“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

With most people working from home during the pandemic, staying focused on important projects has proved difficult for many people. That is why I am updating this post on optimizing your productivity habits!

The BIG Idea—Research shows that our brains generally prefer lazy tasks over difficult ones that bring real impact to our lives. Today we are going to review strategies for how you can overcome this common tendency.

Consider the following illustration…

Let’s say you have a large project looming. You head into the office early (which might be your bedroom now) with every intention of starting to tackle your project at 7am sharp.

  • 7am—“Before I start, maybe I should make another quick cup of coffee.”
  • 7:10am—“I think I’ll just check my email to see if there is anything I shouldn’t miss that came in last night.”
  • 7:45am—“I’ll just reply to a couple quick text messages before I start.”
  • 7:50am—“I should really tidy up my office before I start my day, I like working when everything is organized in my environment.”
  • 8am—At 8am you start your project only to be interrupted by the monsoon of morning email and your coworkers stopping by to say good morning.

You get the idea.

Working like this is extremely common. In many ways—your brain prefers lazy tasks. (These are often tasks that we do on autopilot without much effort).

Recent research illuminates the psychological mechanisms that drive this kind of behavior.

Research by a Nobel Prize winning psychologist

Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman helps explain this in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.

Human beings essentially have two different systems for thinking:

  • Fast thinking is automatic, emotional, and habitual. This is the type of decision you make when running from a tiger or brushing your teeth. Not much thinking involved here. It’s like a reflex or habit.
  • On the other hand, slow thinking involves effort, calculation, and reasoning. This type of thinking occurs in your pre-frontal cortex and is the most evolved part of your brain. It’s responsible for controlling impulses, delaying gratification, making predictions, or solving complex problems.

Slow thinking is hard, and we often avoid it.

It’s much easier—and much more comfortable—for us to just do what we have always done before, or let emotions dictate how we will react to a situation.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Research (October 2018) researchers showed that our brains prefer the quick hit of satisfaction we get from checking off minor-yet-urgent tasks over the harder, but much more valuable tasks.

Think about how this might apply to your workday or your life.

We procrastinate on that big project. We avoid taking action on that business we have always wanted to start. We sidestep that hard conversation in our marriage.

These are the big things that would really move our life forward.

I once heard John Maxwell say that he declined almost every invitation for a breakfast meeting for several decades of his life. He wanted to preserve the first part of every day to tackle his hardest and most important tasks for a few highly focused hours—with discipline and consistency.

Apparently, this strategy gave him the ability to author more than 100 books on leadership and become one of the most recognized leadership experts of our time.

Distraction is the enemy of direction

I also believe that distracted busyness is one of the biggest problems facing modern leaders.

When we get busy, we lose sight of what is important to the tyranny of the urgent.

In a relentless pace, we are much less likely to use our best thinking abilities and most creative parts of our brains.

After all, living in a state of chronic busyness puts us in a physical state of mild—but ongoing—fight or flight (or freeze), which has been shown to reduce our field of vision and narrow our focus. In this state, it’s very easy to lose sight of our highest impact tasks.

Here’s a quick fact—not all tasks are created equal.

A minority of the things you do in your day will take you much closer to your big goals. For more on this topic, go back and read my post on The 80-20 Rule (link at bottom).

Organizing your office might give you a burst of momentary euphoria for having done something—but you might have just wasted an hour of vital time toward your most important project of the day.

Many elite-level leaders recommend you set aside 2-4 hours of every week to reflect and plan. This allows you to slow down enough to identify which actions will truly have the greatest impact on your biggest goals (for work and personal life).

“Being busy is almost always used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important, but uncomfortable actions.” –Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Work Week)

Now that you know your brain is going to try to distract you every day with easy-but-meaningless tasks, let’s look at ways you can overcome your biology and get more impact.

Turn information into action

  1. Schedule appointments with yourself. Create regular blocks of time to plan your weeks, and every day, in advance. Put this time in your schedule like any other appointment.
  2. Clearly identify High-Value Targets. Use the appointments with yourself to identify your highest-value targets (i.e. your biggest impact tasks).
  3. Avoid the temptation to do anything easy first. Avoid all other easy tasks and start your hardest thing as early in your day as possible.
  4. Never pick more than 1 or 2 big-impact tasks. This is really important. If you put too many things on your list for the day, it will increase the chances that your brain will become overwhelmed and look for easier tasks.
  5. Remember this—If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

Suggested Resources

  1. See my prior post on the 80/20 Rule here https://leadyoufirst.com/the-80-20-rule/
  2. Eat That FrogBrian Tracy
  3. Developing the Leader Within You—John Maxwell

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a board-certified Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Performance Coach. His personal mission is to improve the way people live and work by helping them apply science-based strategies for personal, family, and workplace leadership—in that order. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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