Eat the Frog or Take a Bite out of the Elephant?

How do you know which to do? I find myself with more To Do lists than I have time “to do”. How do you conquer it with so much “left to be done”?

As Mark Twain once said “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 …”

I have always understood this analogy as it is best to take on the largest or least attractive tasks first thing in the morning when you have the energy and are fresh. Most of the time the “frogs” that are awaiting us are in addition to the work that has to be completed to keep things afloat. By focusing while you are fresh you can more optimally eat the frog allowing you to get back to those other tasks. The easier and therefore more common thing we do is to start off the day believing that if we can get some of the less important tasks out of the way it will leave room to start the bigger project. If you have tried this you know that this is not the case and that you likely never get to the bigger project. We see this with email more than any task. Believing that you are going to do a few emails before starting the bigger project is a “trap” because email, much like a treadmill, just keeps churning. Email is also a “time-suck” because finishing a few emails turns into many emails only realizing when you look at the clock that you have been on email for much longer than intended. Turn it off, shut it down, or simply don’t start it until you are through with the priorities to avoid email becoming THE priority.

Desmond Tutu once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

I also understand this to mean that you just have to do it, whatever it is, one task at a time. Beyond “To-Do Lists” there are days I find myself taking life one minute at a time, which is another way to activate this advice. While this advice again is easy to understand it is harder to execute if you don’t have the time. Time is premium these days as we find ourselves stretched beyond what seems reasonable for one person to handle. Stop looking at the WHOLE and start with the parts. This seems counterintuitive in a world that frequently suggests that not being able “to see the forest for the trees” is a bad thing. The bigger the “frog” the less appealing it is to eat it. The bigger the “elephant” the harder it is to conceive biting it once let alone ingesting the entire thing. When you remove the “impossible” Finish Line that lies ahead you can conceive what IS possible in the tasks to get there.

So why is it simply not this easy? What stands in the way of doing?

Procrastination! How many times do we put off what we can do today to tomorrow? All the time. Procrastination can be a matter of lack of will or lack of skill. Procrastination of will is putting something off simply because you don’t want to do the task. The task has negative emotions attached to it that prevent us from wanting to do it. Procrastination of skill is putting something off because you do not have the skills to do the task. This requires more work in learning how before we can actually do the task. The skill needed is the obstacle rather than the incentive to learn something new and complete the task. Procrastination is the enemy of productivity impeding progress.

So how do you overcome?

The solution is to combine the beasts, frogs, and elephants, and consuming both only putting off procrastination itself. Do this by starting the day off with your “Key 3” priorities. What are the 3 things you want to accomplish in this day? Name them and identify them as your “Key 3” priorities by putting them at the top of your list. Now DO them! What will come between naming and doing? Your “Monkey Brain” will want to divert to less demanding tasks or more enjoyable tasks however you have set your “Key 3” and that is what you must focus on and “sit with” until complete.

This all seems so simple if only we were robots that could just type in the “Key 3” and complete. We are human and with that comes the complication of having emotions. Emotions that tell us something is too hard and can create discomfort in our mind and body. We cannot allow our emotions to determine our actions. We exercise self-control in many “common sense” areas of our life where our emotions would have us acting irrational and therefore we can certainly control those emotions over lesser things.

We know that there is great discomfort in reaching for goals that are outside of our norm. I am reminded of how it feels when you start a running program. Every time you run your mind is telling you to stop again and again and again. But you don’t, you keep running. Eventually, the body and the mind become comfortable with the activity and it becomes the new norm. When you start a diet, your body immediately fights your effort with cravings for foods you are limiting. Staying the course in avoiding those foods and cravings gets you to the goal you have set for a healthier life…but not without effort. By stating the “Key 3” and being relentless to ignore the distractions that take us away from the priorities we have set we can accomplish our goals both small and large.

Creating pleasant distractions, like music that provides a backdrop to focus, can help us stay on track. Put yourself on your calendar. Setting the time on your calendar makes you accountable to the priorities that you have set. Combine the two by inviting others to join you in completing the task can provide a pleasant distraction from the norm as well as the extra accountability to stay on task for the sake of those that you have committed time.

Last I offer the one tried and true thing that works…take a break. Yes, this is completely counterintuitive to what we have explored in eating the frog or the elephant one bite at a time but it works. When you walk away for a few minutes, an hour, or a weekend you will always find that those “Key 3” priorities come into focus. It seems counterintuitive at the time as “powering through” has its place and time however putting space between the intensity of the tasks at hand can bring more clarity and a renewed energy.

Eat your frogs, take bites out of the elephant but don’t forget to take the time to smell the roses.

Life as I live it – L.