Does Your To-Do List Contain a Live Frog?

By Jack Rosenberger

If you’re like me, your work day starts with the creation of the daily to-do list. As the managing editor of CIO Insight, my typical to-do list contains at least a dozen entries, either specific items (such as writing copy for the next day’s CIO Minute e-newsletter) or broad categories (such as managing the copious amounts of e-mail that appear in my inbox, which involves ensuring the appropriate e-mails are answered, following up on various unanswered but important e-mails, and so on). I use a lettering system to organize the to-do entries in the chronological order in which I’ll knock them off during the day, starting with A for the first item (and usually ending around J or L). Professionally, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t relied upon a to-do list; it’s essential to my daily productivity. The Iist provides a general structure to the day. More importantly, it keeps me organized and moving forward (“OK, I’ve done F. What’s G?”).

But if your to-do list resembles mine, it harbors at least one task that you dread having to do. The feared task isn’t necessarily the most onerous chore, or the one involving the crazy coworker who always acts like the building has just caught fire, or the most urgent assignment. Rather, it’s just something—like an e-mail you wish you didn’t have to read again and reply to—you don’t want to do. The best solution, I’ve recently discovered, is to start the day by identifying the task on your to-do list that you are most dislike—and then do it. Once this burden is removed, the rest of your day will be both calmer and easier.

I found this productivity tip when digging through the article archives of The Writer, where I encountered Kelly James-Enger’s “10 Ways to Work More Efficiently.” In her 10th and final piece of advice, titled “Eliminate the Ugliest,” James-Enger reveals what she calls her “favorite time-management tip of all. You may be surprised to learn that the first thing I do every day isn’t the most important thing on my calendar. Nor it is a task that will take me only a few minutes to complete. Rather, it’s the thing I most do not want to do.”

James-Enger’s “Eliminate the Ugliest” tip led me to search for more such sage advice about to-do lists, and I quickly discovered similar reaffirmations from other pundits, some of who referenced Mark Twain, who has been variously quoted as advising, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day” and “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

The advantage of Twain’s advice is, of course, psychological; it fosters the lifting of a psychic weight from one’s shoulders, the freeing of one’s self from a hideous task. So, relish his advice: at the outset of your work day, identify the one task you’ve been most fearing—and start your day right by being eliminating it.   

About the Author

Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight. You can follow him on Twitter via @CIOInsight. To read his previous CIO Insight blog post (“Is Thinking Time in Your Daily Schedule?”), click here.

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