Being productive requires an appetite for big tasks.
It comes off as a joke, a bit of gallows humor, when author Brian Tracy describes how growing up poor shaped his life. “By age 10 my parents could no longer afford to buy me clothes or school materials,” Tracy tells me. “So I made up our family song, and called it We Can’t Afford It, We Have No Money.”
Tracy, more seriously, also says “survival is a real good motivator.” That’s how, and why, he started his first job: bagging leaves and mowing lawns in his native Vancouver, Canada, when he was a kid in the 1950s. Some 60 years later he is a world-renowned author, leadership coach and motivational speaker. He’s probably most famous for his book “Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.”
Eat That Frog — the concept, not actually digesting one — is what drew me to connect with Tracy in December. At 76, he remains plugged in and active, with a new version of Eat That Frog, for students, coming out in January.
Among the many things I sought to learn from Tracy: Insight into how the eat-that-frog catch-phrase can become a work smarter, not harder motto. How, I wanted to know, does eating a frog make you more efficient?
For starters, the phrase eat that frog probably needs some explanation. It goes back to a Mark Twain quote, that, summed up, is a visual way of encouraging people to go after their big tasks first: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning,” Twain once said. “And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
Tracy tweaked the Twain quote to “if you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.” In other words, Tracy says “if you have two important tasks before you, start with the biggest, hardest and most important task first.”
The original version of Eat That Frog was published 2001. The concept tracked Tracy’s his general philosophy on procrastination: Everyone does it, he says, but the difference between high performers and low performers is determined by what they choose to procrastinate on. “We thought it would sell a few copies and figured the publisher wouldn’t lose any money on it,” Tracy says. “And lo and behold it was a hit.”
So much so, millions of people worldwide have eaten their own personal frogs thousands of times. Tracy, in a virtual interview in December, displays a binder of letters he’s received over the years, from Romania to Rochester, from Eat That Frog devotees. They are filled with stories about how the book changed their lives. Many say the changes were so dramatic, it made them millionaires.
Do it right
Which leads me back to the core question: how does eating a frog really make you more efficient at work?
I told Tracy I thought I was doing it the right way. I start my day with a list of tasks written out the end of the previous day. Some take 20 minutes. Some take hours over several days. Many tasks are deadline-driven, and several are things I have to do, or complete, so others can do their jobs. I love the feeling of checking things off the list — who doesn’t? — so I usually go to the shorter ones first.
Turns out, Tracy says, I’ve been doing it all wrong.
Those little tasks are fine, and important, but they don’t move the needle for myself or my organization (or in my case, this newspaper published every week.) Tracy says when people ask him how do you eat the frog, he has an answer at the ready, a quote from management guru Peter Drucker. “He used to ask 'what is the most valuable use of my time right now?'” Tracy says. “I think that’s one of the greatest questions an organization can ask, in any business.”
“Most people put off the most important task,” Tracy adds. “Why? Because it’s much easier to put it off and do other things. But then it becomes like the elephant in the room.”
Instead of starting with the small things, Tracy suggests starting by breaking down the biggest task into bite-size pieces, what he calls slicing and dicing. Another tip: Apply the 80/20 rule. Since 20% of your activities account for 80% of what you do, focus on the top 20%. Otherwise known as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule, Tracy says is one of the more meaningful time management steps anyone can take.
There are many other ways to eat the frog, Tracy says. And the ultimate prize is the taste of what Tracy calls a positive addiction to endorphins — and the enhanced clarity, confidence, and competence they trigger. That’s something anyone in business, in any level, can appreciate.
As you start a new year — coming off one of the most challenging years of all time — imagine, Tracy says, if you put all your energy into the biggest, hairiest, ugliest task in front of you? Something only you have control over. Ask yourself this, Tracy says, and make all your other choices about what you do from there: “What can I, and only I, do, that if done really well, will be a big turning point in my life?”
That's how I'm going to kick off 2021 — with a big, nasty, ugly frog.