Should you eat the frog?

I’m a quarter French, so yes I’ve eaten a frog. (More like cuisses de grenouille.)

I’m three-quarters Cambodian, and once ate a deep-fried tarantula at a market in Phnom Penh. (It tasted like an onion ring.)

Mark Twain once wrote:

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

This quote has been appropriated by the productivity community as a universal truth for getting more done. But come on, it’s bogus.

So what about Pomodoros, Eisenhower Matrices, Ivy Lee and Getting Things Done? Should they go the way of la grenouille?

Don’t eat the frog

The advice behind eating the frog is that if you do the most uncomfortable thing first, you’ll win the day. The froggy advice is directed at those who procrastinate endlessly and struggle to actually get started on their projects.

The average knowledge worker has 3 productive hours of work a day. If you don’t believe me, consider yourself on a transatlantic flight with crappy WiFi. How long can you work until you flip on a movie or grab the US Weekly in your bag? Furthermore, we can’t deny that as the day goes on, our distractions increase in the form of emails, Slack messages and meetings.

Eating the frog is a form of ruthless prioritization, but it also leaves much to be desired.

First, eating the frog assumes that you are a morning person. Yes, we are somewhat beholden to Henry Ford’s industrial work schedule – but most jobs don’t mandate you being a morning person. Furthermore, this downplays the positive impact of momentum (i.e. eating tadpoles) to get your brain warmed up and activated. I love Marie Poulin’s approach to optimize for sparkle hours, “that beautiful window when you are alert, focused and creative.”

On thing is certain, don’t use the mornings to eat the email.

What about tomatoes? (i.e. the Pomodoro technique)

We’ll now go from French Frogs to Italian Tomatos, with the esteemed Pomodoro. According to Wikipedia:

The Pomodoro Technique uses a timer to break work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato’, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a university student.

A tomato-shaped Pomodoro kitchen timer

This technique (once again) is aimed at those who get distracted easily and can’t harness the required focus to move the needle. (After all, multi-tasking is like working drunk.) As someone prone to Twitter, the success of my days is highly correlated to the number of pomodoros I complete. For many, 25 minutes strikes the perfect balance of “just enough struggle” without being too “daunting.” (You can easily skip that bathroom break within the window.) A common approach to expanding the reach of the mighty Pomodoro is with Time Blocking, in which you schedule out chunks of your day well in advance.

Yet, the Pomodoro falls short because it doesn’t capture a wide swath of activities ranging from writing, creating art and programming. By definition, the short increments prevent you from getting into flow states. Furthermore, it provides zero information on what you should be working on.

The Ivy Lee Method

Up until now, we’ve been focused on one task. But we have dozens (possibly hundreds) of tasks to tackle each day. What should we do next? Here’s James Clear’s explanation of the Ivy Lee Method:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

This method finally introduces prioritization into the mix, yet maintains the focus on single-tasking and time-blocking. It forces you to plan out your days in advance and one can safely assume that true progress will be made if you actually commit to those six tasks for months.

Yet the method has two gaping holes: it doesn’t tell you how to prioritize and its assumptions about the world around you are broken. How could one achieve 6 tasks without responding to emails, client requests and attending meetings. While the Frog and Tomato broke things down into units which were too small, the Ivy Lee’s units are way too big.

The Eisenhower Matrix

President Eisenhower famously said:

“What is urgent is seldom important and what is important is seldom urgent.”

Thus, was born the Eisenhower Matrix which powerfully injects prioritization into the equation.

The Eisenhower matrix of prioritisation - Ness Labs

The key insight to this approach is that urgency (i.e. due dates) is a powerful forcing function to getting things done. Whether it’s paying your rent, preparing for a big sales pitch or hitting send on a newsletter – urgency enables you to get this important thing done.

But the Eisenhower Matrix starts to falter for two reasons. First, there’s the proverbial “Important, but Not Urgent” tasks which don’t have a due date. This could be learning a new skill, working on your marriage or preparing your career pivot. The lack of urgency makes it particularly hard to actually complete these types of tasks.

And so we hit snooze.

The next challenge is that the activities in this category quickly start to pile up, leaving us yearning for yet another layer of prioritization. The piece Hacking the Eisenhower Matrix lays out this conundrum well.

Well, increasingly as we run this activity, a frustrating phenomenon occurs: everything ends up being urgent and important. Teams refuse to drop projects, claiming they’ll just do them anyway, or that they have to get done, and that’s that. Instead of helping the team prioritize, the exercise reinforces their haste, waste, and lack of focus—cementing a list of activities that are impossible to accomplish and thus ensuring the conditions for burnout and disengagement.

If both fixing my marriage and changing careers are important, which do I pick?

Getting Things Done

This brings us to the classic book on designing a comprehensive productivity system, David Allen’s 2003 classic Getting Things Done. It’s powerful and pragmatic and it covers many of the shortcomings listed above. The strength of the system is that:

  • It reduces cognitive overload by quickly getting tasks out of your head
  • It organizes tasks around projects without mandating due dates
  • It helps surface the right task, at the right time (using contexts)
  • It catches the “Important, but not Urgent” using Weekly Reviews
  • It can be implemented both on paper or with customized apps

It works. I’ve used the system myself for nearly two decades. It’s awesome.

But there’s a catch. The book is 288 pages long. The instruction manual for Omnifocus (a GTD-specific app) is 108 pages long. The reality is that it’s just way too complicated for 99% of the population. (We’ve created entire GTD courses and free training videos).

So where to next?

We’ve got you covered Rad Friend, with the magic of $10K Work. While all the other approaches cover the “how,” this framework adds a missing piece: the Why.

This includes:

  • Identifying leverage so that you can scale your impact (without working more)
  • Understanding your key motivations to ensure your projects and goals move in the right direction
  • Building powerful and enduring habits that stick (and to help you focus)
  • Developing a robust Weekly Review process to ensure you always examine your “Important, not urgent”
  • A task management philosophy that eliminates cognitive load and maps to your own energy levels
  • A simple way to implement it using pen, paper, dedicated apps or Notion
  • A system that doesn’t tell you what to do, but guides you towards your best behaviors

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