One of the first productivity books I ever read was Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. It helped me a lot when I first read it and it’s still one of my favorites. It taught me the benefits of hyper-focusing on one thing at a time. It showed me how focus can give direction and motivation throughout the entire day. In this article, we’re going to explain why this is and share some practical tips to help you eat your frogs and start making significant progress towards your own personal and professional goals.
If I were to summarize the book in a single statement, it would be that you should do your most important task (MIT) first thing in the morning. If you can do this, the rest of the day is going to be easy in comparison. In the book, Brian Tracy calls this “eating your frog.” The original inspiration for this quote comes from a Mark Twain quote:
“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
The productivity takeaway here is this: the things that are distasteful (or difficult) are the things you tend to procrastinate on. Maybe they aren’t things that you hate doing, but whenever it’s time to work on them you find yourself looking for something else. You tend to seek distractions rather than buckling down and getting the job done. But these things also typically have the biggest potentially positive impact on your life. So if you can make a habit of overcoming procrastination and taking action on these things at the beginning of the day when you have the most mental energy available, you have the power to change your situation for the better.
Simply put, your frog is the most important task. It is the thing that moves the needle the most towards your ideal future. It is probably very important, but not very urgent. So our advice (and Brian Tracy’s as well) is to make sure you tackle this MIT at the beginning of your day when you have the most energy and willpower available. Tackling your MIT first thing is extremely important! In episode 147 of The Productivity Show, Thanh and I walked about how decision fatigue reduces your willpower and zaps your productivity. You’re simply not in a place to make a good decision at the end of your day because your energy is depleted. So the better approach is to put the thing that is most important at the beginning of your day, when you have the most mental resources in your tank to devote to it.
In addition, early in the day is generally when you have the least amount of distractions. As a parent of 5 kids, I cherish the time in the early morning before everyone else wakes up. But even if you live alone, getting up early can help you find time for the things that are important before your day gets crazy. If you need to ask your coworker a question about something, you (most likely) can’t (or shouldn’t) do that at 5 in the morning, so you don’t even bother thinking about it when you’re up that early
And because there are fewer distraction, you are usually more focused in the morning as well. Many popular business publications have written about super-successful CEOs who wake up early and leverage this principle to build their companies successfully. Thanh has told me before he loves getting up early and getting to work knowing that the rest of his competition is still asleep. (He’s super-competitive, just ask anyone who has played Carcassonne with him.) Brooks has told the story of how he launched DocumentSnap in the early morning from a Starbucks before heading in to his office job. If you have a desire or a dream for a big project or side hustle, eat your frog and work at it in the beginning of your day if you really want to see it grow.
While this may be difficult at first, once you start doing it, it will become addictive. You’ll love the motivation you get from taking action on your MIT before anything else. Once you get that one thing out of the way, the other tasks on your to-do list are going to be easy to finish in comparison. Plus you set the tone for the rest of the day that work is going to get done. And no matter what else happens, once you’ve eaten your frog you can go through your day feeling good about what you’ve accomplished so far.
But this will never happen if you just roll out of bed at the sound of your 7th alarm going off on your smartphone. If you’re serious about eating your frog, you’re going to have to start getting up a little earlier.
How to Become a Morning Person
Now at this point, you have probably experienced one of two reactions to what I’ve said so far:
- You are jumping up and down excitedly because you are a morning person, or
- You are about ready to chuck your Hipster PDA at me because you aren’t.
If you fall into the second category, I understand. Your life is busy. You wake up every day at 7 and you show up at work at 9. Where are you supposed to find time to work on your personal projects?
The answer is simple, but you may not like it…
You simply wake up earlier.
I know this can be difficult, but hear me out. Before you grab the torches and pitchforks, let me explain.
