“Most people overestimate what they can get done in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade.”
This famous piece of wisdom (most commonly attributed to Bill Gates) holds true over shorter time spans too. We tend to overestimate what we can get done in a day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a year.
How do we get around this quirk of human psychology? How do we make consistent progress toward our biggest goals without drowning day-to-day in our overly optimistic to-do lists?
If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.
The answer is a deceptively simple and memorably (if somewhat grossly) named productivity method called Eat The Frog. This method is particularly powerful for people who:
- Struggle with procrastination
- Get a lot done but aren’t making progress on the important stuff
- Have a hard time sticking to a productivity system
- Have trouble deciding what to work on at any given time
- Feel overwhelmed by their to-do list
What is Eat The Frog?
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
Productivity consultant Brain Tracy named the Eat The Frog method after this vivid piece of advice from Mark Twain. While there’s more power and nuance to this method than meets the eye, it all boils down to this: Identify one important task for the day and do it first.
At this point, you may be thinking “ONE TASK? ARE YOU INSANE? I HAVE DOZENS OF THINGS I HAVE TO GET DONE EVERY DAY. I CAN’T POSSIBLY DO JUST ONE THING!”
Bear with me. If you feel pulled in a million directions and overwhelmed by the number of tasks on your plate each day, I’d argue that this method will be even more powerful for you. It’s not that you’ll kick up your feet and call it a day once you’ve eaten your one frog. You’ll still work on other things, but your most important (often your most difficult task that requires the most energy and focus) will be prioritized first before all those other less-important-but-more-urgent things get in the way. For example, Doist’s founder and CEO routinely checks 15-20 tasks off in a day but sets a goal to complete at least 1 high impact task daily.
Of course, you can always experiment with the exact number of tasks. Agile Results calls for 3 tasks a day, the Ivy Lee method calls for 6. But I’d encourage you to try out the most extreme version first. There’s something about the extreme simplicity and hyper-focus of just one task that I’ve found makes this method particularly effective.
Why Eat The Frog works (especially for the chronically overwhelmed)
1. It promotes a deep work habit
The most valuable work in today’s knowledge economy is almost invariably work that requires all your mental resources to be focused on one thing – think cognitively demanding tasks like coding, designing, writing, strategizing, and problem-solving. Yet the modern workplace isn’t set up to support that kind of distraction-free “deep work” (a phrase coined by computer science professor Cal Newport). We’re distracted by so many emails, meetings, chat messages and requests for input that we don’t have the time or space to focus on our highest impact tasks. Eat The Frog requires us to push back against all of those distractions – both external (others interrupting us) and internal (us interrupting ourselves) – and prioritize the actions that will actually bring us, and, by extension, our teams and our companies, closer to our goals.
2. It ensures you’re setting your own agenda
All too often, the first thing we do when we sit down to work is check our email and incoming messages. Email and instant messaging tools put you in reactive mode – as soon as you start responding, you’ve ceded your time and attention to what other people want or need you to do. This kind of reactive prioritization can quickly take over your workday. In contrast, Eat The Frog asks you to put your agenda first before any other requests come in to derail your day.
3. It sets you up to win
Like we talked about at the start of this guide, it’s human nature to overestimate what we can get done in a day, even when we know we’re likely to overestimate. That’s why productivity systems often end up making us feel like we’re constantly behind and failing to keep up. And when we feel bad we’re more likely avoid what’s making us feel bad in favor of things that boost our mood in the moment (i.e. procrastination).
In contrast, Eat The Frog forces you to focus on less, even when you know you can do more. Any day that you eat your frog is a good day. Furthermore, following the method means you’ll be making progress on something meaningful on a daily basis. Studies have shown that that kind of progress is a key motivator and predictor of happiness and engagement at work, and can lead to a virtuous cycle of getting things done. We feel good when we follow through on the things we intended to do which in turn makes it easier to continue doing them. When you experience a win first thing in the morning, you’re more likely to build momentum and good vibes to carry you through the rest of your workday.
4. It takes full advantage of your best work hours
We all know intuitively that not all work hours are created equal. The first hour of the morning when your energy and willpower are high is a helluva lot more productive than the hour after lunch when all you want to do is curl up and take a nap. Eat the Frog ensures that you’re using your best hours to do your most mentally taxing work and leaves less important tasks for times when you’ve already exhausted your brain power for the day.
