My little experiment with “swallowing the frog”

Starting with the most important task of the day every morning for a week made me more satisfied with my work, a little more productive, and a little bit anxious about what was waiting for me in my inbox.

Okay, I did it! For one week, I started with the most important task of the day and worked on it for 1.5-2 hours before checking email, messages, or any other external demands. To see my thoughts on this before I began, read this blog post.

My verdict is that “swallowing the frog” was useful. It was amazing that by 10:00 in the morning, I had done a great deal of work on my most important task of the day. It felt satisfying and calming in a way. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I had already made remarkable progress with an important work task.

In terms of productivity, I think it helped a little. I managed to get a lot of things done this week, but it’s difficult to say if I would have gotten less done had I not implemented this. The benefit was that once I had the big task out of the way, I had time for many smaller tasks which I probably wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

For somebody else who works in a busier environment with more interruptions, this could be a bigger game changer though. If it is really difficult to find uninterrupted time for focused work during the day, getting in that time first thing in the morning can really help. Since I’m doing a PhD, nobody ever really needs me urgently, so I don’t get interrupted that much.


There’s really no reason to include a picture of a frog, except that I wanted to.

Image credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

With that said, it was still strange for me to not check email before starting my work. I had an uneasy feeling: “Who knows what emails I’ve received? Who knows what messages are waiting for me?” Inadvertently, once I checked my emails and messages after my first ~2 hours of focused work, there was nothing urgent there. There were things I had to take note of or respond to, but nothing that I had missed or delayed by not responding a few hours earlier.

Actually, I noticed something interesting. What I sometimes do (in general, not this past week) when I have an important task to work on is that first I quickly check my emails and messages to make sure there’s nothing urgent. Once I assure myself of that, I close my email without responding and begin working on the important task. Intuitively, this should calm me down because I know there’s nothing urgent.

However, in reality, my mind is drawn to those messages. How should I respond? What do I think about this? So instead of focusing entirely on the important task at hand, part of my cognitive resources are drawn towards the emails I just skimmed. This detracts from my focus.

During this past week, I didn’t experience this because I didn’t take a peek at my emails before starting with the task. This turned out to be a very good idea because my attention was entirely devoted to what I was working on. And afterwards when I did check my emails and messages, I responded to them right away without wasting cognitive resources on planning my answers.

For now I’m going to stick with “swallowing the frog.” It felt good to have important work done early in the day, and it boosted my productivity a little. And I will keep working on the struggle of not checking email and messages first thing in the morning. I will probably get used to working in this way and thus feel less anxious about it in a few weeks.

How about you? Have you tried “swallowing the frog” first thing in the morning? If so, does it work for you? What type of workflow works for you in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The eternal debate: “Swallow that frog” or start with small tasks

My struggle and search for the right way to start the workday.

On most days, I enter my office early when there’s nobody there yet. Time feels precious: it’s quiet, and the sun is tentatively streaming through the window. My mind is sharp, and I feel like I can tackle anything.

But I don’t feel like taking on the most difficult project of the day yet. This is what numerous productivity books recommend and refer to as ‘swallowing that frog’ because it’s the thing you don’t want to do. I have the whole day ahead of me, do I really need to start on that daunting task already?

Instead, I’d much rather read an interesting paper or respond to some emails. Maybe send out a couple of announcements or complete several small tasks. That feels much more manageable and fun.

By the time I’ve done all those little things, hours have gone by. My golden morning hours are over, the office is buzzing, meetings are about to take place, and external demands start coming in. It becomes difficult to concentrate because so many things are competing for my attention. It’s a challenge to try to do deep, focused work.

Swallow that frog

Ah, why didn’t I use my early morning to work on that difficult task? The later it gets in the day, the more difficult it becomes to find uninterrupted time to really focus on a task. Often it takes me longer (e.g., 2 hours) to complete a task that would have taken me less time (e.g., 1 hour) in the morning when I’d have been able to focus solely on that. Alternatively, I might not find the time to work on that task at all, so it may get pushed to tomorrow.

In principle, I know the benefits of tackling the most difficult thing of the day first thing in the morning. But I don’t want to. It feels too daunting, and it’s just so much easier to start by doing something small.

Also, I am afraid that if I don’t check my email, Slack, and Trello the moment I get to work, I might miss something important. Maybe someone needs my response urgently. How can I keep them waiting?

To be honest, there are very few urgent matters in my job. I can’t think of an email or message that couldn’t wait for a couple of hours. So this concern is mostly in my head. Nothing would happen if I responded to an email in a few hours rather than immediately. Nobody would even notice.

