How to boost your study by ‘eating the frog’

closeup photo of white and black printed ceramic mug beside pastry

Studying is hard. Even if you enjoy what you’re learning; it’s tiring, it’s slow, and it usually requires hours slumped over a desk without any promise of short term reward. In a world full of distractions, it’s no surprise that most of us struggle to even get started.

It’s not even our fault! Our brains are hardwired to take the easy route. The path of least resistance. Once upon a time this helped humans survive. Nowadays it gets in the way of our dreams and aspirations. So how do we flip the script on this unfortunate quirk of the human condition – and what does it have to do with eating frogs?

What is ‘eating the frog’ and ew gross, why would I do that?

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.

Mark Twain

The logic behind Mark Twain’s famous quote is that you should always start your day with your most difficult task. It’s a sure fire way to get important tasks out of the way early, as well as spur on your productivity for the rest of the day.

Eating the frog is perfect for people who:

  • struggle to get started with studying
  • are easily distracted
  • always push important tasks to tomorrow (which never comes)
  • feel overwhelmed by their workload
  • have trouble establishing routine

But why does it work?

1. Productivity has inertia

Most of us find that the hardest part of study or work is getting started. In those first thirty minutes, we are most susceptible to distraction. We’re more likely to get pulled away by a ping from our phones, to scroll through Instagram, or to watch just one more TikTok. But if we manage to get through that initial period, it gets easier. It’s the inertia of productivity, and it’s supported by research. Once you get going, it’s easier to stay going.

Eating the frog also establishes routine. When you start your study session the same way every time, it becomes increasingly effortless to do so. By the time you sit at your desk, your brain has already subconsciously prepared itself for the work that is to come. Over time this will make you more efficient and less distractible.

2. It prevents decision-making fatigue

You can think of your willpower, or your ability to make difficult decisions, as a finite resource. Every morning when you wake up, you have a certain number of difficult decisions that you are capable of making that day. This concept is known as ego-depletion in the field of psychology.

As your day goes on, successive decisions become harder and harder until you can’t continue. This is the point when you call quits on your study and your day ceases to be productive.

When you start your day with your most important task, you take away the cognitive load of your most difficult decision. All of your subsequent decisions becomes easier, making you more productive, for longer.

3. You can’t always get to everything

Humans are notorious for overestimating how much we can get done in a day. How often do we start our mornings with a nice long to-do list, only to abandon it halfway through the day. The reality is you can’t always get everything done everyday. Life gets in the way. If you start your day by eating the frog, you make sure that the important things don’t get delayed.

4. It stops ‘snowballing’ of important tasks and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed

If you don’t eat your frog today, you’ll have to eat two tomorrow. And if you don’t eat your frogs tomorrow, you’ll have to eat three on the next day. This snowballing of important tasks gets pretty overwhelming really fast. By putting off our daunting tasks, we only serve to make them even more formidable.

Another unfortunate quirk of our psychology is that when faced with an intimidating task, we are even less likely to get started. Pretty soon a vicious cycle emerges where our sense of overwhelm prohibits us from making progress on our most important goals, making our obstacles seem insurmountable.

Eating the proverbial frog stops this cycle before it can even start. Not only does this make you more efficient, but it can take away a significant amount of stress from your life.

How to effectively eat your frogs

Now that I’ve sold you on starting your day with a tasty frog, I know the next question on your lips. How do I set myself up to successfully eat my frogs? Here are a few tips that I personally use:

1. Make it the very first thing you do

Don’t let anything get between you and your frog. That means don’t scroll through Instagram first. Don’t check your messages. Don’t read your emails. There’s plenty of time to do these things after you’ve eaten your frog. Do you remember earlier when we spoke about the inertia of productivity? Don’t let anything stop you getting started. Everything you do from the moment you start your study or work session should be aimed at eating that frog.

2. Plan it the night before

Work out how you’re going to tackle your important tasks beforehand. Break it up into easy-to-follow steps so that future you has a clear framework to work from. This will further help with decision-making fatigue that we talked about earlier.

3. Make it realistic

If your frog is too big, you’ll exhaust yourself before you can finish it. You want your frog to be doable in a few hours. When you do complete that big task, you’ll be rewarded by an endorphin rush to spur you on for the rest of your to-do list.

You also want your frog to have a clear endpoint. Instead of ‘study as much as you can for two hours’, try something like ‘complete notes on chapter 5’. It gives you a goal to strive for and will leave you feeling accomplished when you finish.

Humans have been plagued by procrastination for thousands of years. It’s nothing new. There is no cure. There is no magic pill for motivation. No secret lifehack for patience. The key to productivity will always be through simple, incremental steps towards establishing good habits. Good habits keep us on track when we are no longer motivated. Good habits like routine, healthy living, and eating your damn frog.

Written by

  • Mayu is a doctor, researcher, and founder of Intuition Academics. His passion for education has culminated in years of teaching high school and medical students. In his spare time you'll find him perched on a mountain with a camera in one hand, and a tripod in the other.

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