Sometimes You Need to Eat the Frog Later

We’ve all heard or read that it’s best to jump on your toughest tasks early in your work shift, using as a guide this famous aphorism: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Mark Twain typically gets the credit for this line, though French writer Nicholas Chamfort said something similar about toads in the 1700s.

In 2006, my colleague Brian Tracy popularized the concept in his bestselling book, Eat That Frog! Many accepted it as near-gospel, though some who haven’t actually read the book, or didn’t understand it, missed Brian’s point. They usually take Eat that Frog! as a command to work on their least-likeable task first. But in fact, Brian recommends you work on the project or task with the greatest impact first. This may be your hardest task, but not necessarily the one you like least.

I agree that high-impact tasks should take center stage in your schedule. However, I would argue that in many cases, first thing isn’t the best time to “eat that frog.” Here are five reasons why.

1. If the task is awful, it may set the tone for an awful day — Sometimes, working on a task can feel like pulling teeth, or prove so depressing it kills your productivity for the rest of the day. Suppose you start the day trying to fix a program someone else has thoroughly messed up, and you end up stressed out? The rest of the day may prove really tough. What if you’re a manager or supervisor, and your first scheduled task is to fire someone? There’s stepping outside your comfort zone, and then there’s stepping into a quagmire.

2. Not everyone’s at their best first thing — Admittedly, most of us feel freshest just after we get into the office, but others do best after a cup of coffee, and still others may not hit their energy peak until later in the day. If that’s true for you, trying to eat the frog right away will only slow you down. You won’t feel great or produce much if you’re working counterproductively against your brain.

3. Ironically, you’re less likely to procrastinate if you wait a bit — When something imposing stares you in the face, do you jump right on it, or do you hesitate? Maybe sharpen your axe first, spend extra time over your coffee, or get your office just so? It’s all procrastination, and it won’t get you anywhere. Instead of planning to get right on the task, allow yourself settle in, get comfortable, and then get cracking on your tough task. Before long, you’ll be elbows-deep in it.

4. It’s easier to take on a tough task with success under your belt — Contrary to popular advice, many of us do best if we complete a few minor tasks before handling the big ones. That way, you achieve something right away. It may only take an hour to get them done, and then you can focus on the big thing. This works especially well if you hit your energy peak later in the day. If that’s you, take care of simple “housekeeping” tasks in the morning (such as making sure nothing is on fire in your inbox); then, as you accelerate, focus on the tough jobs.

5. Rigid planning may not work in your workplace — It’s easy to make plans, but your workplace may be too dynamic for you to eat the frog immediately. In busy start-ups for example, you may suddenly find yourself having to take unscheduled meetings, talk with important clients, handle new orders, divert to other projects, or even fly out to take care of problems in another state. If so, make sure to put your frog on your to-do list, but not necessarily scheduled for a particular time.

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But sometimes you can’t

In the best of all possible worlds, it would be easy to take care of the most important tasks right away at the beginning of your workday. However, in the world we live in, procrastination may slow you down, you may not get in the groove until later in the day, your workplace may be too chaotic, or you may do better knowing you’ve completed something else before tackling the big job. In situations like those, it makes more sense not to eat that frog right away — to put it off until a bit later instead, when it’s easier for you to handle.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.