The Pledge

Okay, blogosphere: I pledge to you that next week I will start every day by “swallowing the frog.” I will begin my work day with that big, daunting task and work on it for about 2 hours before doing anything else. Only after that will I look at emails, respond to messages, or do small tasks.

At the end of the week, I will give my verdict: does it make a difference? Did I get more done by working on the main task first thing in the morning? Or did it not matter? Also, did it make me nervous to not respond to external demands right away? Or did it feel good to have the main task, that gray cloud hanging over my head, out of the way early? I’ll let you know.

Stay tuned for the results of my little experiment!

What do you do? What do you work on first in your day? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

How to Be Organized and Spontaneous

Make room for spontaneity. And also: how freedom radiates from your calendar.

Yesterday, I gave a workshop at Donders Discussions about priorities and personal organization. I received lots of positive feedback as well as one of the most common questions: How can you be spontaneous if you plan out your time?

It certainly seems like a contradiction. How can we be spontaneous and follow a schedule at the same time?

When somebody is being spontaneous, she is being free, playful, unburdened by the world’s troubles and expectations. It’s a break from the constant cycle of working, doing, and pleasing. It’s refreshing.

Perhaps even more importantly, being spontaneous reminds us that we are in control. The idea is that if we are spontaneous, we can do whatever we want to whenever we want to. Our to-do lists and calendar appointments often feel oppressive, as though we’re subdued by outside forces, and we can only just bear the pressure. At the first moment when we can break loose, we leap into the air and do something spontaneous.

A way to bring some balance is to schedule time to be spontaneous. It sounds strange, but it’s crucial if you’re trying to be organized. What I’ve seen happen again and again is that people fill up all of their waking hours with work, errands, and things that are good for them. Unfortunately, then there’s no time left to let their soul dance. This leads to rebelling against the system they’ve established and giving it up altogether. Now, this is not helpful. The best system is the one that makes you more productive and does not feel oppressive but rather is sustainable. Such a system must include time when you can let go.

I usually keep 30-60 minutes every evening for doing whatever I feel like at that time. I make sure I’m done with all the tasks and activities for the day about an hour before I go to bed, and then I have time to do whatever I feel like. That usually turns into reading a book, watching a show, or talking to my boyfriend. In this way, I make sure I can let go for some time every day.

On the weekend, I make sure I have a longer block of time, such as an afternoon and/or evening, for doing whatever I want. Usually that turns into going for a hike, reading a book, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends. I had high hopes for this unstructured time: I imagined I would paint or go to concerts. But I realized that less glamorous activities such as hiking or reading a book make me immensely happy. This is just me. It’s important to figure out what makes you happy and what you like to do in your free time.

Remember: schedule free time.

Image from Chris Ford (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is only one aspect of the problem, however. The main issue is that we see our tasks and appointments as oppressive, which creates the need to rebel against them. For example, if we are privileged enough, we have chosen the job we’re currently doing. We have chosen to buy groceries and cook dinner. We have chosen to have a family to take care of. These are not things that have been forced upon us; for the most part, they are the result of our own choices.

This is why priorities are so helpful. By setting and reviewing your priorities, you can remind yourself of the things you’ve chosen as important for yourself. For instance, when my work gets difficult or stressful, I go back and remind myself why I wanted to do this job in the first place. If I am tired and don’t want to cook dinner, I remind myself that I want to feel good and take care of my body.

Remembering our ‘why’ makes us feel like a powerful agent again instead of a helpless victim thrown about by circumstances and external expectations. For the most part, our tasks and activities are a result of our choices and thus should reflect our priorities. If not, we need to make a change.

Once you see your to-do list and calendar as reflections of your priorities and not as things you simply have to do, spontaneity begins to lose its appeal. If you’re already doing things you want to do during most of your day, you don’t need to break free and be spontaneous in order to feel like you have a choice in your life. You know you have a choice, and this is reflected in your daily activities.

In fact, you don’t want to break free anymore. Because what you put on your calendar is a reflection of your freedom to choose. Your freedom radiates from your calendar.

What do you think? Will you schedule free time now? I do you want free time to be completely free and unscheduled? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Eliminate things you don’t have to and don’t want to do

Over the past few weeks, people have approached me and said, “Your system sounds great, but it’s so complicated! I can never see myself do all that.”

While it sounds more complicated than it is when actually applied, I understand this concern. So many things to apply, where to even start?

Therefore, I’m going to suggest one simple thing you can do: eliminate one activity that you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

It is quite simple and very powerful. There are four steps:

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.
  2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.
  3. Eliminate it!
  4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

I’ll explain each one in turn.

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.

Before you can make any changes, you need to know how you, in reality, spend your time. That doesn’t refer to how you’d like to spend your time ideally, but how you do so realistically.

