Should you eat a live frog first thing in the morning?
If you hang around self-improvement or productivity blogs long enough you’ll inevitably hear the advice, attributed to Mark Twain: “the first thing you should do every morning is eat a live frog so you can know that it is the worst thing that will happen to you that day.” or some variation of it. This provocative statement is usually interpreted as meaning you should get your highest priority task done first. Sounds like good advice, right? But there are very real reasons why you might not want to do that task first.
Actually, first off let’s get this out of the way: there is no evidence that Mark Twain said this.
Ok, now where were we? Oh yeah. Should we get that highest priority task done first? Is it that easy? Well, obviously if the task is a short one or one you can do yourself you should just do it. Just get ‘er done! (If you can’t get a task on your task list done then you have bigger problems) But if it’s a longer task or if it involves someone else then you might rationally choose to delay it for later. Here are some options:
- Save it for when you work best. Some people just don’t work best in the morning. Some people take a couple hours to get into a good groove. Some people are night owls and get 50% of their work done after midnight. So schedule your task for that part of the day. Part of being a productive person is recognizing your own work habits and when you work best and changing your behavior to optimize for this.
- Schedule it for a specific time. Every task has an approximate length. If you don’t have a window of time to start your day that fits your task then schedule it for the first window of time that it fits in. For example, yesterday I had a high priority task that I estimated would take three hours. (I was adding a feature to the Daily Report). I didn’t have three hours to start my day, I had one hour before I had to take my kids to school and then an appointment in mid-morning. So what I did was to schedule adding that feature at 1pm at which time I had a four hour window to work in. I ended up getting the feature done by 3:30 because I was in the zone for all that time. If I had been interrupted me it would have added all sorts of switching costs and I probably wouldn’t have finished it that day.
- Schedule it before a hard stop. Another strategy is to schedule the high priority task in the window right before you have a hard stop. So if your hard stop is 6pm, schedule the three hour task at 3pm. For some people having an immutable ending time helps them focus and creates a sense of urgency they don’t otherwise get.
- Focus on your high energy time. If the task involves someone else, like a phone call or an important meeting, schedule it for when you have the most energy. Five years ago I would say this advice was hogwash, but the more I pay attention to my personal energy levels the more I come to respect them. Typically you’ll have the most energy 2-3 hours after eating a decent meal.