Is 'Eating the Frog' Worth It?

By Ceanna Hayes Daniels
March 13, 2023

Every day, college students across the globe turn to authors, influencers, and other lifestyle gurus for productivity tips and tricks, hoping to make the next twenty-four hours of their lives fit more work than the day before. However, many popular pieces of advice aren't the one-size-fits-all solutions they claim to be, leaving students no more productive than before or even worse off.

Unfortunately, some individuals giving productivity advice respond dismissively when their tips don't work, claiming that you "must not have wanted it enough" or "didn't try hard enough" if you didn't succeed with their methods. This is blatantly untrue. Just like different plants require different levels of sunlight and water to grow, different people require different strategies to thrive — and finding the strategies that work for you is likely to require discarding a few that don't along the way.

Here are three commonly-shared productivity tips that may not be worth your time and some suggestions for a more successful approach to increasing your productivity.

Bad Tip #1: "Eat the Frog"

Following the popular productivity advice to start your day by "eating the frog" — doing your biggest project or most stressful task first to remove it from your workload and mind — may work well for some students. Yet, for many others, it creates an insurmountable mental block to starting the day's work.

There are several problems with this advice. For now, we will focus on the fact that it only works for morning people. After all, a night owl who focuses most effectively during the evening will find it counterproductive to schedule their hardest work when their brains are least ready for it. Rather than pressuring themselves to ignore every other task until they finish a lengthy essay — leading them to waste the morning berating themselves for not working — night owls may find it more helpful to start their day with smaller, less strenuous tasks while they're still waking up and gathering steam for the day ahead. Managing energy enables them to work with their strengths to accomplish productive work in the morning and free up their evenings to focus exclusively on deep work like essays.

If your energy levels and motivation are high in the morning, feel free to breakfast on frogs every day of the week. However, if you find yourself functioning better later in the day with a few wins under your belt, it may be best to reject that advice and try a different approach.

Bad Tip #2: "Take Fewer Classes"

Although an overloaded schedule can lead to exhaustion and burnout, reducing your schedule to the bare minimum isn't always the solution to low productivity. Some students may find that they need a course or extracurricular commitment that fills them with energy to tackle the rest of their to-do list — otherwise, they can't convince their brains to start the work until an imminent deadline makes it absolutely urgent. For students like this — counterintuitively — reducing their schedule to the bare minimum will cause their motivation to wither, while taking an exciting class will save them time and conserve energy. Although an additional class technically increases the student's workload, it also provides them with a consistent source of inspiration and energy that spills over into their other work and makes anything seem possible, reducing the amount of time they would otherwise have to spend convincing themselves to get started on work that seems obligatory and unrewarding.

If you find yourself motivated by passion or strong interest and otherwise struggle to initiate a task despite the importance others have assigned to it, consider using another course, an on-campus job, an extracurricular activity, or even a hobby to kickstart your brain's energy before you begin your work. Having access to an external energy source can help you complete the tasks you want when that subject or assignment holds no intrinsic motivation source.

Bad Tip #3: "Break the Task into Smaller Steps"

While it can be useful in certain contexts, breaking tasks into smaller steps is not a blanket solution to all productivity problems. In fact, for some students, this approach may worsen overwhelm and anxiety because increasing the number of tasks tied to an assignment can make the work seem even more daunting than it was before. In addition, some students may struggle to keep sight of the forest for the trees; too many small tasks can make a deadline seem unattainable, obscure the point of an assignment, or cause other difficulties in big-picture thinking.

As a result, rather than expecting this approach to work in all contexts, it's best to use it strategically and in limited quantities. For example, when paralyzed by unhelpful internal pressure to complete a paper by writing the entire thing from beginning to end in one sitting, it may be helpful to use this tip to motivate yourself to start by just drafting an outline. By contrast, if you tried to break up a big project like preparing for finals into smaller steps and now find yourself too overwhelmed to know where to begin, try to just do one thing that seems manageable in the moment. After all, emailing a classmate to meet up later that week and quiz each other on the study guide is far more productive than it would be to create an elaborate 50-step plan for exam preparation that leaves you too drained to do anything else.

Conclusion

Productivity gurus often promote their tips and tricks as essential to a student's long-term success, but those tricks might not be as useful in practice as they sound in theory. You don't have to mimic someone else's idea of productivity to find success or meaning in your life. Hence, as you collect tools and strategies for productivity during college, discard advice that would force you to work against yourself. In its place, prioritize strategies that play to your strengths and make you feel more capable of tackling the work that is meaningful to you and your long-term goals.

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels is freelance writer and editor. In 2022, she graduated Hillsdale College summa cum laude with a degree in politics. In her free time, she continues to enjoy studying philosophy, political theory, and literature. She and her husband live in Michigan, where the two enjoy perusing bookstores together for new books and old records.
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