If you have a calendar that accurately describes how you spend your time, then you can just take a look at your calendar. If your calendar only contains appointments, though, you’ll need to do some more digging and reflection.

You could also track your activities. For a couple of days or a week, you could track how long you spend on different activities. You can use a stopwatch (i.e., your phone), pen, and paper or an app such as Toggl. Whatever you’d like to use is fine; the point is to get a realistic overview of how much time you spend on different activities.

The first time you track your time can be a bit shocking. I remember my first reaction after a week-long tracking and looking at the output from Toggl: “This is how long I spend showering, putting on cosmetics, and doing my hair?! I’m never putting on lotion or drying my hair again!” Now, that’s not the point. The goal is to realize how long these things take and to then make an informed choice about whether these things are important enough to us to deserve that time.

2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

Now that you know what you spend your time on, make a list with two columns:

  • Things you don’t have to do;
  • Things you don’t want to do.

Do you have any items listed in both columns? If you do, great! Those are your items to eliminate.

For instance, many people are surprised by how much time they spend on social media. They find that they neither want or have to spend so long on those apps and websites. That’s a clear one to eliminate because you really don’t have to do it. But the appeal of social media lies in the powerful reward mechanisms that are in place there, so for an effective way to eliminate those, see 4.

In relation to work, we sometimes find we are attending meetings we don’t want to attend and, strictly speaking, we don’t have to attend. It’s important to ask yourself here, “What function is this meeting serving for the institution I belong to, and what is my (possible) contribution in this meeting?” If your contribution in that particular meeting is minimal or none, you will probably do better skipping the meeting and contributing to the institution in a better way. Alternatively (and what I deem the better choice), you can decide to step up your game and actually contribute during that meeting.

Similarly, sometimes we get involved in projects we don’t really want to participate in, whether at work or in the community. We often don’t need to participate in these projects but somehow get dragged into them. Importantly, when we spend time on something we don’t care about, that saps our energy for things we do care about. So, if you don’t have to be on a project you don’t care about, find a way out! Apologize and say that your priorities have shifted. You owe it to yourself and to your institution or community to spend your time on things you care about, whenever possible.

As another example, we often get irritated by the amount of time we spend cleaning our homes. Most of us don’t get a lot of fulfillment from cleaning our kitchen or vacuuming our floor (although mindful housework is definitely a thing). Thus, you can consider whether you can afford to hire somebody to clean your house. Usually, it’s not that expensive, and it makes a huge difference in your life. I was amazed at how much quality time I got on my weekends by outsourcing those 3 hours of cleaning per week!

3. Eliminate it!

Just delete it from your calendar! Yeaaahhh!!!

On a more serious note, if necessary, discuss this with any people who are influenced by your choice. Don’t be mean about it but also be firm and affirm your priorities.

4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

This one is crucial! If you just leave the time free, it will get filled with… stuff. That’s how life works. And then you won’t be any happier with the way you’re spending your time. As useful as it is to eliminate activities you don’t want to do, it’s even more important to actually do things you want to do.

The social media example is a really good one in this case. We tend to spend lots of time on social media in our free time when we have nothing to do. It’s an easy way to get some quick enjoyment even though it’s not really satisfying in the long term. In the end, we often feel guilty afterwards because we wanted to do something more valuable with our time, but we just didn’t manage.

I’ve heard lots of solutions for this one. I think it’s useful to time ourselves and stop when the time we’ve allotted for social media is up. But even better is to decide what you’d like to do instead. Would you like to watch your favorite TV show? Or would you like to read? For instance, I have replaced most of my social media time with reading, and it’s so much more rewarding and relaxing for me.

Someone specifically shared that she noticed she went on social media mindlessly. It was as though her fingers clicked on the icons themselves. To change this, she moved the icons of her social media apps to a different place on her phone, and in the old place she put her Kindle app. This helped her to change her habit of visiting social media to reading. I thought it was brilliant!

I have done something similar by adding an easily-accessible icon to my Gmail folder with emails from my favorite blogs. In this way, I can quickly access quick reads that I know I will enjoy.

Regarding the work example, once you’ve freed up time from unwanted meetings or projects, make sure to replace that with time for things you actually want to be working on. This will help you make more progress on the work you care about and will also make you feel more fulfilled.

About the house cleaning example, you can replace this with pleasant, quality time activities! Many of us clean on the weekend, so ask yourself: “What would I like to do with three extra hours on my weekend?” That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Once again, the key is not just to eliminate unnecessary activities but to replace them with things you actively choose to do. In this way, you spend more time on things you truly care about and want in your life, so the way you spend your time can be more aligned with your priorities.

How do you choose how to spend your time? Have you tried this, and how did it work for you? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. As always, thanks for reading 🙂