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Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Eat Your Frogs Early

I was born organized. In fact, I'm the kind of nut-bar who writes a family meal plan once a week. As a child, I longed to sort our family's books by size and color (no one would let me!). Now that I'm the mom, my spice drawer is alphabetized.

As well, my hard drive is mostly controlled by an anal-retentive filing system that means I can explain, by phone, to a total stranger how to find just about anything. For example, I frequently start file names with the date expressed like this: 10-10-28. This means the documents automatically sort themselves into chronological order.

But hyper-organization can also be a flaw. For example, I will — happily — spend hours reorganizing my to do lists. I'll also never forget the time I spent a full day learning a piece of organizational software that I used for less than three months. I can fritter away more time thinking about how to maximize my day than actually writing anything.

In recent months, I've been in the habit of trying to identify my "frogs" — those important but non-urgent jobs we all prefer to avoid, like, say, non-deadline writing. Then I try to "eat" one every morning. (The idea of important but non-urgent jobs comes from Stephen Covey. The memorable image of "eating frogs" comes from the title of an excellent book by productivity guru Brian Tracy.) Unfortunately, I didn't always succeed.

Somehow, eating frogs had slipped off my menu. It was time for some self-analysis!

On examination, I realized that until about a month ago I had always started my day with "getting organized." I'd spend a total of 30 minutes working out what I wanted to accomplish that day and then immediately turn my attention to a checklist of daily "accounting" jobs. These tasks ranged from updating my voicemail, to tracking my website stats to double-checking my bank accounts and thinning my email. All important tasks — but I was doing them in my precious, early-morning hours.

Suddenly, it hit me. I needed a new game plan. SCREETCH. (Imagine the sound of a car hitting the brakes and then doing an abrupt U-turn.)

So, without further ado, here are the tweaks that have turned me from a writer who worked too hard and who didn't get nearly enough done, to someone who is working fewer hours and accomplishing more. I can't guarantee this will change your life, but I'm certain you can adapt these ideas to a system that will work for you.

Step 1: Always celebrate what you have accomplished. At the end of every day, I now write down at least three things I achieved every day — and I keep this list on my hard drive so I can refer to it all the time. Reading it, I always realize that I've done a whole lot more than I thought.

Step 2: Always write your "to do" list the day before — not the morning of. I'm slowly trying to move up the time at which I write this list. Currently I tend to do it at 6 pm (or even later!) the day before. I'm now trying to get it done by 4 pm.

Step 3: Do your most important stuff first. Now, instead of beginning with my "accounting" work, I start with my meditation. (I'm at only 10 minutes now, but working my way up to 30 minutes.) Then I spend 25 minutes on back exercises. Somehow, despite having severe back pain, I could never fit in these exercises. Now I'm doing them every single damn day!

Step 4: If your first task wasn't a writing frog, eat one now! After the meditation and back exercises, I spend another 25 minutes eating a frog (which, of course I'd identified the day before.) When I wrote my popular book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. I always wrote first thing every morning; I can honestly say I would never have finished it otherwise. If you're writing something important, make that your frog and do it early in the day before clients start phoning.

NB: I generally eat my frog well before 9 am and certainly before a shower or breakfast.

Step 5: Get on with the rest of your day. Finally, with the frog under my belt, I switch to the job that used to be number 1 — my mindless "accounting" work.

Thus, I begin my day — already having accomplished a lot.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 13th 2010, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I love your ideas, Daphne. I get sucked into social media every morning. It's definitely work-related, but it still goes on longer than it should. If I eat a frog first and then move on to social media, I can accomplish more.

I also love the fact that I'm not the only one who writes up a weekly meal plan for the family. Thanks!
Monday September 13th 2010, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Your columns are always excellent but this one is even "more excellent."
Monday September 13th 2010, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
Bravo!
Wise words indeed. I actually have the opposite problem--I eat frogs every morning, afternoon and evening; in fact I eat so many that I've been banished by all the local parks! Trivial things such as organization and those mundane details of life fall right off the table with a plop and crash. Don't mind if I take a page right out of your book and work a little balance into my life, prioritization and all...

Thanks for sharing.
Monday September 13th 2010, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Erin, Meggin & Steve. Steve, please remember that frogs are ONLY the important things. By definition it would be pretty hard to spend all day eating frogs. (Deadline work, client work, boss work is almost never a frog.) Frogs are important but NON-urgent. You might enjoy the Stephen Covey book -- he explains this really well.
Monday September 13th 2010, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Lori H. (Mission Viejo, CA)
Thank you for sharing, this is terrific with a big Amen from me!
Monday September 13th 2010, 10:37 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
More than infrequently, I arise to mow the grass but wind up weeding the flower beds. Working from a “to do” list is fine, but I always insist on reserving the right to change my mind. Often, an uneventful and totally unproductive day refreshes me.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Lori & Paul.

Paul, I agree completely that an uneventful and unproductive day can be very refreshing. The only problem is when you have those kinds of days for seven days a week! That's what I try to avoid!!
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 1:29 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
Talking about frogs here is another interesting article I enjoyed with my morning coffee
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100908104310.htm
I suspect that what you are saying is very true for everybody one way or another. I recall myself as an architecture student, that is long time ago, when during the days when I had no inspiration (waiting for the big idea to come, which eventually would come) I used to put on my desk all the colored pencils (some 200 pencils) and diligently sharpen them all, then clean all the ink pens and see that everything on my desk was in perfect order, ready for me to trace the first line, which I would trace most likely the next day as after getting organized so well I would feel tired and in the mood to see no more pencils or butter paper, or order of any kind. Shortly I noticed that my frogs would appear out of the blue when I was least organized, when I was jumping from one activity to another, so since those times I embraced spontaneity. I recall my mother asking me, after seeing my splendidly organized desk: “You haven’t done anything today, have you?”

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