We are often told to “eat the frog”, a strategy that involves tackling the most unpleasant task first. Get the hardest thing done, and the rest will seem easy. But just how do you persuade yourself to take the plunge and eat those frogs? And is rushing to take on those tasks that make us feel apprehensive or unmotivated really the best way to get things done?
There is plenty of advice out there for optimizing a to-do list and increasing productivity. When it comes to summoning the courage to face certain tasks, though, even these powerful tools may not be enough.
Sometimes, the simple act of starting can be a challenge, let alone tackling daunting tasks.
Let’s dive into why some jobs can be such an effort to get started, the techniques that might help, and how you can identify the tactics that will work for you.
Getting Emotional: Why We Procrastinate in the First Place
Many studies have been done on why it’s so hard to get started on certain tasks. Several leading experts in procrastination point the finger squarely at procrastination being a problem caused by the regulation of emotions rather than an issue stemming from process, environment, time-management skills, or a lack of self-discipline.
Procrastination is often a means of protection from something your brain views as a threat (for example, a task that triggers negative emotions).
Unfortunately, by procrastinating, you only prolong the threat and even make yourself feel worse. Not only do you still have the nasty thing to do and less time to do it, but you also have the guilt of having put it off.
Some of the most common reasons why you might be viewing a task negatively are:
- The task is dull, and you’re anticipating feeling bored while doing it.
- The task is difficult, and you’re afraid of struggling, making mistakes, or failing outright.
- You’re assuming that people will judge you for doing a poor or inadequate job.
While these are all perfectly understandable fears, finding ways to keep them in check is essential. Identifying emotional reactions enables you to find strategies that will help to keep the responses under control while you work.
Identifying Your Emotions
Identifying emotions involves attaching labels to them and then investigating the cause. When doing this, don’t stop at the most obvious.
You might decide that you’re feeling ‘afraid of making a mistake’ but leaving it there means that you don’t penetrate deeper into why that fear is so acute right now. For example, are you anxious about job security? Maybe it’s the fear of losing someone’s respect? A past failure might be weighing on your mind, or you might feel that you don’t have the requisite knowledge to succeed. It might even simply be that a mistake will prolong an already tedious process.
Once you know what’s holding you back, you’ll be in a better position to address these feelings, exercise a little more self-compassion, and, more importantly, identify a solution that will work for your situation.
Even if you’re not able to vanquish these worries entirely, knowing the reason for your reluctance will enable you to pick a technique that helps control them.
For instance, if you’re worried about how tedious a task is, introducing a regular reward could be ideal. If you’re worried about your lack of knowledge, break down the task into smaller stages and identify the skills and information you’ll need for each one.
Ways to Get Started: A Recipe for Eating the Frog
Not every strategy will suit every person or task. Therefore, understanding your feelings about a particular job is a valuable first step. It will help you pick the technique that you’ll find most useful in the moment.
That said, here are 8 practical strategies that you can try the next time you’re confronted with a task you don’t want to do.
1. Focus on Why It Matters
Remember that ‘motivation’ isn’t an emotion in itself, just an impetus. Waiting until you ‘feel motivated’ probably isn’t a wise move. The real feeling is focused, positive, excited, or otherwise. Focusing on the result can help you find that force of inspiration.
If the job has some benefit for other people, then remind yourself that you’re doing it for their sake. It always feels good to be a good team collaborator! If it has a benefit for you, then remind yourself of how good it will feel to reap that benefit.
An interesting motivational exercise when summoning the courage to eat the frog is to try writing down why you’re doing a particular task. This is a good way to keep the result top of mind while you work on it.
2. Do It First
There’s a reason the ‘eating the frog’ idea is so popular. A task can seem even more insurmountable if you spend the day (or more) dreading it.
Instead, launch yourself into it first thing with the promise of an easier time once you complete it. I know, easier said than done. But jumping off the airplane and building the parachute on the way down is sometimes a requirement for eating the frog.
3. Build Up Momentum
Not everyone is a natural-born frog-eater. For some people, doing easier tasks first can help them get into the right mindset for tackling something they’re less sure of. Small, easy wins build confidence for the main event.
Of course, this technique can easily turn into greater procrastination as you can wind up only doing the easy tasks. To prevent that, make sure you start out with a plan of what you want to achieve and have a definite timeline and starting point for the dreaded task. Look at the 1-3-5 model, where you do 1 major, 3 medium, and 5 small tasks every day.
4. Break It Down
Create a detailed plan of how you’ll accomplish the task and then break it down into more manageable steps (this works especially well if you give yourself a visual representation, like a chart, to work with). This will make it easier to focus on the next part of the process rather than the overwhelming whole.
There’s also a powerful neurological benefit to this one. Ticking an item off a to-do list releases a small hit of dopamine, turning your to-do list into a reward mechanism and priming you to complete the next item.
5. The 3/5/10 Minute Rule
There are many versions of this particular technique, but they all involve telling yourself that you only need to attempt a task for a certain number of minutes (3, 5, and 10-minute intervals all being popular options).
If you know you just need to face it for a short amount of time, an undesirable task feels far less daunting than it does when you’re trying to convince yourself to sit down at your desk for a nebulous period.
Chances are, you’ll have hit your stride before your time is up, and you won’t feel the need to stop when the timer goes off
6. Time Pressure
In contrast to the last one, this involves using time constraints to motivate yourself. By only giving yourself a certain amount of time to get all or part of the job done, you sharpen your focus and limit the time you can spend second-guessing yourself.
The simplest way is just to set yourself a timer, but you might also benefit from a little more structure. Try a technique like the Pomodoro Method and tweak it until you find the balance of urgency that suits you.
7. Find an Accountability Buddy
Fear of what people will think often keeps us from starting a task. However, peer pressure can lead to positive behavior too.
You can easily make it work for you with an accountability buddy. Ask someone neutral (ideally someone who doesn’t have any stakes in the task) to check in with you to make sure you’re sticking with it.
Having to be accountable to someone who isn’t your boss is a great strategy for keeping you honest and on track. Yet another reason to find a great mentor.
Promising yourself something good at the end of a difficult task is still one of the most effective ways to convince yourself to power through. You can also opt for smaller rewards throughout to tempt yourself towards the next milestone.
Rewards and positive reinforcement can take many different forms, so it should be easy to find one that works for you.
Understand and Overcome
Whether it’s fear of complexity, a daunting workload, or a fear of failure, there are many reasons why you might want to avoid a particular task.
While productivity hacks are immensely useful for situations like this, you need to be able to pick the right one for you and the task at hand.
Understanding the negative emotions being triggered by a particular item on your to-do list is a vital first step. You’ll then be able to select a technique that will empower you to get it done.
Author’s note: No frogs were harmed in the writing of this piece. Nor do we condone anyone hurting frogs. Frogs are awesome and very important.