This well-known productivity advice is actually pretty bad
If you’re “eating the frog” each morning, you’re doing it wrong.
The thinking goes that tackling the most challenging, unpleasant task gets it out of the way first thing in the morning, and that the joy of crossing it off your to-do list before lunchtime will motivate you to sail through your workday. In reality, how many times have you valiantly tried diving into the most difficult thing on your agenda, only to push it aside by 10:00 a.m., all in a huff, in order to go answer emails?
“Eating the frog” is bad for your brain
It’s no wonder why. There’s a lot of evidence that mood affects our ability to work effectively. The psychologist Alice Isen spent her career exploring the relationship between mood and thought, and found (not so surprisingly) that having a positive mood makes us more productive and creative. That means that you should think intentionally about how you manage your mood during the workday–but particularly in the morning.
More recent research suggests that fast thinking elevates your mood, while slow thinking depresses it. It’s intuitive enough: Completing goals makes you feel good, while struggling with them feels bad. If the “frog” refers to a goal you’ve been procrastinating on, it makes sense that you’d want to knock it out early in order to attain that mood-boost. But your likelihood of actually doing that quickly is pretty slim if it’s a hard, unpleasant, froggy task or problem.
Indeed, many of us start our days with less challenging tasks that depress our moods in much the same way. When I give seminars on workplace behavior, I often ask how many people start their day by checking their email. Almost all the hands in the room go up. Email does have one characteristic that’s associated with positive mood: It’s often possible to answer a few emails and clear them from your inbox, which gives you the chance to complete some goals. And that can feel good.
But generally speaking, email creates just as many chances to have your mood crushed first thing in the morning. You often get reminders of tasks you haven’t finished or requests you need to answer. You may get questions about tasks you thought were already finished. Or puzzling emails with problems you can’t solve right away. All these elements can make you feel worse. And that will affect your attitude–and, subsequently, your productivity, for the rest of the day.
Do what you like (right away)
Instead, find a few tasks that you actually enjoy, and do them right at the start of your workday.
For example, I write in the mornings. I find writing fun. It lets me think quickly, and I usually get new ideas as I’m writing. Plus, composing a 700-word article is a self-contained task that I can finish in one sitting. The entire process feels good. And it lifts my mood to get the day started.
So pay attention to the things you do that you enjoy at work, and anything that can fit nicely into a 30–45-minute time slot is a great contender to push to the top of your to-do list each morning. Leave your email and other frustrating tasks for later. When you start your morning in a good mood, it not only mentally prepares you to tackle tasks that require your best work self, it also makes you more resilient to the inevitable frustrations that can creep into the day.
Your memory and perception are also mood-dependent. That means that when you’re feeling good, you’re generally reminded of positive past experiences and interpret current ones in a positive light. You see silver linings everywhere. But the reverse is also true: When you’re in a bad mood, you’re reminded of negative things and experience the new things you encounter negatively. You assume the worst in the people around you.
And finally, since either of these moods can be self-reinforcing, it makes sense to start your day feeling good, which gives you the best shot at sustaining that positive outlook all day long. Let the frog hop past you, and eat cake for breakfast instead.