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Eat the frog: Time management technique

Known as "Eat the frog," this oddly named technique helps tap into productivity, overcoming procrastination and lack of motivation.
From Team '23

Tempo Team

When it comes to productivity, procrastination and a lack of motivation can make us into our own worst enemy. However, there is one technique that is capable of using our own internal clocks to work against this tendency. 

Known as "Eat the frog," this oddly named technique actually makes a lot of sense for tapping into productivity, right when you need it most. Using it can also earn you some major headway in your schedule, allowing you to knock out even more pressing matters as you continue your day.

Perhaps most significantly, taking an "Eat the frog" approach to life can lessen your anxiety that builds up around the most cumbersome or pressing tasks. You can keep easier tabs on your top priorities and address them, head-on, without having to sit up late at night wondering how you're going to get it all done.

So what is the eat the frog technique, and how does it improve your ability to manage time? Read on to find out.

What is "eat the frog"?

Sometimes called a "productivity hack," eat the frog is a time management strategy used to accomplish two main goals:

  1. Achieve constant progress on your top priorities, making them easier to manage

  2. Build momentum into your daily schedule, by taking away the most difficult or worrisome tasks on your agenda first

So how does it work? It's actually quite simple: all you have to do is identify the tasks that are your biggest priorities and that also weigh most heavily on your consciousness. These tasks are your "frogs." They can often feel big and ugly and unpleasant, but the good news is that, once you clean them off your plate, the rest of the day won't be so bad.

Eating the frog means making the most of your productive mornings.

One primary reason some productivity experts suggest using the eat the frog technique is that they have observed that you're most likely to have more energy and motivation in the mornings (although this isn't inherently true for everybody).

Research from behavioral scientist Dan Ariely has shown that we tend to be pretty invigorated right after we wake up. In fact, about two hours after we rise, we are humming along in a period of peak energy, focus, and motivation. Yet, so many of us use this time early in the morning to distract ourselves, to get small easy tasks out of the way, or wade through a pile of old emails.

Puttering around in the morning like this squanders our most-precious window of productivity, says Ariely.

"One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don't require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want. "

Note how Ariely is already hinting at the fact that going full force in the morning does more than free up your day. It also means we make constant progress on the big goals, big tasks, and big projects that matter most to us. Whether these tasks relate to our careers, our personal life, or our ambitions to achieve success, eating the frog can have a positive effect on our productivity in general.

Where does the name "eat the frog" come from?

The name for the time management strategy most likely stems from the original eat the frog meaning, which stems from a quote now commonly attributed to writer and humorist Mark Twain:

"Eat a live toad the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."

In truth, writers began to attribute the quote to Twain simply because it sounds like a very Mark Twain-y thing he might say

The first appearance of the eat the frog concept was actually written by French writer Nicolas Chamfort in 1790, in his own native tongue. The phrase was attributed by Chamfort to a man named Monsieur de Lassay, but both the mysterious M. de Lassary and Chamfort himself became dissociated from the phrase by the mid 20th century.

Whatever the origin, the modern wisdom and advice contained in the phrase rang true enough to inspire productivity author Brian Tracy to publish his book: "Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time" in 2001. In the book, he describes the concept of "eating the frog" and how to use the concept to accomplish more, while freeing up more time for yourself to be even more productive or use as you please.

What is Considered a “frog” task?

Eating the frog implies that there are tasks on your to-do list that are nasty, unpleasant, and prime candidates for putting off to do later. However, there is also the important distinction that Tracy makes in his book that these "frog" tasks are actually important and beneficial.

In some ways, eating the frog can actually be immediately rewarding. For example, going on a 3 mile run each morning can be a hard thing to convince yourself to do when you're lying in a warm bed, but after you cool down, you can benefit from the "runner's high" that makes the rest of the day more enjoyable.

The frog task itself may have no negative connotations to it, either. What makes it a "frog" task, though, is that it takes some effort to complete and that avoiding it can leave pain in the long run. 

So here's what Tracy and others suggest for picking out your frogs: order everything by priority, and then identify the priority tasks that feel the most monumental for you. Then, get them done!

In this way, by identifying the right frogs, you can make the most of your early morning productivity and gain the benefits promised by this time management strategy.

How to eat the frog

Eating the frog has one major plus: it's not that complicated! By following just a few simple steps, you can quickly sort through your upcoming obligations and see which ones "jump" out at you as frogs. You can then start chomping away at these tasks, pushing you to get more done during your day and throughout your schedule, in general.

Step 1: Prioritize your tasks to identify your “frog”

First, start off by listing every single thing you have on your personal task list. We know that sounds like a lot! But the truth is we end up carrying these lists in our head all the time, and they can start to seem big and hard to wrangle, like holding onto a slippery octopus. Putting it all in writing lets you not only get organized, but it also helps you realize "Hey! This isn't so bad."

