The Big Idea
Eating a frog is gross… and it doesn’t help your productivity.
Questions I Answer
- Does eating the frog work as a productivity strategy?
- How can I be more productive?
- What’s the best way to increase my productivity?
- How can I avoid burnout or lack of motivation?
Actions to Take
- Get more productive by starting to make your master weekly list at the beginning of each week for the things you know you need to do.
- Instead of planning every day at the beginning of the week, start planning each day as it comes.
Key Topics in the Show
Why the system of ‘eating the frog’ doesn’t work for productivity.
The formula you need instead of discipline in order to get tasks done and goals accomplished.
Big benefits to making plans and celebrating your wins.
How to make sure you don’t become burnt out at the end of the day or week.
Creating successful days full of momentum and progress.
Resources and Links
- The best tips for being more productive:
- Don’t tackle your biggest, most dreaded task on your list right off the bat. Instead, complete a task you WANT to get done that you gain momentum.
- Use the formula: action, inspiration, motivation, repeat.
- Make your weekly master list at the beginning of the week, but create your daily to-do list as each day comes.
- Figure out the smallest task you can accomplish to move you forward and then just do it. Use that as your springboard.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host Tanya Dalton, and this is episode 30. Today’s episode is sponsored by FreshBooks, which is a cloud-based accounting software that’s designed with productivity in mind. It’s the easiest way to get paid quickly and easily, if you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur. And they’re going to be giving away a free trial. I’ll share more about that later on in today’s episode.
Let’s dive into the meat of today’s episode. What are we going to be talking about today? As you know, we are now in season three, and we’re talking all about systems. So I wanted to take some time to talk about systems that I’ve heard about, that don’t really work. Have you heard the term ‘eat the frog?’ It’s a phrase that’s thrown out a lot in the productivity world. It’s one of those fun little sayings that seems like really good advice, but in my opinion, really isn’t. So what does that mean, eat the frog? Well, it’s a belief that you create momentum to your day by tackling the worst item on your to do list first. That you begin by taking on the task that you dread the most, so that once that task is done, the rest of the day will be easier with the not so awful tasks. And you’ll start your day with a sense of accomplishment.
So where does this idea come from? Well, supposedly it’s a phrase built off of a Mark Twain quote, where he once said, “If it’s your job to eat the frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if your job is to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Sounds like something Mr. Twain would say, and the theory was that he was referencing the frog, as the biggest or most important thing on your to do list. The one thing that you would probably most likely procrastinate on, and to eat it just means to do it first thing before you have too much time to think about it. And because Mark Twain is considered one of the greatest American authors, it’s lent some serious validity to this idea.
But here’s what’s really interesting. I think Mark Twain never even said this. There’s absolutely no evidence or documentation of him ever saying this phrase. Even in the Mark Twain archives, there’s no reference to this quote. Most scholars actually theorize it was Nicholas Chamfort who made this comment back in the late 1700s about swallowing a toad, but he wasn’t talking about productivity. He was referencing dealing with society, and particular French society prior to the Revolution. Not productivity. Two very different things. So I feel like a lot of people think that Mark Twain was so successful, he had great productivity, and if he thought that this would work, it should work for them as well.
But it doesn’t really work that way. First of all, we know Mark Twain didn’t really say this, and second of all, I really don’t think that’s how it works. This is one of
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those ideas that on paper, seems like really good, sound advice. After all, you really don’t want to spend your day with a sense of dread with that not so fun task looming, right? Because then it just creates a sense of, oh, I don’t really want to work on this, and I’m gonna put it off. And that’s the issue. It’s a good theory, but when it comes to the act of executing, it actually does the opposite of that intention. It becomes a device for procrastination. Think about it. For this to work, you must develop a routine of making yourself do something every single morning that you don’t really even want to do.