How a Diet of Frog Eating Changed My Life
Long before I worked with Asian Efficiency, I was simply a guy with too much to do. In an effort to escape the craziness of my day-to-day life, I discovered podcasts. And one of the first podcasts I listened to was episode 90 of the now defunct Mikes on Mics podcast where Thanh was a guest. I was using OmniFocus at this point and had purchased OmniFocus Premium Posts, so I was familiar with who Thanh was and respected his productivity opinion. On that podcast, I heard him talk about Brian Tracy’s book and I instantly went out and bought it. I was hooked on the idea of eating my frog from the very beginning.
Fast forward a year or two, and now I have this idea to write a book. I had done a lot of personal study (I actually have a Bible College degree, just for funsies), and saw many parallels between productivity and stewardship in the Bible. I thought to myself, “this is amazing! I can’t believe no one has seen this before!” So I decided that I needed to write a book on Biblical productivity (which was published 8 months later).
The thing was, I knew NOTHING about writing a book. Zip. Zilch. Nada. I was the kid who hated English class growing up. So I was starting from scratch and decided that I had better learn how to write. And I could think of no better way to learn how to write than to start a blog and post something every day. So I dusted off my developer hat, fired up a WordPress install, and started getting up every day at 5am to write before I headed in to the office.
My goal every morning was 1000 words. That was my frog. Sometimes I hit my goal, sometimes I didn’t – but I ate my frog and wrote every single day. And when I was done, I published what I had written. I didn’t care if anyone thought it was terrible, I needed the reps.
I had only been getting up and writing like this for about 2 weeks when I noticed on Twitter that Asian Efficiency was hiring. I had no interest in a full-time position at first, but had a call with Thanh and asked if they were looking for guest blog content. In the version I remember, Thanh told me something along the lines of “ we don’t really do that, but if you have anything to show me send it my way.” So I sent Thanh my blog, and assumed that would be the end of it (after all, I was a writer who didn’t know how to write).
But Thanh got back to me and said “this is good, I can tell we’ve read a lot of the same books and have a lot of the same mindsets. Let’s give this a shot.” So I wrote this post almost 4 years ago! After some additional posts, I was asked to help out with the OmniFocus Premium Posts update for version 2, and eventually joined the Asian Efficiency team full time.
All because I ate my frog every day.
But I’m not a morning person!
Neither am I. In fact, I consider myself a night owl. And if anyone has a reason not to eat their frog in the morning, it’s probably me.
When I was 18, I had a grand Mal seizure while standing in line at a McDonald’s. Fortunately there was a nurse in line also who was able to keep me safe until the ambulance arrived and rushed me to the hospital. I remember waking up for a moment, looking out the back window of the ambulance and seeing my dad in the car behind us through the Ambulance window. The next moment I blacked out and woke up again in a hospital bed.
I was diagnosed with epilepsy and put on medication. I was told I was fortunate because the kind of epilepsy I had wouldn’t significantly impact my quality of life, but I’d have to be on medication from here on out. So I took my medication, and went back to the hospital about 2 weeks later because I was sleeping almost 12 hours per day. I knew the medication was supposed to make me drowsy, but this was ridiculous.
Turns out, I was prescribed enough medication for a 300 lb woman (as a skinny soccer player, I weighed about 130 lbs at the time). So my medication was adjusted, and I’ve had no issues (except for being a college punk and not taking my meds) since then.
But my point is this: I need sleep! Lack of sleep is one of the things that can trigger a seizure, so I make sure I can get at least 7-8 hours of good sleep every night.
The problem is that I also have 5 kids who are 10 or under. As parents of small children know, sleep can be hard to come by. But for me, it’s not an option. I MUST get a good night’s sleep.
But even in the midst of all this, even while working a full-time day job and publishing stuff for AE on the side, I was able to get up early, eat my frog, and publish my book.
And if I can do it, so can you.
Making the Transition
Now if you are currently waking up at 7am, it’s unlikely you can just start setting your alarm for 5am starting tomorrow and expect the habit to stick. If you can, more power to you. But if you’re like me, you will most likely need to transition into waking up earlier.
Here’s the simple strategy I used to start waking up earlier.
