion.

It’s amateur ball. The pros play a game with more serious rules…

Zero-Based Time Management

My main issue with the MIT strategy is that it implicitly concedes that most of your day is out of your control. You better get that MIT done right away, it tells you, before the wave of messages, pings, posts and drop-bys drag you into a reactive frenzy.

The more effective answer, however, is to reject the premise that your day must unfold reactively.

Someone who plans every minute of their day, and every day of their week, is going to accomplish an order of magnitude more high-value work than someone who identifies only a single daily objective.

To be fair, as many people have pointed out to me, this zero-based time management approach, in which every minute has a job, is annoying: tasks take longer than expected, urgent things drop unexpectedly onto your plate, and so on.

But in my experience, if you integrate enough buffers into your daily schedule, and are comfortable refactoring your plan as needed, you’ll find that your professional life is perhaps not quite as unpredictable as you assumed.

More importantly, you’ll also likely discover that a proactive schedule that requires multiple on-the-fly adjustments is still significantly more productive than the MIT approach of tackling one pre-planned task then relinquishing the reins to whomever happens to be filling your inboxes at the moment.

In other words, don’t settle for a workday in which only an hour or two is in your control. Fight for every last minute. Even if you don’t always win, you’ll end up better off.


For more on my zero-based time budget approach see Rule #4 of Deep Work and these past posts:

(Photo by Andreas Nilsson)

30 thoughts on “Your Most Important Thing Is Not Enough”

  1. That’s good advice. Reminds me of JK Rowling quote; “Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”

  2. Agree. As an editor, I schedule the hardest work first thing. It’s the right thing to do – give my clients the best brain I can at age 74. The deeper problem is not that I lose control of the rest of the day, but that those first 3-4 hours take a whale of lot out of me. I am presently looking for ways to improve the infrastructure that enabled me to work 9-12 hours happily, fifty years ago. More exercise, appropriate foods, etc.

    • Butch, after your first 3-4 hours, try taking a power nap or go for a long-ish walk, depending on the day and how you’re feeling. Those tactics can work miracles for me.

  3. That is so true in my life! When I do make a long list of tasks to complete, I get a lot more done. When I get more done, I feel fulfilled (and my wife is happy too). Planning like this makes me more confident whenever difficult situations come up in life.

  4. I’m going to sound in on the other side. I plan my day out each morning. My first two tasks of the day are 1) Schedule today out, 2) Accomplish the one thing I want to make sure I get done. My reasoning for attacking the MIT first thing is that my brain is more fully alert and ready to do deep work first thing in the morning. My most productive time is from 6 AM to about 9:30 AM. I avoid meetings during those times and focus on getting real work done.

    • Agree with you, Andy.

      The MIT of my day is undisturbed writing. While I guard my time zealously (I’m almost holed up in a cave all day), it’s not easy to remain in the flow. Plus, since my brain is the freshest in the morning, I’d like to write well then. No social media, no email, no IM… nothing. Just writing.

      I am productive until 12 in the afternoon. I can get more writing done until then if needed. But after that, my energy levels wane quickly. I have to work on that.

  5. I think Morgenstern’s book was heavily influenced by Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” which was published 3 years earlier. In the book he advocates doing your most difficult task “frog” first before moving on to the rest of your “to-do list”

  6. Good morning Cal,

    Early in my career, mumble mumble years ago, I was influenced by Charles Hobbs’ Time Power:. Long before email and social media, Hobbs wrote about the destructive power of Urgent Trivialities, those time sucking tasks jumping up and down demanding attention that have little or no value in relation to what we want to do.

    Hobbs’ advice was similar to your own: fill your time with those tasks that are vital (A’s), important (B’s) or beneficial (C’s) so that the urgent trivialities don’t have a chance.

    I think of the challenge as raising the drawbridge and barring the gate to keep out the barbarians armed with their urgent trivialities.

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  7. Cal, you don’t tend to go much into your personal life (you mention a few generalities in Deep Work), but I’d love to hear how you apply (or don’t apply) various techniques to your family time. How do you work to find a balance of time for household chores, time for yourself, time for just you and your wife, and time for your kids? How much is fixed schedule vs. wide open? Definitely understand if you’d rather keep your private life private, but as a husband and as a father of two toddlers, I have a lot more trouble with time-management in my private life than I do in my professional one.

  8. I could be wrong here, but it seems like there’s a little misunderstanding of the MIT idea here. I don’t think it’s simply planning one task for the day and then having a free-for-all once that’s done. Rather, you plan your day as normal, drawing up a set of tasks for your time available, but you identify the MIT and you do that one first of all to ensure it gets maximum attention. If you get it done then you move on to the next task.

  9. Cal, can you comment on say, a doctor’s work schedule?
    Where kind of your job is to be constantly interrupted by this thing called a pager?
    Thanks, curious what your thoughts are.

  10. Got any data beyond anecdata to back this up? Seems like one of those “it works for those for whom it works” kind of things.

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