Have you ever been to a French restaurant only to find the menu unintelligible? So you ask the waiter for today’s special, and it’s… frog legs. Gulp.
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.
As eccentric as it might sound, Mark Twain made this bold statement in the 19th century when coons, possums, prairie hens, and frogs were staples in American cuisine, especially in the Deep South. Despite the shock value and people’s initial reaction to the idea of frogs, they are actually nutritious. In the same way, eating the frog is beneficial to your productivity.
The Eat the frog method is Brian Tracy’s spin on Mark Twain’s reflection that accomplishing a high-impact task (namely that ugly frog you’ve been avoiding) first thing in the morning will set you up for success, both in the short- and long run. Let’s see how.
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The benefits of eating the frog
With enough practice, eating the frog:
- Improves concentration. Singular focus helps those of us who are easily-distracted, since multitasking is the greatest productivity hoax of all times. It brings clarity of mind while making sure we understand how task dependencies tie in with one another, and thus visualize in which order to complete them.
- Aids with prioritization. It leads to a virtuous cycle of making consistent and meaningful progress. Studies show that progress is, in fact, a predictor of happiness, engendering a sense of accomplishment in the workplace.
- Dispels “busy” work. By time-boxing shallow work (passive or reactive work, e.g. responding to emails, Slack threads, attending meetings) away from deep work (active work, e.g. outlining a project, drafting a proposal, programming, fixing a bug). It tackles that false sense of productivity – checking things off your list that don’t lead you anywhere near significant progress.
Eating the frog rids you of the dopamine high
As it is with exotic dishes, some love it while others dread it. On the one hand, there are the go-getters and overachievers, who have little to no problem eating their frog mostly because they are not bothered by internal or external factors. On the other hand, most people struggle with it due to their aversion to uncomfortable, distasteful tasks or due to procrastination, perfectionism, or impostor syndrome.
To be honest, you can’t always do what you like. Dopamine triggers incentive salience, which says “I know what pleasure looks like, and this ugly frog sure ain’t it”.
While dopamine doesn’t create pleasure, it primes your brain to handle incoming information as either pleasurable (compulsive Internet and social media use) or distasteful (working on that tedious report). By eating that frog, you reduce the time spent on problematic behavior (procrastination, Internet bingeing) as you build a habit of deep work.
TIP: Resist the urge to ease your way into work by tackling something menial first (or worse, indulging in fun distractions), especially if you are a freelancer. If you work remotely, make sure you do not start with a fun distraction to ease your way into work.
So, on with our metaphor. Go ahead and eat the frog.
What does the frog look like?
Your frog is not something you absolutely love doing. Your frog is also not an urgent task. It is not the “do-or-die” kind, otherwise, it would’ve been accomplished it already.
Your frog is either a difficult task or an important task. Worse yet, your frog could be both. If you are truly unlucky, it’s also as boring as it can get.
Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to sort frogs from tadpoles (unimportant or low-priority tasks). Ask yourself, have you put off a meaningful task for as long as you remember, and you cannot deal with it because the mere thought of it creates anxiety? Get it out of your backlog – dead frogs give off a terrible stench.
Portion control: tackle your ugliest one frog. While others tackle 3-5 ugly frogs, it is good advice to start by eating just one. Do not overeat, otherwise, you might not want to do it again. Same as it is with running – you don’t run a 5K on your first day of training. Start incrementally despite your enthusiasm to achieve more. Otherwise, you will be crippled by the mounting workload and unrealistic expectations of yourself.
When should you eat that frog?
Schedule it first thing after your morning routine. Time-box your schedule so that you work uninterrupted for up to a maximum of 4 hours. Or even better, set yourself a tighter deadline. If it takes you four hours to complete a task, try to reduce it to half. Parkinson’s Law of Productivity swears by its efficiency.
The lark versus owl paradigm. A more nuanced approach consists of the four chronotypes: lion, bear, wolf, and dolphin. Even if you are not a morning person, eat that frog as soon as your brain fog clears up. It might be 8-10 a.m. (lions and bears) or any time after noon (wolves and dolphins). Find the right time frame for you. Test, learn, reiterate.
Use a time tracker like Paymo. By using it consistently, you will be able to estimate how long a task takes on average and make better estimations in the future. Not to mention that you can account for your mental stamina as well.
Portion size: finish one frog in 1-4 hours. The key is to have it in sizable chunks. If you gobble the frog whole, you’ll probably choke. If your task is not clearly defined or SMART, but vague (e.g. finish report), you will probably procrastinate.
Preparing yourself to eat the frog
Let’s suppose this dish needs long hours in the slow cooker. Then, you would have to do so prep time in advance: order your frog the night before, at the latest.
- Plan the night before. Don’t give your drowsy brain time to choose what to do early in the morning – you might be too comfortable and pick the easiest task, which is counterproductive to this method. Plus, more often than not, people have a good grasp of their schedule and enough clarity the night before to know what should be done the next day.
- Set up your work environment. One amazing hack from cooking is mise-en-place, the “putting in place” of everything you need before you begin working on your task. Set up your workspace so that it is conducive to deep work. Have your laptop and research materials ready, your stationery if needed, and a clean desk for mental clarity. If you can do the mise-en-place the night before, even better!
How to eat the frog
- Hermit mode: ON. If the nature of your work or your task allows it, use an empty room with no possible distractions. Lock the door. Work offline if possible. Turn off notifications. Use Internet blockers. Turn off your smartphone, or even better, leave it in another room. See what works for you. What I tell myself: “Alexa, you have a choice – you can either eat your frog or starve”. This translates to “You can either work on your task or do nothing else at all”. Fear of boredom is a good cure-all.
- Monotasking. You are already monotasking by working on one task instead of juggling shallow and deep work activities every other minute. Even so, try to single-task by keeping one tab open at a time or reading one research paper at a time.
- Fight the mental resistance, the urge to procrastinate. Feeling distracted? Mind-dump those distractions on a piece of paper and tell yourself you will tackle those during your shallow work sessions. I personally have a log called “fleeting thoughts” that I time-box during the week. Feeling meh? Resist the urge to mindlessly watch YouTube videos or check social media updates. Those interruptions will derail you from your task and engender a great deal of guilt and frustration.
- Know when to take a break. Work in 25-min or 50-min pomodoro sessions. Taking a break allows your brain to push the task onto the Hinterkopf (German for “back of your brain”) for it to find solutions during unfocused sessions. That Eurika! moment will come, provided that you do something relaxing, such as taking a walk, dozing off, or playing music.
- Practice self-compassion. Forgive yourself for lagging behind, for giving in to procrastination. If you fail today, forgive yourself, and try again tomorrow. Make sure you give yourself a mental clean slate, otherwise the guilt, frustration, and resentment along with the heavy workload will cripple you.
TIP: Time management can help too, provided you block time for doing the planned tasks the night before. An online employee time tracking software can help with this.
Enjoy your meal!
By eating the frog – a.k.a. building a habit of deep meaningful work – you set yourself on the fast-track to achieve your goals and make progress that truly counts.
So, next time you find yourself in a fancy French restaurant, order those cuisses de grenouilles à la Provençale and remind yourself how satisfying it is to get outside of your comfort zone and go at it! Frogs are an acquired taste after all. Bon Appétit!