Scoffing the frog

How one productivity hack almost destroyed my career

Many years ago I came across the concept of “eating your frog first.” This was a concept developed by Brian Tracy based on a quote widely attributed to Mark Twain:

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Mark Twain
 

As a productivity hack, this roughly translates to: start day with your most important task, before anything else can distract you. Or in some instances, start your day with the task you are most likely to procrastinate on.

Like Mark Twain’s quote says, once that task is out of the way, nothing worse (in this case, harder to start) can disrupt your working day.

This productivity hack really caught my imagination. I would look at my to-do list for the day and nothing on there seemed worse than eating a whole live frog. For me in the early stages of my career, the ‘frog’ often looked like making a hard phone call (or any phone call–I was terrified of calls!), having a difficult conversation or starting a work product with a blank sheet of paper.

This hack really worked for me. I would make those calls, have those conversations, start that report and initiate that analysis.

Looking at the science behind procrastination explains why this technique is so effective. Procrastination is essentially a flight response to something your brain is perceiving as a threat. Eating the frog was a way of goading yourself to get over that initial flight response. Often if we can convince ourselves to start, the initial pain response diffuses and momentum keeps us going.

Fast forward several years into my career. Eating the frog was doing a lot for me. I was productive: I would tackle the difficult parts of projects rather than spinning my wheels or needing outside motivation from managers. I was bold: I often would take on more difficult tasks that my peers were busy finding ways to avoid. I was ‘impressive’: I tackled things at a whirlwind pace that made others wonder where I got my energy from.

Where did it start to go wrong?

It was the very energy with which I attacked my to do list that started to put me in a position where my career was at risk. The problem becomes evident when you consider the source of that energy:

Fear.

I was using an ‘eat the frog’ approach to my to-do list to make myself do things that scared me. I was driving my productivity through reacting to flight response. And in turn, generating more painful situations my brain kept wanting to avoid.

But this fear-fuelled approach had its downsides.

The more I took on, the bigger the frogs got. Managers started trusting me with more, clients started asking for more, I started expecting more.

Eating the frog no longer looked like one small tree frog. That frog was now a huge cane toad that took hours to eat. And I was still trying to get it done in the first couple of hours of the day.

This meant coming in earlier to have longer periods to work on the frog before everyone else got to work.

This meant feeling like I hadn’t accomplished anything until I had gotten my ‘frog task’ done.

This meant developing a prickly demeanour around the office so that people wouldn’t interrupt me until I was ready to be interrupted.

This meant feeling like a failure if I couldn’t complete my task, or worse, the task was taken off me.

This meant burning out on the first task I tackled for the day, making me almost only good for one thing on any given day.

This singular focus had developed and embedded many negative behaviours into my way of working. Not only that, but I felt like this approach was core to how I added value at my organisation. My work identity was tied to this way of working, further compounding the fear-driven productivity frenzy.

This didn’t just affect me. The more stressed I got as a result of these workplace behaviours, the more stress I reflected to my teams and managers. The hack that had made me so popular with my managers, was beginning to do the exact oposite.

Scoffing the frog lead to a lot of stress (Photo by energepic.com from Pexels)

How had this productivity hack gone so wrong?

I was scoffing my frogs.

I knew I had to change.

1. Recalibrate expectations

Firstly, I needed to adjust expectations, starting with my own. Some circumstances at work helped with this as I changed teams and moved to a new leadership. This was the perfect opportunity to change the expectations I placed on myself, which ultimately drove the expectations of my new leadership.

Part of this was letting go of productivity being the ultimate measure of success. Working in consulting where hours are money, this is an ongoing challenge. But I started focusing on how the work was useful to others, not just how ‘complete’ or ‘pretty’ my output was, or how many hours I had taken to produce it.

2. Chunk up work

As much as adjusting expectations helped, I still had stuff I needed to get done. I started to breakdown tasks more. Rather than looking at a set of analyses or a report that needed writing as a single ‘frog’ that needed to be scoffed, I would break it down into components. Analysis had phases, reports had sections, conversations could happen gradually.

Not only did this help get me off the frog scoffing treadmill, it helped with other areas of professional development. Completing work in components helped me take a more iterative approach to work, meaning I could have inflight reviews and adjust course to get the results closer to my manager or client’s requirements. Chunking work made it much easier to delegate work as I stepped into project leadership roles. And chunking work forced me to think through the approach I was taking more consciously, resulting in higher quality work.

3. Value work differently

The other aspect I had to look at is what work I considered useful. The scoff-the-frog approach encouraged me to look only at outputs as valuable: What could I tick off my to-do list? What could I hand over to my manager? What could I deliver to my client?

Resetting expectations enabled me to understand that work wasn’t just about output. Chunking up work enabled me to see all the steps that got me from the beginning of a task to the end. These two new perspectives helped me to value less tangible work processes such as knowledge work, research, reflection and planning. These were just as legitimate activities to set aside time for and add to my to-do list or calendar.

4. Mix up my methods

Next I had to tackle how to stay productive now that the pressure of eating the frog had started to abate. Even just recalibrating my expectations actually took the pressure off, reduced the panic associated with my work and made the work itself more appealing. This had a natural procrastination-reducing effect as my brain was less likely to trigger a flight response to work I wasn’t dreading.

I also started to use other productivity hacks (yes, hacks still do have a place!) and healthly work practices. These included the Pomodoro technique, calendarising focused working time, getting better at saying no, and setting physical and digital ‘do not disturb’ routines. This enabled me to inject productivity into my day at any point, not just in the morning when no one else was around.

5. Refresh my identity

This last point is closely related to the first. Changing my expectations of myself and reshaping the expectations others had of me meant I could no longer ground my work identity in my productivity. In all honesty, there was a sense of loss associated with this. I had lost that frog-scoffing, get-things-done powerhouse persona I had developed for myself.

But this also enabled me to invest in other aspects of my work identity that I am finding much more fulfilling: differentiating myself on ‘how’ I get things done not ‘how much’ I get done, developing leadership skills, investing into others, and continuously improving through lifelong learning.

Stop scoffing the frog.

This is very much still a work in process.

While eating the frog can be a very effective way of tackling something that is all too easy to procrastinate on, I now mainly use it as a ‘last resort’ when my ability to avoid procrastination through good planning, collaboration and values-based working hasn’t quite gotten me across the line. Those times when I just need a little kick up the proverbial to get moving on something important.

The rest of the time, I recalibrate my expectations, chunk up the work, prioritise the valuable work, and mix up my productivity hacks.

How do you make sure you get stuff done during your work day?

 

References

On procrastination and the flight response: Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski on Coursera

#leadershipdevelopment #selfdevelopment #workhacks #identity #productivity