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.

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

  1. Corvian

    This is the first thing I read from your blog. From the first paragraph I get the feeling that you have a healthy mind and your life is quite good and that you probably love it as well as your job, so you are fortunate. Maybe that will motivate you to find the discipline and focus to complete your tasks, which is what I think are the requirements for productivity, especially the love for what you do. Don’t lose that. Also the other part – not wanting to let your peers down – that is a social instinct, isn’t it. I am sure they won’t die waiting a day or two more 😀 And even if they do… well, it is the nature of the world. We are not in control. The universe keeps moving, one thing becomes another, just follow the flow. But anyways, you are probably a lot better equipped at figuring out things yourself, being in the field that you are, and that is the interesting thing. Maybe I will get to read a little bit more about cognitive science and how it is implemented into improving one’s life.
    I hope I am not too arrogant in my stupid impulse of giving unwanted advice. Have a wonderful day.


    1. Thank you for your thoughts! You bring a very good point 🙂 It’s very helpful to remember why we enjoy what we do, for sure. Thanks for reminding me of that 🙂


  2. Pingback: My little experiment with “swallowing the frog” – A Good Life

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