That requires some serious discipline. And discipline isn’t really the key to getting things done. We’ll be talking more about why discipline doesn’t work in our next episode, so we’ll definitely be talking that in just a little bit. But it really requires a lot of discipline, and because discipline doesn’t work for most people, and it doesn’t really help you get things done, you’re gonna end up with that daunting task sitting there and you’re going to want to procrastinate on it. So for most people, it is really overwhelming to start with that worst thing on our list first, especially with no warmup at all. Think of it like pushing a heavy object up a hill. Let’s say like a big boulder. Going from standing still is the hardest part.
You know what makes pushing a heavy object easier? Momentum. And that’s what you should do instead. Don’t worry about eating that frog. Start by building momentum, and find velocity to really help push you through on these tasks that you really don’t want to do. Let’s be honest. We all have things on our to do list that aren’t really our favorites, right? There’s certain things that we have to do, whether it’s for our jobs or at home, or whatever it is that we are not looking forward to. But if you have some velocity and some momentum building, it makes those tasks even easier.
I do definitely agree with Mark Twain in a quote that he did say, which is, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” And this is actually the quote that I use to motivate myself the year that we launched Inkwell Press. And because it was such a motivational quote for me, I use that as our quote of the year that year because I really believe in that. The secret to getting ahead is getting started. Just a little bit of getting started builds that momentum. Action isn’t just the effect of motivation. It’s also the cause of it.
Generally, we tend to think of things done in this flow: inspiration, motivation, and then desirable action. But we know that it’s easier to get more things done when you start somewhere. You’ve heard me say this again and again, where I say, “It’s really hard to start with a blank page. So I’m gonna get you started.” I know that when you’re looking at that blank sheet, it feels like I don’t even know where to begin. So having that momentum gives you a starting point. Having a small win motivates you to keep going, keep pushing through, even on those tasks you really don’t want to do.
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So we can change our mindset of getting things done, to action, inspiration, motivation, repeat. Action, inspiration, motivation, repeat. Action, inspiration, motivation, repeat. That action gets you started, and it boosts your inspiration, it boosts your momentum forward, and then you have more motivation. And then you just keep repeating that. So you want to build up the small wins. Start small to build that momentum, and use the confidence that you build from accomplishing these small wins, to them move onto our bigger tasks. Or the tasks that we really don’t want to do. So for example, if your goal was to run a 5k, you wouldn’t just get up off your couch and start running a 5k. You’d start maybe with just running a 1/4 mile, or a 1/2 mile. And then building it up, and then you’re running a mile, and then you’re running a mile and a half, and you would get that going.
You need to start with that momentum. And it’s the same thing with the other tasks in your day. I’m not saying that you can’t tackle the daunting tasks that you have in the morning. I’m just saying, you need to create some small wins first. Build the momentum so those dreaded tasks become even easier. I think the morning is a great time to take on the dreaded task, because it’s true. You don’t want that dread looming over you. That stress of, “Oh gosh, I have to work on whatever this project is, or this task.” But start with those small wins.
You’ve heard me use the term springboard, probably a thousand times in this podcast. And that’s because I believe they work. Not only do they propel you forward, but they move you forward faster. Newton’s Law of Inertia states, “That an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” So an object in motion continues to be in motion, even if there is that daunting task ahead. Generally when you do something, even the smallest of actions, it gives you the inspiration and the motivation to do something else. Okay, I did that, I guess I can do more. I made a small win, I’m gonna keep pushing forward.
So that’s the benefit of starting with these small wins. If you have a big, daunting task ahead of you, figure out the smallest task you can accomplish right now to move you forward and then just do it. Use that as your springboard. So for example, if you have a book you’ve been wanting to write for a while, you force yourself to sit down and just create a basic outline. Just do that. Today say, “You know what? I’m going to create a basic outline.” That seems really achievable, and it seems like something you can accomplish. And you’ll find that once you get that outline done, you actually want to move forward to the next part. And before you know it, you’re energized and engaged in the project. That’s a springboard. Start with something small and use it to move you forward.