If it helps, just focus on one area of your life with your list of possible frog candidates. Cover your upcoming work deliverables, or jot down the things you always hope to get done in your free time but never seem to be able to. From this list, you can then start to pick through and identify tasks that are considered a priority.

Priority, typically, can mean one of two things:

  1. The task has a looming deadline

  2. The task has the biggest potential impact, such as by blocking other future tasks or because it has the most immediate benefits

Once you have your big ol' basket of priorities, it's time to pick your breakfast. Identify the task that's your ideal "frog" candidate. Next time you get up, remember it's time to eat that frog!

Step 2: If more than one frog exists, eat the biggest frog first

Some priority lists have multiple frogs in their ranks. You may have trouble deciding which one is the best to gobble down first. 

So how do you choose? Simple! Pick the "biggest" frog first.

Remember that frogs have two main traits: they're tasks that matter, but they're also tasks you may be most likely to put off or avoid. Let these two criteria guide you towards the biggest frog you can find.

Step 3: Work on your “frogs” in the morning

Rise and shine! Next time you get up, go ahead and get through your morning routine. Immediately afterwards, tie on your bib and get ready: it's time to eat the frog!

Remember that the routine is about more than just plowing through the most unpleasant task first. It's also about seizing the most-important hours you may have available. So think about your time as a resource, and commit to eating the frog, first-thing, every single productive day.

Step 4: Once completed, work on less critical tasks

So you got that frog down — good! Now you've already made progress, and you're set to have an easier time the rest of the day. With the remainder of that time, start chipping away at other tasks you had on your docket. After all, you've done the hardest one, so everything else should come easy!

Pros and cons of the 'eat the frog' technique

We'd be remiss if we didn't examine the technique above with some critical eye. After all, while the eat the frog technique clearly works for some, there have been no long-term or large-scale studies on the practice. Further, what works for one person might not work for someone else. 

At very least, though, we suggest that you weigh the following pros and cons before committing to eating the frog. Also, there's no harm in giving something a try for a week or a month to see the impact it has on your life. Afterwards, you can make a more honest assessment of whether eating the frog works for you, whether to continue trying it with some modifications, or to abandon it in favor of another strategy that better-fits your needs and tendencies.


Makes prioritizing easier

At very least this statement is true: going through the first steps of "eat the frog" will help you get more organized. You're basically being asked to lay out all the tasks ahead of you and prioritize them. No one could argue with that!

For one, writing down lists of tasks is a good habit to get into. It also helps you to organize tasks by short-term and long-term priorities. Then, sorting tasks into "must do"s or "gotta get this done first"s helps you stay on top of it all.

The discrepancy is when you choose to tackle the biggest priorities, i.e. eat that frog. We offer some alternatives further below if you feel like getting through your priorities first thing in the morning isn't a good fit for your schedule or your personal style.

It’s impact-driven

Think about your own time as a unit of measurement. Then, think about why you consider certain tasks the most important. Chances are, across the board, that these priority tasks offer the most benefit to you and to your long-term goals. 

Crunching the numbers, when you eat the frog, what you're actually doing is achieving a lot of benefit per-hour compared to how you would usually be spending your time. Further, you feel less pressure now that the remaining tasks are easier or are subjectively less important.

What eating the frog does, then, is gives you a big impact right off the bat while directing your effort towards the things that matter most.

Promotes healthy work habits

We should never waste our own time, and we should try to avoid putting off the things that are most important. Both of those statements seem fairly safe to say!

By eating the frog, you're setting yourself up for more-productive habits. You're also creating purposeful time management strategies that aim to get your priorities accomplished as soon as possible.

Consider that studies show that working harder in the early morning not only means you have more in common with famously productive people like Tim Cook, but that being an early bird could also make you happier and healthier.

Helps you to take advantage of best work hours

It bears repeating that there's at least some evidence that you can accomplish more with less effort and with more focus when you get to work soon after you wake up. Treat your time during this window like a precious currency, and spend it on the tasks most deserving of your attention.


Can make mornings difficult

In some ways, the "eat the frog" time management approach is like a purposeful exposure to something that's unpleasant. The idea is that you can not only get the unpleasant thing out of the way, but that you can also train your brain to be less bothered by unpleasant things in general.

Unfortunately, our brains don't always work that way. If you have difficulty managing anxiety, deliberately forcing yourself to work on the thing that is most difficult or unpleasant can potentially cause a lot of stress early in the morning. This can have the end effect of making it harder, not easier, to deal with the thing you feel you want to avoid.

Working on important tasks isn't the same thing as exposing yourself to a phobia, naturally. Nevertheless, eating the frog can actually have a demotivating effect on some people since it puts them in the position of doing something difficult before they can move onto easier things.

If you have trouble with focus, in particular, it may be difficult for you to overcome the initial effort required to get working on tasks. You may end up delaying progress on your daily work just to grapple with the one "frog" task, possibly resulting in less productivity, not more.

If you think eating the frog might not be for you, read the next section immediately below for an alternative to try.

