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A new take on old wisdom!
Author and humorist Mark Twain allegedly wrote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” It’s a funny thought because it’s sort of gross but will generally be true. The rest of your day is likely to be much better in comparison – unless you’re the frog, of course.
This humorous quote from Twain hasn’t remained a simple quote though – it has become a mantra for personal productivity gurus and motivational speakers, and has spawned books, productivity systems, and 69 million blog posts (69 million and one, if you count this article).
It’s a pretty straightforward idea, even though I doubt if it’s what Twain had in mind. He was likely using it as a humorous way to illustrate the power of perspective. If you think your job sucks, eat a live frog before work and your job won’t seem as bad after all. Of course, if motivational speakers went around advising people to do that, I doubt if the message would be well-received.
“How have gurus reinterpreted Mark Twain?”
In case you’re not familiar with it, the twist put on the Twain quote is that they link it to procrastination. The assumption is that people tend to put off important things that are unpleasant – that we procrastinate because we really don’t want to do something. So the advice from the gurus is to just “eat the frog.” Pick your most important task for the day, which is likely to be an unpleasant task you’ve been avoiding, and do it first.
It can definitely be a simple and effective way to increase your productivity. In fact, I used to have an area marked in the upper right corner of the large whiteboard on my office wall that said, “The Frog.” Before I went home for the day, I looked through my action items list and picked one that I wanted to get done the next day. It had to be something I could do in less than 2 hours and I had to be able to complete it myself. I’d write the item on the whiteboard in the box labeled “The Frog.” When I walked into my office the next morning, I’d glance up at the board and remember my top priority for the day.
It worked very well for me. It forced me to review my action items daily and then helped me focus on one priority item for each day. It also fit great with my schedule. I’d arrive in the office at 8 AM and could generally do deep work for an hour or two. As I discussed in Episode 11 of The Relaxed Leader Podcast (Early Birds SUCK!), my energy level tended to be very high during that time slot, so focusing on one priority task made all the sense in the world.
Eating the frog first thing doesn’t work for me anymore though. My first two hours on the job just aren’t the best for deep work nowadays. I don’t have high energy during those hours and the time is better used doing other tasks.
“If you don't ‘eat the frog,’ what do you do instead?”
Well, like a lot of productivity strategies and tactics, the best ones can be adjusted for individual situations and are resilient enough to remain effective when not perfectly executed. When it comes to the “eat the frog” advice, I still try to retain the core of the approach, which is to identify one priority task per day and get it done, no matter what. Yes, it’s probably best to get it done early so you’re not overcome by events, but it’s not necessarily best to do it as the very first thing.
Once my overall schedule changed and my mornings ended up being fairly low energy for me, I found that doing my priority task first thing often took a lot longer. A task that should take an hour could end up taking twice as long. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to get the task done in the morning because my energy was low and it was just so difficult to get really focused and do deep work.
So what I did was start scheduling 2-hour blocks of focus time during a part of the day when my energy level is much higher. I actually put the time as a meeting on my calendar and show it as “Busy.” Then the evening before, I review my action items list and update the next day’s focus block with the task I’ve selected.
“Do you dread having to eat the frog later in the day?”
I think the idea that “eating the frog” later in the day will cause you to procrastinate is just incorrectly focusing on the analogy. You’re not actually eating a frog. Besides, even if you do it first thing in the morning, you knew it was coming the night before. The critical point is not to do it first thing – it’s to simply make sure you do it. It’s to identify the one critical thing and make sure you get it done.
Honestly, I find myself looking forward to the focus time I’ve put on my schedule. And since I already identified exactly what I’m going to work on, I don’t have to think about it and make a decision. I just have to wait for the scheduled time to arrive and then I get to dive into my top priority work for the day!
One final thought…
If you truly dread having to do your highest priority tasks, you should probably rethink your job choice. The greatest productivity system in the world isn’t going to make you enjoy doing work you hate.
Here’s a more complete version of what Mark Twain wrote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
If you flat out don’t like your job, get the most unpleasant stuff done first, do everything as well as you can, and don’t burn any bridges. Then read my posts on creating your personal vision and start working on creating the life you really want.
There are so many options out there if you create a vision, set your goals, select your strategies, and start executing the right tactics. You can look for a more fulfilling job or even a different career, or you can work on making improvements in your current job. Just remember that Relaxed Leaders don’t worry about perfection, we focus on continuous improvement – and you can do that wherever you are!