If you're like most people, you start work around the same time everyone else does. You check your email (if you haven't already), return a few calls, fight fires that started overnight or are still smoldering from the day before, and before you know it, hours have passed and you haven't done any of the things you intended to do.

And you definitely haven't gotten a start on your most important task for the day. (Because you should always have one or two things on your list that you absolutely must get done.)

Sure, you've been busy. But have you been productive?

Nope -- because you got caught up in the whirlwind of work.

What you need are a few hours to yourself. But how?

One answer is to get up really early. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his morning routine -- not just his morning, his morning routine -- at 3:45. General Motors CEO Mary Barra gets to the office by 6 a.m. Best-selling author Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, etc.) gets up at 4 a.m., has a smoothie and a cup of bulletproof coffee, and then grinds away.

Shoot, I'm usually working by 5:30 a.m.

But that doesn't mean that what seems right for all the early birds is right for you. What matters isn't when you start your day -- it's how you start your day.

Most people who get up early do so because they can take advantage of a few hours of solitude. Start working at 5 a.m. and relatively few people will interrupt you. Your phone doesn't ring. Your inbox doesn't ding. Your office door stays empty. You can be proactive, not reactive.

But even if you don't start your workday until, say, 10 a.m., that doesn't mean you can't structure your day in the same way. You'll just have to create a routine that allows you to hit the ground running, relatively undisturbed.

Maybe that means locking yourself away for a couple of hours. Maybe that means working from home, and then heading in. Maybe that means training everyone around you to understand that the first two hours are your hours.

(While that might sound impossible, think about it: Everything you do "trains" the people around you in terms of how they can treat you. Let employees interrupt your meetings or phone calls because of "emergencies," and they'll feel free to interrupt you any time. Drop what you're doing every time someone calls and people will always expect immediate attention. Return emails immediately and people will expect an immediate response. In short, your actions give other people permission to keep you from working the way you work best -- so why not retrain the people around you so that you actually can work the way you work best?)

Or you could shift your quiet hours to the evening. No one says you have to start before everyone else -- you can just as easily finish after everyone else.

When you start working doesn't matter. When you stop working doesn't matter.

What matters is what you accomplish during the hours you work. Productivity is never based on when you start -- it's all about what you finish.

And since we're all individuals, you get to figure out how to make your day as productive as possible.