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We tried it: Eat That Frog (productivity system)

Laura Binder 8 min read
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Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

For self-help guru Brian Tracy, this quote serves as an apt metaphor for effective  time management.  In his popular 2001 book Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Tracy’s premise is simple: you should tackle the hardest and most important thing on your to-do list every morning.

For Tracy, a “frog” is not only a task you’re likely to avoid; it’s one that’s going to have the biggest positive impact on your life. We decided to give “Eat Your Frog” a shot. After all, we’re all about experimenting with time management tips to work better and achieve more (Remember that time we tried the Pomorodo technique?)


What is Eat That Frog?

Tracy’s book outlines 21 time management tips to plan, prioritize, and take action on the most important things in your life. His premise is that if you’re overwhelmed with to-dos, your instinct might be to:

Scenario A: Procrastinate on the big and important things until they’re looming and horrible.

Scenario B: Tackle all the small, annoying, nagging tasks first to just get them over with.

Both courses of action are wrong, according to Tracy. Do either and you’ll tread water uselessly instead of propelling yourself forward. Instead, you should focus on impact. Here’s how:

  1. Get crystal clear on your biggest goal. What do you want to achieve most? (Define your key performance indicators)
  2. Write your goal down. (Maybe try a task management software?)
  3. Set a deadline.
  4. Make a list of all the things you need to do to achieve your goal.
  5. Reorganize that list in order of priority. What’s first? These are your frogs!
  6. Take action immediately! If you have more than one frog, eat the ugliest one first. Just do it.
  7. Resolve to do something every single day that moves you toward your goal. Ideally, it’ll be the very first thing you do in the morning. That way, come hell or high water later in the day, you’ll have put in the necessary work towards what’s most important.

We Have Tried to Eat That Frog

According to Eat That Frog, it’s critical to plan every day in advance and always work from a list. You’ll start macro with a master list, and then break it down into more granular monthly lists, weekly lists, and daily lists.

What’s the benefit of tackling a frog every morning? That’s the time of day when most people are most productive, so you’ll be channeling your best self towards only the tasks that are of the highest value.

At the end of the day, we are mere humans with a limited amount of time every day, so you should always ask yourself: “what’s worth my time the most?” Focus only on that, and the end result is that you’ll accomplish more and will be happier.

What happened when we tried Eat That Frog

Total honesty here? My partner-in-crime and I lost interest after exactly two days. Oh, the shame! It sounded great in theory, but in practice, it just wasn’t the right productivity method for us. At first, we completely misunderstood the technique—we thought “eat that frog” meant doing the worst/most annoying thing on our to-do list, which is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Tracy intended. So then we tried again… and then… meh. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Real devotees of Eat That Frog might say that we lack discipline and didn’t take it seriously enough. They might be quite right. But in all fairness, rigid and uncompromising planning just isn’t compatible with our work culture. Ours is a fast-paced startup environment where we connect with clients all around the world 24/7 and our priorities shift on a daily, if not hourly, basis. For us, it was very hard to make Tracy’s well-intentioned ideas actually actionable.

Pros of Eat That Frog

It really focuses on the big picture: Your daily tasks feel meaningless and unending if you don’t understand what your greater objective is. But if you know exactly what your goal is and are passionate about reaching it, even the most mundane task that brings you closer to it is imbued with meaning and significance. We believe wholeheartedly on focusing on the bigger picture, and that’s one thing that Tracy really nails.

It makes it easy to prioritize: If you’re debating about whether or not something is worth your time, Tracy has a great solution: evaluate the consequences of not doing it. All tasks can be graded by the ABCDE criteria:

A: A task that you must do or else face serious consequences. These A tasks are the frogs of your life. (Yes, we’re starting to turn our metaphors into even more metaphors.)

B: A task you should do but only has mild consequences if you don’t. Someone may be unhappy or inconvenienced, but it’s not as important as an A task.

C: Something that would be nice to do but there are no consequences at all to not doing it.

D: A task you can delegate to someone else, freeing up more of your time for A tasks.

E: Something you can eliminate altogether with no real consequence.

By prioritizing your tasks according to these criteria, it’s easy to differentiate what’s noisy and urgent in your life from what’s actually important and meaningful.

It’s impact-driven: Tracy is all about spending your time on the things that will have the greatest positive impact on your life, whatever that may be for you. We all only have 24 hours in the day, and it’s a shame to waste all that time on things that don’t matter. Thinking of it this way, it makes it much easier to say “no” to things that might seem urgent but aren’t actually important.

It’s inspiring: Eat That Frog is essentially a self-help book chock full of mantras to inspire you to take action. Think Confucius: “A journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.” No matter how dry or cynical your personality may be, Tracy’s enthusiasm is infectious. And he has a lot of pretty good advice, such as “Keep your mind positive by accepting complete responsibility for yourself and for everything that happens to you. Refuse to criticize or blame others for anything.” This is a good attitude for life in general!

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Cons of Eat That Frog

It’s a terrible metaphor: We weren’t the only ones who misinterpreted the meaning of “Eat That Frog.” Everyone we talked to assumed it meant the same thing: start your day with the bad, annoying, nagging things on your to-do list to get them out of the way. There’s nothing about eating a frog that says, “Do things that you don’t necessarily want to do but will most benefit you in the long run.” A good metaphor requires no additional explanation. Here are some alternative metaphors that more accurately represent Tracy’s message:

Eat That Bowl of Kale.
Go for That Five-Mile Run.
Call Your Grandmother.

21 steps/rules is just way too many: Tracy’s general gist is clear and simple, but once you dive into actionable details, it becomes simultaneously repetitive and hard to follow. Tracy is the first to admit that his book presents “smorgasbord of personal effectiveness techniques.” What’s a step? What’s a rule? Couldn’t this all have been conveyed way more concisely? Yes, most definitely.

It’s cheesy: Eat That Frog takes a page from the most saccharine shelf of the self-help section. The inspirational bleeds into blatantly corny with actual sentences such as, “You ARE REMARKABLE!” It’s cute, but also…face palm.

It’s rigid and unrealistic: (At least for our lives.) Tracy takes an uncompromising view towards your day-to-day. While discipline is definitely a good thing, you always need to be able to work dynamically and quickly pivot in new directions. For many teams and people these days, it’s more important to be able to respond to change than it is to rigidly follow a plan. One tool that is important for responding to change is a work operating system. Read more about it.

Bottom line:

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, don’t know what you want to do with your life, have trouble saying “no” to people’s demands, or need an inspirational pick-me-up, Eat That Frog might be worth a few minutes of your time. As a general guiding principle, it’s a great idea: start your day, every day, with something that will have a positive impact on your life. But as an actual technique for how to navigate all the challenges and complexities of your life, it’s less helpful.

Would we do it again?

No. We’re still on the hunt for our productivity system soulmate. If you know of any eligible contenders who might be a good match, we’re all ears! In the meantime, we’ll be trying some more out. Stay tuned!

Have you tried Eat That Frog? What are your thoughts?

See also: We tried it The Pomodoro Technique (Productivity Hack)

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