“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain
Twain’s words on how to start your day have turned into a catchphrase for productivity gurus. “Eat that Frog!” as a Google search turns up blog posts, videos, cartoons, and even books on task management and productivity. Lifehacker has a good summary of the principle. Simply put, your “frog” is that thing you need to do but don’t really want to. It’s an unpleasant task, or something that is going to take time and energy away from other things you enjoy more, or it’s necessary drudge work that is required for success but doesn’t involve any explicit reward, etc.
The gist of Twain’s comment as it relates to doing our jobs is, if we do the least pleasant task on our to-do list first thing in the morning, the day ONLY improves from there. Not only will we get to strike that persistent icky task off our list, but the rest of our agenda will seem mild and congenial by comparison. The frog eater is also the person who rips off the band-aid instead of easing it off, who dives into the cold water instead of creeping in slowly, allowing their skin to adjust to its new environment. The frog eaters cut neither themselves nor others any slack in the productivity department: Just do it! Eat that frog! are their mottos.
Because I am a bit obsessive about productivity techniques, I am familiar with eating the frog and occasionally dine on frogs’ legs for breakfast — sorry, that was a metaphor that stretched itself a bit too far. But I also know that one of the reasons I liked academia and one reason why I work for myself now is the freedom to schedule my work tasks according to my mental energies, my physical capacities, my competing commitments, etc. And sometimes I don’t want to eat the frog. But I worry: does not wanting to eat the frog first thing in the morning mean I’m a slacker? Does it doom me to a day of meaningless busy work, instead of a day focussed on my bigger goals and targets?
Enter: Ursula Vernon. If you’ve never read Digger, or have no children at home reading the Hamster Princess or Dragonbreath series, then allow me to introduce you to her. Vernon is the creator of some pretty magical stuff for kids and adults. She draws the world’s best wombats and hamsters and, as I only recently learned, is married to a guy who loves podcasting. As a couple, they host three podcasts, including “Productivity Alchemy,” which appears to be a not-very-thinly disguised ploy for Vernon’s sysadmin husband to get his free-wheeling, creative wife to keep her metaphorical shit together. All in good fun.
On one of their earlier episodes, when Kevin was asking Ursula how she prioritizes her most important work, i.e. how does she make sure she gets the words on the page instead of frittering her time away doing other things. Although Vernon is her own boss, she works with publishing companies for her children’s books and has to provide both text and illustrations for those, and so has deadlines to adhere to. She shared her productivity secret, one that subsequent writers interviewed for the podcast have echoed more often than I would have expected:
Always have more than one project on the go. That way, there will always be work that you HATE LESS than what you need to work on today, but that also needs to get done.
It’s like back-handed productivity! Yes, I need to grade student papers today, but I ALSO need to revise and resubmit this article. Regardless of which odious task you complete, you WIN! Genius, no?
So, tell me, are you a Frog or a Wombat?