Putting Out the Fires

Tackling the most dreaded tasks upfront can help you breeze through the rest of your to-do list.

There's a saying that if you wake up every morning and the first thing you do is eat a live frog, nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day. According to Brian Tracy, professional development expert and author of Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (Berrett-Koehler, 2001), your "frog" should be the most difficult task on your list of things to do, the one you're most likely to put off. If you let that frog sit around on your plate while you putter with less important work, it can drain your energy without you even realizing it. On the other hand, if you "eat" that task first, Tracy says, it will give you energy and momentum for the rest of the day.

Eat That Frog!, which will be re-released in comic book form on Jan. 1, 2012, advises an initial concession. As much as most people don't like to admit it, Tracy says it's crucial to accept that there is never enough time to do everything you have to do. "You can get control of your tasks and activities only to the degree that you stop doing some things and start spending more time on the few activities that can really make a difference in your life," he writes.

The first step to eating the frog is to identify it. Tracy advises sitting down and deciding which of your many assignments is the most important-and the most dreaded. Keep in mind that 20 percent of activities account for 80 percent of results; don't waste time on functions that are unlikely to have a significant impact on the areas that are most important to you and your organization. Write down goals and objectives, and plan out every day, on paper. "Every minute spent in planning can save five to 10 minutes in execution," he writes.

Tracy's method takes diligence. He advises prioritizing each task that comes across your plate from A to E (most to least important) and always focusing on the most critical work. By practicing "creative procrastination," deliberately putting off low-value tasks, you will free up enough time to do the few things that truly matter.

It is also worth spending time identifying key constraints, the bottlenecks or choke points that prevent you from accomplishing your most important objectives more efficiently. Then, Tracy says, alleviating those constraints should become a top priority.

In taking the time to identify top tasks, plan how to address them and then begin work, you may very well become overwhelmed by the size or complexity of the job you have been putting off. That is why it's the frog. Tracy reminds his readers to take just one step at a time. Putting something off because it is too big will not make it smaller, but chipping away at it in an organized and focused fashion will. In some cases, breaking down large, complex assignments into smaller pieces can be helpful.

Tracy also suggests some tricks. It's crucial to develop a sense of urgency. He recommends putting pressure on yourself by imagining you have to leave town for a month, and then work as if you have to get all your major tasks completed before you leave. You also can maximize productivity by organizing your day around large blocks of time when you are free to concentrate on your most important assignments for extended periods. Finally, pay attention to the periods of the day when you have the most mental and physical energy and structure your most demanding work around those times.

The payoff, Tracy says, is big. The more you tackle these critical tasks according to a structured plan and with complete concentration, the more knowledgeable and skilled-and ultimately faster-you will become. And the sooner you swallow that frog for good.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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