It works as velocity because you know the direction and the end goal, and you’re taking steps towards it. The key is that when you do get started with some
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small wins, you want to make sure you’re rewarding yourself for your significant accomplishments right away. You want to make sure that if you’ve done something small, like you’ve made that outline for that book, right away you reward yourself. Your brain doesn’t recognize the reward of, “Oh, you know what? I’m gonna give myself dessert at dinner.” Because eating dessert five hours later as a reward, doesn’t connect with your brain. It doesn’t feel that win.
So reward yourself with just something small. Maybe a little piece of candy or fruit, or something five minutes of looking at cat videos or whatever it is that you want to do. Give yourself a little running list of small rewards you can give yourself and make sure you’re doing that, because it does give your brain that extra boost. ‘Cause you have to cut out the negative momentum. You need to recognize that you’ve gotten something done, and just keep moving forward. You don’t want to dwell on what you haven’t done. We tend to do that a lot of times to ourselves. We think about yeah, I got this outline done, but why didn’t I do this months ago? Recognize what you’ve done to move you forward and let go of the things that you have not done. Be in the present. Recognize that in the present moment, you have a choice about how to proceed.
One of the key reasons people recommend this eating the frog system is because we as people do tend to procrastinate, and I don’t want you to confuse activity with productivity. What I’m not doing here is I’m not recommending that you do a bunch of small, insignificant tasks in order to get started. That’s really procrastination. Rather, have a plan in place to still be accomplishing things that are important, and allow you to build up to tackling those froggy tasks, right? Those ones that are not so great. So examples of procrastination disguised as productivity are things like, oh, you know what? I know I have this project to work on, but I’m gonna clean my desk first, when your desk looks just fine. Or I’m gonna reorganize my filing system. I’m going to color code my filing system, that’s the one I hear a lot.
So make sure these little tasks you’re doing to build this momentum are really little wins, and not just ways to procrastinate. Doing a lot of menial work can be just as harmful to your productivity as mindlessly scrolling through social media. And don’t give into that myth that procrastination is natural. It’s just how you work. If you’ve been putting something off, ask yourself why. Often there’s a larger problem at hand, like a lack of direction in the task, or fear of failure, or maybe the task just doesn’t align with your priorities. Ask yourself what you really need to do, and get done in this task and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And that’s what’s important. What can I do right now in this very moment to get that momentum going? You want to stay consistent, and you want to get used to working hard and completing your tasks every day. This consistency gets wired into your brain.
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But I do want to make sure that you do take breaks to sustain your energy. We know that our brains work on a specific rhythm and require breaks every 90 to 120 minutes. Work within that rhythm to help sustain that momentum. So you’ll want to get up, walk around, make a cup of tea or coffee, go outside for a few minutes. Breaks work best when they’ve been taken before they’re needed. So be conscious of when your body starts giving you that lower return of productivity, and take a break because you want to make sure you’re keeping that momentum going.
Some people feel like they should always push themselves harder and push themselves to the point where they just don’t feel like working. And that’s just a recipe for burnout. And it actually hurts your productivity in the long run. We want to get the momentum going. Ernest Hemingway recommends what he calls leaving water in the well. And his advice was specifically about writing. So he always said, “Never stop writing without knowing how you’re going to start again.” And this basically translates to never ending a day’s work without knowing how you’re going to start the next day. If you can’t finish a task, know exactly what your next action items are so you can come back to it. You’ll reduce the energy it takes to start a task, and it gives you less of a reason to procrastinate. You’ll know what your small wins need to be the next time you’re ready to work on this project.
Even if you’re excited about a task, it can be really hard to jump back in after time away from it. You might’ve forgotten what that next step is supposed to be. So save yourself the time, write down your next action item, and make notes for your future self. What are the next three things you would do if you had time? Or what problems still need to be solved? You want to finish tasks to completion, ’cause you don’t want to find yourself with a bunch of tasks started and nothing done. But you want to make sure that you’re not burning yourself out.
