My ultimate productivity hack – do the hardest 50 in the first 90

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

You’ve got rhythm. Maybe you can’t do the Tango, but you’ve got an energy rhythm.

Your energy rhythm runs through your day, day after day, predictably. Technically, it’s called the Ultradian Rhythm—it’s why you have high energy times, when you’re able to focus, make decisions and get results and zoned-out times when you want to hide and play Tetris.

Maybe your day is something like this.

Morning is your best time. No question – you’re full of energy, creative, optimistic and looking forward to getting stuff done. Over 80% of people I’ve surveyed report morning is their best time.

Mid-morning you’re still trucking, but unexpected distractions mean unfinished tasks are piling up. Ugh.

Afternoon rolls around – focus is harder to find, your mind wanders in meetings. Email becomes a welcome distraction. “Hey,” you think “I’m still getting stuff done.”

You started the day on a run to the finish. Now it feels more like a treadmill – lots of activity but not making much progress.

On a treadmill

Some days it can feel like you’re on a treadmill – lots of activity but not making much progress.

If I’ve just described your day, I have good news. There is a productivity hack I’ve been successful using and have taught to over 3,000 people in some 12 industries.

If you’re serious about getting better results, maybe even in less time, let’s get started with the myth of constant time.

Note: this post was originally published in March, 2013 and has been given a polish and republished for your reading pleasure.


Look at your watch and time seems evenly spaced out, as if it’s equal – 9AM to 10AM appears equal to 2PM to 3PM. Wrong.

This is where traditional chunk-it-down time management has done us a disservice. We’ve been taught to allocate work to the time most convenient to get it done.

Need 45 minutes to finish that proposal? There’s an opening at 11AM – block it there. Need to call back sales leads? Block it for 2:30PM – you have an opening there.

The problem is…TIME IS NOT EQUAL.

It turns out we all have Power Hours when we’re at our best, ready to perform and able to stay focussed on priorities. And then we have Productive Hours when we need to be doing easier, lower-value work, like: administration, returning calls, regular meetings, and email.

In fact, for about 90% of us our Power Hours are first thing in the morning and, again just after lunch.

So, here’s the hack.

Once you plan your hard work around Power Hours and use Productive Hours for lower-effort work you immediately improve your results.

It turns out we all have Power Hours when we’re at our best, ready to perform and able to stay focussed on priorities.

Now, let’s look at how to harness those Power Hours.


Imagine if your productivity increased by 200%, without working longer. Got your attention?

The only catch is you have to do this one thing every day:

Do the hardest 50% of your work in the first 90 minutes

That’s it – figure out what moves the needle and get it done when you’re at your best.

We all know what the hardest half of our work is. It’s usually what gets pushed to the afternoon. And then tomorrow.

For me it’s sales calls, dealing with client issues, resolving a problem with staff and finishing proposals. Those are high ROI tasks—get them done, I feel like a hero. Procrastinate on them and I feel pressure and more than likely will be working over the weekend.

The 90 minute length is not random — coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement James Loehr, writes that it’s “tied to the ultradian rhythms that regulate physiological markers of alertness at 90- to 120-minute intervals.”

In this video I show you precisely how I make my morning the most important time of my day. In fact, this is the strategy I used to finish my book, launch new events, open my new office, and fill my calendar with speaking engagements. Yup, it works.

NOTE: I’ve discovered that about 15-20% of people I’ve surveyed are not morning people – their peak work times are after lunch and well into the evening. Fine, those are their Power Hours – same productivity hack applies.

Now let’s talk boundaries.


Many people I’ve interviewed design their day around “ramping up” to maximum performance as the day progresses. Once they create a plan, check their email, chat with Joe down the hall, and shuffle paper they expect to be firing on all cylinders.

They’re comfortable in their routine.

Uncomfortable is a very different way to show up. It’s like the day-before-vacation experience when urgency (finally) beats procrastination and for one day you are super human.

The reality is nothing happens until you get uncomfortable.

And uncomfortable is declaring every morning you have a hard-work boundary for 90 minutes. If you have to check urgent emails and double check your day timer, cool, but your goal is undistracted hard work for 90 minutes. With breaks, of course.

Uncomfortable is declaring every morning you have a hard work boundary for 90 minutes.

Maybe you start with a no-email boundary. That would be a big first step. Or do a deep dive and slap a sign on your door that reads “On a conference call (with me)”

My morning boundary has saved me from myself for the last 6 years.

My morning starts at 5AM with 2 hours of writing (like I’m doing right now.) Then it’s outside with my dog, Riley for 40 minutes. Back home, eat, get cleaned up and drive or cycle to my office. When I get to my office it’s straight into my first boundary for hard work.

By 10:30 I feel like a hero. A huge part of my day is crossed off and so is the pressure I used to feel as I got further and further behind.

My second Power Hour is typically 30 minutes after I eat and lasts for about 60 minutes. I also plan that to be highly productive and will block time on my calendar for client calls, writing, calling sub-contractors or planning.

Of course, I have to be able to work distraction-free.


Trust me on this one – if you have not recently removed unwanted distractions from your workspace the 50 in 90 practice will fail faster than you can say “I need a vacation”.

Best intentions have no hope against a workspace cluttered with attention-grabbing distractions.

Here’s a quick test: look around you right now – how many things (other than small children) are screaming “Look at me! Look at me! I need attention.” It takes willpower – the ability to overcome resistance and get work done – to stick to your hardest 50 in 90 practice.

You burn up your tank of willpower every time you ignore your hardest 50 and check Facebook updates, email Inbox, notes on your desk or To-Do list. Do that all morning and your tank will be on reserve by lunch time.

Oh, I forgot – you don’t take lunch.

So, do yourself a big favour – take 30 minutes to remove all unnecessary distractions. My rule is that if it’s unfinished work, it has to go. This includes unfinished books, client files, cables, phone messages, passwords, and unopened mail.

Now there’s one last step…


You’ve committed to the hardest 50 in the first 90 minutes. You even purged your workspace of clutter—the stage is set.

Now get stuff done.

The bottom line is our value comes from who we are and what we do. Even the Dalai Lama has to get stuff done.

The false economy people buy into is action equals productivity. So they reply to emails the minute they come in, flit from Facebook to Instagram (Zuckerberg has you both times), then over to a spreadsheet they’re updating and back to email. That’s lots of action – not much about getting stuff done.

Only results counts.

Changing routines is hard – it’s always easier to run with habits we know than to practice new ones.

Unless, the pain is big enough.

For me the pain was constantly watching important work move to tomorrow and then to next week. Sure, I was busy, but I wasn’t effective.

Doing the hardest 50 percent of your work in the first 90 minutes is all about being effective.

Oh, and one more thing. Don’t chuck the baby if you fall off the wagon once in a while. Stuff happens, expect it, get going again, and move on. I think you’ll be surprised by what happens.