As I See It: Of Toads and Time
August 20, 2007 Victor Rozek
Mark Twain, a man who could find humor in the heartbreak of psoriasis, once offered a simple formula for getting through the day. If the first thing you do each morning is eat a live frog, Twain opined, you can be pretty certain it will be the worst thing that happens to you all day.
While a dose of self-imposed morning sickness doesn’t sound too appetizing, Brian Tracy found a more precise application for Twain’s axiom. Tracy thought Twain’s morsel of wisdom so compelling that he used “frog eating” as the metaphorical foundation for a modest book on time management. Appropriately it’s called Eat That Frog!
Tracy admits there’s little that’s new in his best selling tome. He has, by his own admission, studied time management for over thirty years, picking the brains of such compulsively organized people as Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker. He calls himself an “eclectic reader” who digests information from a wide variety of sources, “synthesizes” it, plucks out the best and most useful ideas, then teaches them to the masses. That formula has served him well. The boy who didn’t finish high school blossomed into an international speaker, trainer, consultant, and self-made millionaire.
So when I read his bio, I thought maybe there’s something to this book, because I’ve done the first three things he describes, but it’s that last thing that perpetually eludes me.
Tracy uses the word “frog” to describe the biggest, nastiest, most challenging, unpleasant, and demanding task on your plate. It is, he notes, inevitably the task that, if finished, will yield the greatest reward and satisfaction. It is also the task that will move you furthest toward your goal, and the one on which you are most likely to procrastinate.
His answer to procrastination is single-minded focus. Sit, do, and keep doing until you’ve swallowed that frog, bite by distasteful bite. “The ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, to do it well and to finish it completely,” says Tracy, “is the key to great success, achievement, respect, status, and happiness in life.”
I don’t fully agree with that sentence. For one thing, it assumes that happiness and respect come primarily from “doing.” And there are, of course, a great many highly successful and famous people who are miserable human beings. But the axiom is applicable in the workplace, where there is an undeniable premium on doing, and arguably no one much cares whether you’re happy or not as long as you’re being productive.
Single-minded focus is, in fact, the repetitive theme of Tracy’s book. Each of the 21 chapters begins with a quote from some notable over-achiever, and no less than ten are variations on staying focused; or, to use Tracy’s analogy, staying hungry. Actually, mere hunger may not do it. It helps if you’re starving because this is Tracy’s first rule of frog eating: “If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.” Yum. The book is a literary boot camp for the driven. What seems to be lacking is any notion of fun. It’s head down, nose to the wet frog, soldier. “Develop a sense of urgency,” commands Tracy, “make every minute count.” The process, he seems to be saying, is the reward. “Starting a high-priority task and persisting with that task until it is 100 percent complete is the true test of your character, your willpower, and your resolve.” I know he means it to be inspiring, but I get tired just reading stuff like that.
Still, Tracy offers some useful ideas for managing workloads, eliminating distractions and–by golly–getting things done. Top among them is planning. He begins with a wonderful quote from Alan Lakein: “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” That speaks eloquently to the long-term value of planning. In the short term, “every minute spent in planning,” Tracy claims, “saves as many as ten minutes in execution.” So twelve minutes of planning can save you up to two hours a day, which of course you can use to swallow more frogs.
Tracy recommends making daily, weekly, and monthly lists; an exhausting prospect to be sure, and one which precludes having much spontaneity in your life. But the tradeoff is making “steady, visible progress,” which, Tracy avows, “propels you forward and helps you to overcome procrastination.” So one of your list items should be to make more lists.
Even in an environment like IT, where interruptions can be frequent, working from a list allows you to prioritize, track your progress, and maintain a linear focus. Also, parsing a project down to its individual steps organized by priority and sequence can make large jobs manageable and less daunting. And putting your daily frog at the top of the list helps differentiate the high-value tasks from the trivial ones. The least productive people, Tracy asserts, are the ones who perform the endless, small but non-essential tasks first, thus guaranteeing they never get to the big important ones. Being busy has little to do with being productive.
Then there’s the troubling insight that most of what we do is essentially worthless. We have an Italian economist named Pareto to thank for that one. Over a century ago, Pareto noticed that society was populated by the “vital few” consisting of 20 percent of the population who controlled the money and wielded the influence, and the 80 percent he described as the “trivial many.” That would be the rest of us. From this humble insight came the 80/20 rule, which Pareto discovered could be applied to “virtually all economic activity.” Essentially the rule says that 20 percent of your effort will produce 80 percent of your results.
Therefore, if you are responsible for ten tasks at the office, only two will be of exceptional value to the company and, by extension, to you. Tracy recommends (guess what?) making a list and identifying which tasks have the greatest potential to impact the success of the business and that of your own career. If you are uncertain, consult with your manager. Then concentrate on performing those tasks masterfully and negotiate ridding yourself of the rest.
Of the key tasks you must perform to reach your goal, some will obviously be more challenging than others. Perhaps there are aspects of your job you simply do not enjoy, or maybe there are areas in which you do not feel fully competent. Those are the areas which will require special attention because the rule that governs the efficacy of individual effort, according to Tracy, is that “your weakest key result area sets the height at which you can use all your other skills and abilities.” In other words, if your weakest area is writing user interfaces, you may otherwise write world-class code, but if it’s not user friendly, fewer people will be able to enjoy the benefits of your coding skills.
Finally, Tracy counsels us not to become prisoners of technology. Although IT professionals sometimes have less choice in the matter, Tracy’s point is that we’ve developed a “compulsion to communicate incessantly.” Most of us live and work with a collection of devices guaranteed to interrupt us many times a day. It’s the technological tail wagging the overloaded dog. Tracy recounts attending a large business luncheon at which one of the organizers offered grace before the meal. Everyone bowed their heads, but when the prayer was over, five of his tablemates remained with heads bowed, evidently impacted by the prayer. Or so Tracy thought until he realized they were all madly typing away on their BlackBerries.
The result of all this frantic communication is that–in Tracy’s insightful and poetic words–it leaves people “psychologically breathless.” While many workers report feeling frustrated about noisy and disruptive office conditions, much of the disturbance is self generated. “It’s not what happens to you, but the way that you interrupt the things that are happening to you that determines how you feel,” observes Tracy. To the degree possible, Tracy advises turning off the “technological time sinks,” and slowing down. As Gandhi put it: “There is more to life than just increasing its speed.” However we organize our day, there is, it seems, never quite enough time. No matter how many lists we make, new items get added quicker than the old ones get checked off. Perhaps it is our modern addiction to multitasking that dilutes the day’s accomplishments. Surely, multitasking is the enemy of single-mindedness. No less an over-achiever than Thomas Edison would agree. “The first requisite for success,” he said, “is the ability to apply your physical and mental energies to one problem incessantly without growing weary.”
There you have it, frog eaters. Stop procrastinating. Forsake all of that inefficient multitasking. Pick the big, ugly problem–the high-value task–and start chomping away until your plate is clear and you’re ready for desert (assuming desert is on one of your lists!). As for me, the next thing on my list is taking a nap.
Oh, and bon appetite.