In just a minute, I want to share with you what I think is the most important part of creating a successful day. And part of that is of course, creating a successful system. But first, I just want to take a few seconds to share a little bit more about today’s sponsor FreshBooks.
You’ve heard me singing the praises of FreshBooks before. But I really do truly love how it simplifies finances for freelancers and entrepreneurs. With features like automated reminders for unpaid invoices, automatic recurring invoices and more, it helps you spend less time worrying about the money and more time on the things you really do love about your business. And that, my friends, is productivity. Right? Now the amazing people at FreshBooks have kindly offered a free unrestricted trial for my listeners. All you need to do to redeem it is head to freshbooks.com/paradox and in that section that says, “How did you find us?” Type in Productivity Paradox. They’ll get you started.
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Okay. Let’s get back to chatting about creating our successful days. And I think it’s not about creating the frog, as you now know of course. But what I think is most important is making your days achievable. Nothing is less motivating than ending your days feeling like you failed. And if you find that you’re not ending your days feeling successful, it may not be you. It may be that your days are setting you up for failure. Are you putting too much on your agenda for each day?
Now, I’m all for making a master list of what we need to do each week, but if you’re looking at that long list every single day, it can feel daunting and overwhelming. Now I love the idea of a long master list of what you want to do. I do this for myself, I do it on Sundays for my home items and on Monday mornings for work. This list can be long, there are weeks where it is really long. And that’s why you really need to break it down and create a list for each day, not just for the week. This can be that well that Hemingway was talking about. You pull from that well, which is your weekly list. You pull from that well, bucket by bucket. Or each day. So that’s leaving a little bit of water in your well.
Here’s what I want you to do, though. I don’t want you to make your daily list at the same time that you make your weekly list. I want you to plan each day as it comes. So you’re not going to sit down on Sunday and plan out every single day of the week. That’s a recipe for unachievable days. Why is that? Well, because let’s say Monday starts out great. You feel on track, you’ve gotten your work done. But Tuesday? Well, Tuesday is not so successful. It starts out with maybe a kid crawling in your bed at 4:00 in the morning, followed by a morning where you’re downing allergy medications thanks to the pollen in the air and you feel like your head is stuffed jampacked full of cotton, and you never seem to recover. To put it nicely, Tuesday’s a mess.
But unfortunately, if you’ve planned out every single day, Wednesday starts out with you already feeling behind because we have to make up for Tuesday. And you have to do all the tasks from Tuesday and Wednesday to feel successful. You feel buried and it’s not even 9:00 am. And before you know it, it’s Thursday and it just continues. It’s hard when you feel so behind as soon as you get up in the morning. So treat each day like a new opportunity. Some days will be amazing and you will get twice as much accomplished as you expected. And some days, well some days are just Tuesdays and that’s okay.
Having a list for each day not only allows you to focus on those tasks, but it makes our days achievable. And that is the key. Not eating the frog. Not tackling that big task. It’s about building that momentum. Setting up our days to be achievable, and that combination helps you feel like you’re winning. And when you feel like you’re winning, you feel more motivated to move forward. You feel more excited about each
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day, and getting these big dreams and these big goals accomplished. And that’s really what I want for you.
Okay. I hope that this helps talking about why eating the frog doesn’t work. I am going to be talking next week about creating habits. So each one of these systems is building on themselves, so that we can have a comprehensive system ready to go by the end of this season. I would love to have you join me in our new Facebook group, which you can find at InkwellPress.com/group. I’m in there and we are having great conversations about productivity, systems, editing, anything you can imagine productivity-related. So I’d love to see you there. Or as always, you can connect with me on social media using the username @inkwellpress. Alright, I’m looking forward to talking to you about habits next week, and until then, happy planning.
**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.
Tanya Dalton is a female keynote speaker who specializes in time management, productivity, goal setting and finding purpose.