Eating the frog may not be as motivating or productive as promised

Imagine this: you tell yourself you can't do anything else for the day until you eat the frog. Three hours go by, and it's already time for lunch. Where did your morning go?! Now, you still have a frog to finish, and there's other things you wanted to get done today.

"[Eat the frog] doesn’t account for our varying degrees of focus and physical or mental energy throughout the day," they caution, adding, "If you aren’t a morning person, this strategy is going to feel very overwhelming."

They suggest instead a technique that should sound familiar to anyone who regularly does physical exercise: warm up! Aim for quick wins, which not only allow you to focus and get done with something, but can also motivate you to tackle the heftier "frog" tasks later in the day with more gusto.

"Warm up to daunting tasks by starting with easier ones,"  suggests ADDitude author and certified coach Linda Walker. "Every time you start losing traction on the more daunting task, return to a task that’s shorter or more energizing, and as soon as your brain kicks in, jump back into the more daunting task."

Can be unrealistic at times — You may not always have the frog in grasp!

What if your frog is something you have no control over, such as a big meeting right after lunch? Or, what if you need someone's approval before you can legitimately accomplish your frog task? 

Also, your most visible frog might not be your actual most important priority. For example, if you have a big project you need to start, but that isn't due for months, then it makes more sense to get other, more-immediate deadlines out of the way first.

These are all examples of when the "frog" you are supposed to eat isn't necessarily the first thing you can or should be doing. In these cases, you may be forced — either by practicality or genuine necessity — to put some frogs on ice and save them for a later day.

Tips for eating the frog

Here are some tips that can make it easier to find a frog to seize and consume it just a bit more palatable than it sounds. 

Select something that can be completed in a few hours

Be realistic about your goals, as well as practical. Ideally, the thing you spend time on during the "golden hours" of the morning will be something you can actually complete.

With this in mind, pick a frog you can reasonably get through before lunchtime. After all, you'll need to eat literally instead of metaphorically after all that hard work!

This strategy may mean that you need to keep some frogs on the backburner until you have the time to fully focus on them. You may also need to cut up your frog into bite-sized chunks, keeping the leftovers for later so that you are able to forge ahead consistently with each new day.

Break it down into baby steps

Dr. Leo Marvin (from the '91 movie "What About Bob?") may not be a real person, but his fictional book "Baby Steps" still has advice that rings true. The fact is, we can't do everything all at once, nor should we force ourselves to. Instead, we can break these big Herculean tasks down into logical baby steps. We can then strategically plod towards our goal, one little step at a time, so that cumulatively we are able to get there without over-exerting ourselves.

When making your list to pick out your frogs, take this same approach. Break down your big goals into smaller ones. This strategy not only makes your tasks more manageable, but it also helps you realistically project how long the eventual final goal will take to accomplish. Then, as you eat your frog every morning, you can know with satisfaction that certain long-term goals will eventually be accomplished, over and done with, once and for all.

Build momentum

Part of the message of "Eat That Frog!" is that we must all do things in life we find unpleasant. But that doesn't mean we have to flip a switch overnight. We can ease into frog eating through a few key techniques:

  1. Focus on short-term goals for the day or week, at first

  2. Keep a separate list of tasks for long-term goals or goals not directly related to your most-important life areas

  3. Consider the warm up strategy suggested above in the con's list, e.g. work on something still important but less "frog-like" first thing before immediately jumping onto your frog

  4. Always give yourself permission to take it slow or rest a few days of the week, especially if you aren't feeling mentally or physically at 100%, but just don't forget about your frogs completely!

Prepare the night before

Think of this as meal prep! Eating the frog is made so much easier when small things don't stand in your way. Here are a few things you can do the evening or night before to be fully ready to tie on that big and dig right in the next morning:

  • Double-check your list and sort through it to identify the most important frog candidates for that day

  • Pick a frog, or mark a few possible frogs

  • Make sure there aren't tasks or busywork blocking your way; go ahead and re-read an assignment prompt, for example, or review a coding technique you may need to use

  • Set out everything you need to eat the frog, which can be as simple as tidying your desk before you leave work

  • Try to get a good night's sleep; do some light stretching in the evening and consider trading out a screen for a book or crossword

  • Consider waking up earlier than you need to to get other tasks out of the way and set you up for frog-eating success

Dive into it first thing in the morning

One of the whole points of "Eat That Frog" is commitment, so commit! Stay focused, and ignore excuses that may come up. If you genuinely are unable to eat the frog you intended to, then switch to another, more reasonably accomplished frog immediately and without hesitation.

Conclusion: Know thy frogs

Whether or not using the eat the frog time management approach changes your life or makes very little difference, know that you're already walking down an important path. Being conscious of your time and striving to make the most of it is always important, no matter what strategy you use to get it done. Also, getting organized by writing out all tasks and assigning priorities has a positive effect, regardless of how your brain works.