5. It’s dead simple and infinitely flexible
While there are benefits to more complex and all-encompassing methods like GTD, maintaining them can often become just another task on your to-do list that you’re not getting to. Eat the Frog is a simple method anyone can fall back on at any time with very little time or mental resources required. And it’s almost universally applicable. No matter your job, goals, or circumstances, we all have to contend with our limited time and energy. Eat the Frog is a simple, yet effective way to ensure that you’re making progress on something meaningful each and every day.
How to eat your live frog every day
Eat The Frog is simple and straightforward, but there are a few tips that will help you apply the method consistently and successfully:
1. Decide on your Most Important Task (MIT)
Or Frog if you prefer that mental image. This task is often important but not urgent, the type of difficult task that creates a lot of mental resistance and ensuing procrastination if you’re not extremely intentional about making time for it. You probably already know the task I’m talking about.
2. Pick something realistic that you will be able to check off of your to-do list in 1-4 hours
Your MIT should take half a day’s work, tops. A realistic task will be easier to get started on (i.e. you’ll be less likely to put it off and procrastinate) and being able to check it off your list in the morning will give you a concrete win and accompanying endorphin boost to carry you into the rest of your day.
3. If your MIT is going to take more than half a day, break it down into smaller subtasks that will take 4 hours or less
The next concrete action on that list is your new MIT. For example, in order to complete the task “Create a business plan”, your MIT for today might be “Complete competitive market research”.
4. Resist the temptation to plan ahead
Once you start breaking your big tasks down, you may be tempted to schedule out your MIT’s for the whole week or several weeks to come. Don’t do it! Accurately forecasting tasks into the future is nearly impossible and will only set you up for “getting behind” quickly. One of the benefits of Eat the Frog is that you get to start fresh with a singular focus each morning. Identify and tackle your MITs one day at a time.
5. Commit to and prepare for your MIT the night before
Ok, so you should plan a little bit ahead. The night before, you’re close enough to be able to plan accurately, but still far enough removed from actually having to do it for too much mental resistance to kick in.
Lifehacker founder and serial entrepreneur Gina Trapani recommends getting everything you need to get started on tomorrow’s MIT set up before you leave work at the end of the day. For example, today my MIT was to finish the first draft of this article. Yesterday before closing my computer at the end of the workday, I closed out all of my other tabs and apps but left my research and outline Word document open in full-screen “Focus” mode so it was the first and only thing I saw when I sat down to work this morning.
It’s not a fool-proof method of staying on track, but it does provide a powerful reminder of what you’re supposed to be working on and decreases the chances you’ll get distracted looking for the right app, email, document, website, or whatever else you need to get started.
6. Do your MIT first thing
Whatever your frog for the day happens to be, do it first thing when you sit down to work. If at all possible, don’t schedule meetings. Don’t catch up on Twitter. Don’t check your email. Don’t even think about thinking about all the other less important things you’ll have to do later in the day. Focus all of your mental energy on your MIT and only your MIT.
Not a morning person? Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The same principles of hyper-prioritization can be applied to any time of day that you feel the most energized, focused, and productive. The point is to take full advantage of your best work hours, whether that’s 8am or 8pm. When that time comes around each day, do your most important task first.
Setting up an Eat The Frog workflow with Todoist
The easiest way to set up Eat The Frog in Todoist is with priority levels. Here’s how:
- Identify your most important task and mark it P1. You’ll need to be very disciplined with your use of “priority 1” as you’ll only get one P1 task per day.
- Create a new filter called “Today’s Frog 🐸” using the query “p1 & today”. This filtered view will show just your P1 tasks due today – in other words, your single frog for the day.
- Pin the filter to your favorites so it’s always visible above your project list in your left-hand navigation menu.
- (Optional) Set your Eat The Frog filter as your Start View in the General tab of your Todoist Settings so it’s the first thing you see when you open Todoist for the day.
Alternative Setup with Labels
If you already use priority levels in a different way, you can also use an “@frog 🐸” label to identify your most important task of the day. You can either pin the label directly to your favorites or create a filter called “@frog & today”.
Do you Eat The Frog? Have tips for how to do it better or advice for those just getting started? Share your wisdom in the comments below!