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Eating frogs for increased productivity?

I’ve just had a PDR (Personal Development Review), where one of the issues discussed was making sure that I don’t overextend myself during my research, since I’ll have four big tasks vying for my time and attention.

Coincidentally, I was reading about how to be more productive anyway – who wouldn’t want that?  One of my new favourite books is ‘Eat that Frog!’ [1]  (Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do every morning is swallow a live frog, then everything afterwards looks like plain sailing… *)

Simple to understand, though not as easy to follow.  Do the most important, probably most difficult task (and coincidentally the one you’re most likely to procrastinate on) first.  ‘Eat that Frog!’ has 21 tips the author has learnt that more successful people do, or has read about in motivational literature, and after trying these out himself, has found that they improve productivity.  Though I will just list the Top 5 most useful for me…  (In no particular order)

  1. Plan every day in advance by thinking on paper

Although I had a ‘master’ To Do list for years now, and knew the biggest tasks I was doing every day, it never occurred to me to have monthly or weekly lists, which I could slot tasks from into daily lists (which of course I get the joy of ticking off once I’ve done!)  I feel so much more in control of my time, know better what I’ll be doing and don’t worry that I’m not forgetting anything important.  (I’m not denying that it was hard for me to put things on paper on first.  Even though it’s hard to say why without phrases like ‘being more accountable to myself’…)

  1. Slice and dice the tasks

Breaking down all your big tasks into smaller tasks that aren’t so daunting.  Simple but effective!

  1. Consider the consequences of not doing your biggest projects

Imagining attending my meeting unprepared, or giving a slapdash presentation, I find is a powerful motivator.  Especially when you consider that the least important tasks can end up taking just as long as the most important tasks, the choice is easy.

  1. Maximise your personal powers

Perhaps an obvious one, but one that needs saying.  Take care of yourself, take breaks and work with your own peaks and troughs.  Better to sleep well and be more productive the next morning than to burn the midnight oil, and burn yourself out in the process [2].

  1. Create chunks of time

For writing, I found this really useful.  Trying to squeeze in reading an article, or drafting anything, only really happens for me with an uninterrupted chunk of time – even two hours can be enough!  (Usually in the University Square Costa, with a cappuccino nearby…)

An important point the author makes is that “There will never be enough time to do everything you have to do.” ([1], p.29).  And while this may seem like a downer, it helps me to stop chasing the illusion that I will be ‘caught up’ at some point, and instead of believing that I can do everything, I work out the most important things and make sure these are done well.

While I found the book immensely useful, if I had a more repetitive task which I had to ‘power through’ such as screening thousands of abstracts, I would use the Pomodoro Technique [3] – which basically means working flat-out for 25 minutes, taking a break for 5, then repeating the cycle.  I know from experience that being able to see if I’m maintaining (or even beating) my level of productivity, keeps my focus and motivation high.  However, I wouldn’t use it for writing, though I know some people do…  Perhaps the important tip to learn is to find out what works best for you, and when.

*I do not swallow live frogs every morning!

Natalie Tyldesley-Marshall

[1] Tracy, B. (2016) Eat that frog! Get more of the important things done today. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

[2] Olusoga, P. (2017) ‘Five ways to deal with burnout using lessons from elite sport’. https://theconversation.com/five-ways-to-deal-with-burnout-using-lessons-from-elite-sport-81522

[3] Cirillo Consulting. (2016) ‘What is the Pomodoro Technique?’ https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique/

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