When faced with a towering list of tasks that you would rather ignore, you often procrastinate. French writer Nicolas Chamfort said, “swallow a toad in the morning if you want to encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.” No, you do not have to eat actual frogs to be more productive, so put down the forks and baguettes. In literary terms Chamfort is talking about tackling the largest task first. By accomplishing the thing you are dreading right away the rest of your day will be much easier. This sets you up for psychological success by continuing to accomplish tasks that are now much easier and less daunting than your day’s first frog.
That is easier said than done. It is so tantalizing to give into distraction and procrastination— after all it is human nature and a vice we have been struggling with for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, like Socrates, even had a term for it called, “akrasia,” or a moral weakness where you act against your better judgment.
Why you procrastinate
This “weakness” that causes you to procrastinate has been clinically linked to a few subconscious factors including rebelliousness, poor time management, lack of persistence, and neuroticism. Which means you are putting off important projects because you may be rebelling against pre-determined deadlines, do not realize the task requires more time than you allotted, you find the task boring and not worth continuing, or find it so overwhelmingly complex you do not know where to begin.
Procrastination may also be physically detrimental. Bishop’s University in Quebec published a study last June that linked self-proclaimed procrastinators with a higher likelihood of heart disease. While the study did not make a causal claim, it does present obvious correlations to those who consistently avoid beneficial tasks‑like exercise and eating healthy— to more chronic health issues.
Behavioral psychology research has revealed that procrastination is also linked to a condition called “time inconsistency.” This refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards as more valuable than rewards for your “future self.”
This where those less-than-delicious frogs come in. The good news is that what you do now will set your “future self” up for success.
Start with one bite at a time
First start by organizing your dreaded tasks and breaking them into chunks. Keeping things simple and succinct will not only help you stay focused but may also show you that the giant frog you’ve been putting off is actually just comprised of small tasks that can be checked off bite by bite.
Psychologist George Miller coined the term “chunking” in a 1955 Harvard essay. In Miller’s experiments, he observed that cognitive tasks fit into a “channel capacity,” and humans could only do so much in a span of time. He related this closely with short-term memory and focus, and results suggest that “chunking” large tasks is more manageable for your brain to handle.
In Miller’s experiment, subjects were asked to listen to a string of numbers and recite them. Subjects that “chunked” the list into small groups were able to recount up to forty digits, whereas subjects trying to remember the entire string resulted in far less. Miller concluded that those breaking the large series into sizable “chunks” were able to build more of the chain compared to those who tried to tackle the chain in its entirety.
Chunking a giant project into smaller, more manageable bites makes it much easier to prioritize, get started, and stay focused, without feeling overwhelmed. You’ll find that the unpleasant task you had been putting off is comprised of a few manageable tasks when organized in chunks.
Track your frogs
Setting clear goals and tracking your daily progress keeps you focused and determined. A written list helps you stay persistent and also allows you to see your achievements completed—not just for the day, but over weeks and months. Get creative with what you track as well. Timing yourself and logging how long tasks take allow you schedule your time with greater efficiency.
Set the table
Writer James Clear says, “the problem is not doing the work, it’s starting the work.”
Reducing start time is another important factor in staying productive. If eating a morning frog is your first task, make sure you have your fork and knife ready. That means your documents are in order, your workspace is optimized and your devices are all where you need them.
Curbing procrastination starts by making work for your “future self” as easy as possible. Chefs often use a technique called “mise en place,” French for “putting in place.” This idea is less about keeping things tidy and more about habitually prepping yourself with the tools, information, and environment to easily start and complete projects.
Working with a group or having a team that holds you accountable is an simple way to motivate yourself to finish all your tasks. Having colleagues and friends working together keeps you disciplined when your focus begins to drift. Tell trusted colleagues what you’re working on, or have friends check in on you. Making this a habitual event — perhaps with shared calendar reminders — is another easy way to improve your productivity.
What goes well with a morning frog? James Clear suggests temptation bundling, a method where you pair things you love with tasks you may be procrastinating. For example, listening to your favorite podcast only when you exercise. This helps you psychologically associate some of your favorite things with working hard, making it easier to get started, stay focused, and clear your plate.
While the psychology and even genetic relationship of procrastination will continue to puzzle humanity, understanding how your mind tackles procrastination is the first step to increasing productivity. Aristotle also coined the term “enkrateia,” the opposite of “akrasia,” which is the “power over oneself.” Using this systematic approach to eat your daily frogs will allow your focus to determine your reality.
To which we say: Bon appetit.