- I set my target wake up time (5am)
- I consistently set my alarm clock 5 minutes earlier every day. So on day 1, I set it for 6:55am, day 2 I set it for 6:50am, etc.
- I woke up when my alarm went off knowing I might be a little more tired than normal
- I went to bed earlier (which was pretty easy because I was usually pretty tired)
After only a couple of weeks, I had successfully moved both my go-to-bed time and my wake-up time forward a couple of hours.
One other thing that really helps with this transition is to try to limit your screen time at night. The blue light from your computer or smartphone screen causes your body to decrease the production of melatonin, which is the chemical that helps you fall asleep. Using screens before bed makes your body think that it isn’t as late as it really. This makes the transition to sleep much harder. A Harvard Health Letter even suggests that this blue light might even be connected to health conditions like diabetes and obesity. But at the very least, it works against you if you are trying to fall asleep so you can wake up earlier.
Newer versions of macOS and iOS have a feature Calle Night Shift which helps combat this by changing the color temperature of your screen at night, but in my opinion it doesn’t work that well. It helps a little bit, but if you really have to use your computer late at night and you don’t want to be affected by the blue light you’ll want to use something like f.lux instead. f.lux does a much better job at blocking blue light and the team behind it really understands this stuff. In fact, they have a whole research section on their website if you want to dive deeper in this topic.
Now that you know how to start waking up earlier, here are some of the common problems people face and objections people have when it comes to eating their frogs.
“My most important task is too big for me to complete in one day, so I have trouble consistently working on it.”
If you find yourself struggling with this, you probably haven’t broken your tasks down far enough. Remember, you are working on your most important task, not your most important project. If I had to sit down and write an entire chapter in the morning, the size of the task would have intimidated me too much and I never would have written anything.
Break down your task until you can’t break it down any more, and then take action on that one thing in the morning. By making it simple to take action on, you eliminate the friction in starting the task. This activates a process we call solar flaring, making it much easier to overcome the procrastination that comes with eating your frog.
“I have so many important tasks I can’t choose which one to work on.”
Brain Tracy actually talks about this in the book as well. The first rule of frog eating is this:
If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.
Start with the biggest, hardest, most important task first. Train yourself to begin immediately on your ugliest frog and stick with it until the task is done. It may be tempting to start with the easier task first, but don’t do it! Treat it like a personal challenge.
“I find myself jumping back and forth between MITs and not getting much done.”
This happens frequently when you don’t have a clear idea of which tasks are most important. When this happens, all your tasks look important and it’s easy to justify jumping back and forth between them. But this just ends up leaving you with you with a bunch of incomplete tasks. Plus, the task switching penalty you incur every time you do this means your productivity takes a big hit.
One solution for this to use a goal setting framework to determine which tasks are most important. Here at Asian Efficiency, we’re big fans of the 12 Week Year framework (we even have a whole video course on it inside the Dojo). When you use something like this to chart your progress, it’s easier to decide which tasks are the important ones (or which ones are blocking progress on the others). All you have to do is ask yourself one question (adapted from The One Thing):
What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
When you have a framework for measuring what success looks like, answering this question becomes a lot easier. And whether you use the 12 Week Year system or not, a little bit of planning ahead will make it much easier to do your day-to-day work by showing you which frogs to eat first.
“I have trouble getting started on eating my frog.”
I understand. This can be especially true if you don’t like the task you have to do. This is where the second rule of frog eating comes in:
If you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long.
The more you sit and think about the frog you have to eat, the less motivated you will be to do so. Take action right away, and the progress you make will create momentum that makes it easier and easier to be consistent.
“I can’t find time to eat my frog at work. As soon as I get there, things get crazy.”
This could be true whether you are a boss or an employee. You may find people waiting for you and demanding your attention as soon as you set foot in the office. And while the specifics of each situation will be different, the general advice here is the same. Try and block out some time at the beginning of your day to eat your frog. Maybe that means you come in a half hour earlier (and get to leave a little earlier?) in order to find some quiet time before everyone gets in. Or maybe you sneak in the back way and close the door to your office without telling anyone that you’re there to do some focused work. If you’re a remote worker like me, maybe you just don’t open your email client or sign in to Slack right away. No matter what strategy you use to carve out some time in the morning to eat your work frog, planning your day the night before can make it a LOT easier to get started.
