Eat Your Frogs
Eat Your Frogs
By Justin Wright
When it comes to actually accomplishing goals, large or small, the ability to prioritize and focus effort is tantamount to success in this category. There is an affliction in the modern world caused by the desire to be busy. Being busy, and having a full calendar, is a relatively easy feat to accomplish. It is much harder to use our time well and actually move the needle in areas where we need to focus our efforts.
Don’t be impressed by a full schedule. Instead, be impressed by the “doers,” by the people who are able to check the boxes, dot the I’s, and cross the T’s. Be impressed by decisiveness, by action, by forward progress. While you’re at it, reflect on your own life and your own schedule briefly before we move on. How much busywork do you put on yourself? How many of your daily tasks are necessary? Better yet, how many of these tasks are actually getting you closer to becoming the person you wish to be in the future? How many are contributing to your identity, and how many are just placeholders for time that could be better spent doing something else?
How do we make progress?
When our goals are big, or when there is a lot that we want to accomplish, it can be overwhelming to conceptualize. Even if you have broken your goals down into smaller ones, focused on creating a daily task list to drive progress, or focused on building identity goals and habits, the mountain is still looming in front of you. Unfortunately, the only way to climb a mountain is to climb a mountain!
It is helpful in these moments to focus your efforts and chip away at the pieces that will yield the biggest returns. Part of this depends on the ability to boil down a larger task list into the most important pieces for each day. While our daily task list and our habits are incredibly important, knowing which pieces to focus on at which times is the determining factor in overall success. Furthermore, there will always be unexpected tasks and obstacles which we must surmount as they appear.
The book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy explores this topic in depth. The title is based on the famous Mark Twain quote: “If you eat a frog first thing in the morning that will probably be the worst thing you do all day.” (1)
Tracy proposes that we must confront our biggest challenges first; we must do the things we don’t want to do early and often. By tackling these obstacles head on, it makes it easier for us to accomplish the smaller things on our lists. Procrastinating when it comes to big-ticket items also has another, sinister effect: it makes it harder to stop procrastinating in the future. The more you procrastinate, the easier it becomes to repeat these behaviors and the harder it becomes to break the cycle.
Daily high-priority targets
In order to effectively eat our frogs, we must be able to distill our list of tasks down into a smaller, more focused list. An incredibly effective strategy that you can employ is creating high-priority targets for each day. Write down three critical tasks first thing in the morning, and list them in order of importance. The most difficult task to accomplish should be the first one you write, followed by the second hardest, and followed lastly by the third.
Why only three, and why write them in order of difficulty? Remember that the goal of this list is to focus your efforts. If too many items are included then it just becomes another task list. Our brains can only focus on so many things at once; including too many items in this priority list is the fastest way to ensure that none of those items get done. Writing them in order of difficulty allows us to see the descending severity of each task. Our brains look for patterns, and we can take advantage of that to create a hierarchy of importance for the day.
This hierarchy is critical because it helps provide perspective on the overall weight of each item. In any standard task list, it can be easy to focus on the raw number of tasks and not realize that they carry varying levels of importance. For example, writing a chapter in a new book takes more time and energy than writing an email response. If we were to simply look at the two tasks side-by-side, it can become difficult to understand these differences.
Get your hands dirty
Once the high-priority list is created, the only thing left to do is get to work. Having the right expectations when starting this work is an equally important detail. Although we must start in on the hardest tasks first, the expectation is not necessarily that we will finish these tasks. If you are making forward progress on the first item on your priority list and hit a snag, or a stopping point, it doesn’t make sense to continue pounding your head against a wall in hopes of forward progress. Despite our best efforts, it may not always be possible to finish the most difficult task before moving on.
Much like the process of working towards goals, the benefit is not necessarily in the result, but in the action and the repetition. Just like with our daily task list, positive momentum is built by taking action on the most challenging obstacles we face each day. While the momentum gained from our daily task list creates a ripple effect and a long-term benefit, the momentum we gain from our high-priority list is realized much sooner. This momentum has the power to propel us through the rest of our day, or even the rest of our week.
Let’s assume that you tackle a crucial problem, or a task that requires an immense amount of energy, first thing during your workday. Let’s assume that you hit a snag and, despite working diligently and putting in effort, you cannot complete this particular task. You then shift gears and tackle the next item on the list. By default, it is easier and less complex than the initial problem you were trying to solve. Even if this item is challenging on its own, you now have the power of perspective on your side. It isn’t as hard as the first thing and, since you were already willing to tackle that item, this new problem can’t be any more challenging.
You have now tricked yourself into being more productive. Your ability to accomplish the other, smaller tasks, has increased. The likelihood of you getting more done at the end of this particular workday has also increased. And if you are able to accomplish that first task instead of hitting a roadblock, even better! The benefits of pursuing more challenging tasks first are realized whether we actually accomplish those tasks or not. It’s a win-win for your productivity, and will ultimately help you more readily combat procrastination in the future.
Eat your frogs
While a large task list can be daunting, we can avoid the stress and paralysis of added responsibility by focusing our efforts. Create a list of high-priority targets each day and limit this list to three items. List them in order of importance so that you can ensure forward progress and added momentum for the rest of your workday.
(1) Tracy, Brian. (2017) Eat That Frog. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.