‘Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.’
This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Apparently there’s no hard evidence linking it to him, but that hasn’t stopped it from concentrating the minds of many people when they ask themselves what they should do first on a Monday morning.
About twenty years ago, Brian Tracy wrote a classic productivity book called Eat That Frog! Get More of the Important Things Done Today.
The book is based on the idea that doing your most difficult and important task every day is essential for success. Specifically, Tracy defines a ‘frog’ as your most important task of the day – the one you are most likely to avoid and the one that will have the biggest positive impact on your work and life.
And, obviously, the idea of eating a live frog isn’t very nice. But just to be clear, Mr Tracy is not talking about prioritising the most unpleasant task in your to do list, but the one that’s going to have the biggest impact.
So obviously, the point of the analogy is that faced with a difficult and important task, we are likely to experience Resistance to doing it, and we’re in danger of procrastinating and avoiding it, and never getting it done.
And it’s absolutely true. The more days you eat your frog, the more you do those difficult, challenging tasks that will have a big impact, inevitably you will be more successful, however you define success.
And for creative professionals like us, what the frog boils down to, so to speak, is usually either doing a some challenging creative work or having a difficult, emotionally charged conversation.
So this is the artist or the writer showing up to do their work every day, or the freelancer doing what it takes to find clients, or the actor embracing the uncomfortable emotional journey of a challenging role.
And when it comes to conversations, it’s about broaching that difficult subject with a colleague or someone who reports to you, or maybe your boss or your client. About being willing to engage with them in a heart to heart, rather than hiding behind email or sweeping the problem under the carpet.
So I have no argument with the central theme of Brian Tracy’s book. It’s an excellent book and I certainly recommend you check it out. And… I’d like to add another course, a dessert course, to the diet he prescribes.
Because one thing I’ve noticed is that eating the frog can get you a certain level of success and will certainly help you avoid the fate of the amateur. You know, the person who’s always struggling, who’s all talk and no action.
But one thing I’ve noticed from coaching successful creative people, is that the most successful ones don’t just live on a diet of frogs. They also they also treat themselves to a generous slice of cake. In other words, they do the fun things as well as the hard things.
They read books, they go to the movies, they watch TV, they go to shows and exhibitions. They subscribe to their favourite magazines and listen to podcasts. They join clubs and societies in their creative field where they can meet up with stimulating and fun and occasionally silly people. They go to conferences and meetups and parties.
They go on holiday. They have fun with their family. They have hobbies and interests outside of their work that they do for fun, for the hell of it.
In other words, they don’t deny themselves pleasure. They see it as integral to what they do. It helps to keep them stimulated and energised and buoyant – and resilient in the face of challenges.
You know, if you had a good time at the weekend or if you’ve enjoyed watching a great movie last night, or if you’re looking forward to a coffee with a creative friend later today, it’s actually a lot easier to sit down on Monday morning and say to yourself, ‘Okay. Now it’s time to get down to work’. Because on some level you feel it’s worthwhile, you’re rewarding yourself for your efforts.
And it’s not just about the fun things around the edges, the rewards for the work. Because one of the weird things about creatives is that we actually enjoy our work.
So Rich Litvin, who you may recall I interviewed back in Season 3, has a distinction he uses with his coaching clients, who are all high achievers. And that is between between easy and effortless.
Because very often he catches his clients avoiding something that they’re really good at and which creates a lot of value. Because it feels too easy. They feel like work should feel like work, it should feel hard and unpleasant and maybe boring.
But Rich likes to point out, well, it’s actually effortless for you because you’re working at a really high level. But it’s certainly not easy. Look at the level of skill, the amount of experience you have. Look how long it’s taken you to get to the point where you can get into flow in that line of work. And don’t discount that, because very often that’s where you add the most value and where you find the most fulfilment.
Remember the research that I keep talking about, here on the podcast? Into creativity and intrinsic motivation – the findings demonstrate that pleasure is intrinsic to highly creative work. So enjoying your work, at least sometimes, is not optional for creators. It’s essential.
This is something I’m being reminded of with my poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, which on one level is pure self indulgence. You know, I spent yesterday morning recording a very shouty speech from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, which was terrific fun.
My wife was down the corridor and she heard me yelling out the speech, and said, ‘You sounded very enthusiastic this morning!’ And of course I did, because I needed to put quite a bit of oomph into that speech. But the thing is, that was my Monday morning. That was my job. That was part of my mission to share poetry with my listeners, and so I mustn’t discount it just because it’s fun.
So. Don’t avoid the difficult tasks that will make a big difference. But don’t deny yourself pleasure either.
Eat that frog. But eat the cake as well.
(The producers would like to make it clear that no frogs were harmed in the making of this podcast. Although cake may have been consumed.)
You can hear an audio version of this article in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 14’32”.