This popular productivity hack has its benefits, but there are ways it could be working against you.
There’s a saying: ‘If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.’
To put this into more modern (and less disgusting) terms, if you trudge through that dreaded admin or bunker down and read that dense report as your first task at work, the rest of the day should be a breeze… at least that’s the thinking.
The phrase was popularised in 2001 in Brian Tracy’s time-management book ‘Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. The technique has since been tested by thousands of people keen to hack their work day.
But does it actually work? Is it possible to trick our brains into feeling productive? Some say yes, others aren’t convinced. HRM takes a look at both sides.
True believers and frog eaters
There’s definitely something to be said for ridding yourself of unpleasant tasks as soon as possible. Author Madeleine Dore is an advocate for it. She wrote about incorporating the technique into her morning routine for an entire month. Before heading to bed each night, she’d think about what next morning’s frog would be. When she woke up, she’d tackle it before jumping into any other big jobs for the day.
“This routine gave the feeling of getting two days in one. With the hardest task behind me, I’d then reset, shower and attend to tasks that are usually swallowed up by the snooze alarm – exercise, a full breakfast, and daily meditation,” she says.
Thomas Oppong, founder of AllTopStartups, also found this technique to be useful. In order to identify your critical frogs he suggests categorising tasks into the following categories.
- Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
- Things you want to do and actually need to do.
- Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.
- Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.
The trick is to focus on the answer to the first question and add the others to your list in priority order.
There are plenty of reasons why we should avoid, well, avoidance. According to research from the Association for Psychological Science, chronic procrastination is linked with a vulnerability to illnesses, like a common cold or flu, digestive issues, insomnia and is “significantly associated with having hypertension or cardiovascular disease”. We don’t just have physical responses, it affects our mental capacity too.
Research suggests most people’s willpower and self-control is strongest in the morning and slowly depletes over the period of the day. Willpower is like any muscle in our body, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD and author of The Willpower Instinct.
“Like your biceps or quadriceps the willpower ‘muscle’ can get exhausted from effort,” she says.
Much like stress is a response to external actions, willpower is a response to internal conflict, McGonigal says.
“You know you should do something, like file your taxes or go to the gym, but you’d rather do nothing. The need for self-control sets into motion a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. It’s called the pause-and-plan response and it puts your body into a calmer state, unlike the adrenaline rush of stress.
“It also sends extra energy to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which keeps track of your goals and helps you override impulses and cravings. The result is you have the mindset and motivation to do what matters most.”
The full tank of willpower we have in the morning is why some people say the eat the frog method works, but it could also be the very reason why it doesn’t.
Have cake for breakfast instead?
The fundamental flaw in the eat the frog approach, according to Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, is that crossing off our most hated tasks first thing in the morning puts us in a negative headspace for the rest of the day, and our work suffers as a result.
In an article for Fast Company, he refers to research from psychologist Alice Isen which suggests that when people are in a positive mood, they are more likely to be creative and productive. Makes perfect sense, right? When have you ever produced amazing work off the back of a crabby mood?
Think back to Dore, who did her most hated tasks then reset her day with breakfast, meditation, etc. She didn’t just eat the frog. She ate the frog then did the psychological equivalent of gargling Listerine.
Most people won’t have the resources to do this reset, so they might have to be more careful. Markman says we need to be intentional with how we spend all of our time but that this is perhaps most important in the morning.
To demonstrate this, he refers to another piece of research from Emily Pronin that looked into the different responses our brains have to quick and slow thinking. The former is emotionally-led, instinctual thought and the latter is a more conscious and deliberate process.
Pronin found a connection between fast thinking and an increase in positive moods, including increased self-confidence and more creative insights. Conversely, slow thinking through something you don’t enjoy (your ‘frog’) can have the opposite effect.
So if you’re able to tick your frog off your to-do list quickly, you should be fine, as this would align with the principles of the two minute rule. But if you can’t – which is likely, because we are talking about frogs here – it could end up holding you back and lowering your mood.
“The experience of thinking fast signals a basic imperative for action and triggers a set of responses that mobilize the individual to act,” says Pronin.
It’s worth noting she also identified some negative effects of fast thinking, like increased risk-taking or inducing manic experiences for those prone to them.
Markman’s recommendation suggests we instead start the day by “eating cake for breakfast”. By this he means doing something we enjoy, that’s assuming you like cake of course, otherwise eat [insert delicious dessert of choice here] for breakfast (it has just occurred to me that some people really like eating frog legs, so if you’re such a person, apologies for the confusing metaphors).
Markman suggests finding a task that will take around half an hour to complete – something that’s achievable within one sitting. Not only will you gain a sense of achievement for doing it, you’ll actually enjoy yourself in the process.
“Leave your email and other frustrating tasks for later. When you start your morning in a good mood, it not only mentally prepares you to tackle tasks that require your best work self, it also makes you more resilient to the inevitable frustrations that can creep into the day,” he says.
To see if something like this might work for you, it’s worth returning to Oppong’s article, which looks at the difference between an active and passive procrastinator.
Active procrastinators are able to put things off until later because they know they’ll return to them later – they have good time management skills and work best under pressure. Passive procrastination, however, is driven by anxious feeling and often paralysed by the task at hand.
So before you trial the eat the frog method, it would be wise to identify which category you sit in. Frog swallowing might work best for those who put things off ‘just because’ rather than someone who experiences negative emotions when trying to complete a difficult task. The latter may benefit scoffing cake, as it will put them in a positive mood from the start of the day.
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