Brian Tracy says that each minute spent in planning saves 10 minutes in execution. This is why planning your day the night before is his #1 habit of millionaires. By working from a pre-made list in the morning, he says that you can increase output by 25%. When you combine that efficiency with the procrastination-busting of eating your frog, you can make significant progress on your most important projects without a lot of time.
The Habit of Eating Your Frog
Eating your frog (or working on your MITs) may not seem revolutionary. It’s definitely not complicated, but it does work. The secret though is to make it a habit. Success is found in consistency.
“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.” – Jim Rohn
In the book, Brian Tracy calls out 3 steps to creating a success habit:
- Make a decision to develop the habit of task completion.
- Discipline yourself to practice the principles you are about to learn over and over until they become automatic.
- Back everything you do with determination until the habit is locked in and becomes a permanent part of your personality.
Let’s break these down one-by-one.
First, make a decision. This is where positive change begins – in your mind. You have to be convinced this habit will positively impact your future. If you are not convinced that it will work (or you’re not uncomfortable enough yet in your current situation), there is little incentive for you to try something new. Next, you have to discipline yourself to do it consistently. This is where the compound effect kicks in. Consistent action can produce results beyond your wildest imagination – IF you keep going with it. Fortunately, the more you do something the easier it gets (generally speaking). Habits (or rituals, as we like to call them here at AE) are your body’s efficiency mechanism. They reduce the amount to activate energy you need to do something. This leaves you with more in the tank for later in the day when you really need it. And the more consistent you are with your habit of frog eating, the more automatic and effortless it becomes.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Some days you just won’t feel like eating your frog. On those days, you must have determination to keep going. There’s an African proverb that says “smooth seas do not make skilled sailors.” If you want to be better, you must become better. You will have to push through some things and overcome resistance.
There are a couple of things you can do to build determination:
- Have a strong “why” associated with the habit you are trying to build. Victor Frankl, a WWII concentration camp survivor, once said, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This applies to your goals as well. Your “why” can keep your goal alive. It helps you stay consistent when you don’t feel like following through on your commitments. And if your “why” doesn’t inspire action, it’s just not strong enough – you have to dig deeper.
- Get around people who will hold you accountable and won’t let you fail. There is power in positive peer pressure. You may not feel like getting up early every morning to eat your frog, but if you know your accountability group will ask you about it next week, you’ll do it anyway. You won’t want to have to excuse your decision to the group, and that can provide the motivation you need to take action.
And if you need accountability but don’t know where to look, check out the Dojo. It even has a whole section on the private forum (“Accountability Corner”) to help people follow through on their commitments to achieve their goals. (I am always blown away by what our Dojo members are able to achieve.)
Here is how you can start using this technique right now.
- Write down a list of tasks you are going to do tomorrow that will get you closer to your goals. Do this for your personal life first and repeat later for your job. You can ask yourself these questions:
- What are my highest value activities?
- What can I and only I do that if done well will make a real difference?
- What is the most valuable use of my time right now?
- The answer to the last question is your biggest frog. That will be the first task you are going to do tomorrow.
- Set yourself up for successfully completing that task tomorrow. Plan how you are going to complete that task tomorrow morning. Get all the necessary tools ready and in place. For some that means getting up earlier or getting in the office earlier. Do it if you think that will increase the likelihood of having no distractions so you can focus on your most important tasks.
- At the end of your work day, repeat step #1. Every single (work) day.
It takes less than 5 minutes to do the above steps every day, but it can dramatically change your life. Let us know in the comments below how this simple productivity tip is working out for you.
How Productive Are You?
Take our Productivity Quiz to find out. Learn the tactics and techniques that will work for you.