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Eat your frog now, or save it for later? A guide to prioritizing your day

Business · 12 min read

Eat your frog now, or save it for later?

What’s with this frog business? It’s a reference to the American writer Mark Twain’s assertion that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, things can only get better after that.

Now it’s become a golden rule for personal productivity. And there are others. Many, many others …

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, unrelenting economic growth would mean that no one would have to work more than 15 hours a week. The problem he foresaw was how humanity could possibly dream up ways to use all those free hours. 

Cut to the present day and it clearly hasn’t worked out like that. We may be engaged in a different kind of work, but the hours we devote to it haven’t gone down – while the number of different tasks we’re expected to perform has gone way up.

Help is at hand. Self-help, at any rate

This change in the nature of work has spawned a virtual industry in the writing of books telling us how to do it. At the last count there were more than 4,000 of them, along with countless apps and programs. Read them all and, ironically, you’d never get anything done. So let’s just look at the big hitters, starting with our amphibian metaphor.

Eat That Frog!

Half a million global sales would suggest author Brian Tracy is on to something pretty revolutionary, but at the heart of his best-seller there’s a simple maxim. If 20% of your activities account for 80% of your results (the Pareto Principle), it makes sense to tackle the 20% first. So if your day presents you with 10 jobs, do the two hard ones (the frogs) before moving onto the easy ones. The uglier the frog, the sooner you should tuck in.

Another school of thought holds that sorting out the easy jobs first gets you into the work groove right from the get-go, and gives you the reassurance that you have the rest of the day to deal exclusively with the frogs. It could also be argued that if your working day involves that many nasty tasks, you might be in the wrong job.

But the sales figures speak for themselves, and the book is filled with lots of other practical advice about motivation, planning, discipline and the importance of writing lists.

"The key is in not spending time, but in investing it."  Stephen R. Covey

‘The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich’

Author Tim Ferriss can now afford to live up to the title of his bestselling guide to self-improvement, having sold over 1,350,000 copies worldwide.

He urges readers to work smarter by:

  • Adopting the 80/20 Pareto Principle

  • Eliminating time-wasting activities

  • Taking ‘mini-retirements’ throughout your working life

  • Checking your emails just once or twice a day

  • Outsourcing everything you can to third parties in Asia
     

So when would Tim Ferris eat the frog? Chances are he’d delegate the task to someone else, but he does have this to say: "What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do," which gives us a clue.

The book divides critics and his writing style is not for everyone, but legions of fans claim to have significantly reduced the hours of their working week after reading it.

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"The key is in not spending time, but in investing it."

Stephen R. Covey

Tim Ferris’s ‘not-to-do’ list for entrepreneurs:
 

  1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers

  2. Do not email first thing in the morning or last thing at night

  3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time

  4. Do not let people ramble

  5. Do not check email constantly  – 'batch' and check at set times only

  6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers

  7. Do not work more to fix being overwhelmed  –  prioritize what matters

  8. Do not carry a smartphone 24/7

  9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should
     

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Samuel Beckett

‘Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth’ 

OKRs? Objectives and Key Results. You set objectives and measure the results. The title of John Doerr’s bestseller says it’s a simple idea and it is, but the way it’s implemented is claimed to have had dramatic results for many blue-chip companies such as Intel, Google, Amazon and Uber.

Not that OKRs is a technique aimed solely at big business. You’ll find much advice here that you can put into practice whether you’re a startup or an SME. However, the case studies – which make up the bulk of this very readable book – are perhaps too specific to the cases described for you to bolt them wholesale onto your own company.

Would John Dooer recommend eating the frog first, or putting it off until later? He doesn’t say specifically, but it’s safe to assume he’d recommend setting the objective of finding out – and then measuring the results.

According to Dooer, OKRs comprise four ‘superpowers’: 

Superpower #1: Focus and Commit to Priorities
Superpower #2: Align and Connect for Teamwork
Superpower #3: Track for Accountability
Superpower #4: Stretch for Amazing

"One worthwhile task carried to a successful conclusion is worth half-a-hundred half-finished tasks."  Malcolm S. Forbes

‘The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results’

According to authors Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan, this 1.3 million-seller will help you:

  • Cut through the clutter
  • Achieve better results in less time
  • Build momentum toward your goal
  • Dial down the stress
  • Overcome that overwhelmed feeling 
  • Revive your energy 
  • Stay on track
  • Master what matters to you

And the ‘simple truth’ that can bring all this about? It’s that multitasking is seriously overrated, and that instead you should focus on the ONE thing you can do each day that will create the best and most positive results. The rest is just filler.

As with many other books in the personal productivity self-help genre, the idea is inspired by the Pareto Principle, while it also riffs on the Pomodoro technique – the system of breaking tasks down into pre-set intervals. For example, you set your phone’s timer for three hours and do nothing but monitor competitor activity during that time.

And so to the frog question. It’s almost certain that the authors of ‘The One Thing’ would endorse a frog-first policy. BUT they’d add the proviso that the frog had to be worth eating in the first place: just because a job is difficult doesn’t always make it important.

‘Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity’

There are two kinds of ‘stuff’ in David Allen’s influential business book. The first is the stuff that floats around in our heads, impeding productivity and creating stress. The second is the physical or electronic stuff you need to move it all into: filing cabinets, lists, trashcans, calendars and so on. According to Allen, “the mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

Delete, delegate or defer?

So the Getting Things Done, or GTD, method is all about clearing headspace of plans and projects – delegate, defer or delete – so that you can devote your attention to actually accomplishing tasks instead of recalling and deliberating on them. First published in 2001 and since updated to reflect the contemporary challenges to productivity, the book has sold more than 2 million copies and the author has amassed 1.2 million followers on Twitter.

Is Allen a frog-first kind of guy? You’d have bet the farm on it, but here he parts company with most of the other productivity gurus and time-management ninjas. His Two-Minute Rule stipulates that if you’re faced with a task that’ll take two minutes or fewer to carry out, go right ahead and do it. Get it out of the way. Any longer than two minutes, add it to your list.

It’s all about the list.

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