Spend Your Most Valuable Time on Your Most Valuable Activities and You’ll Change the Trajectory of your Life.
“Throughout my career, I have discovered and rediscovered a simple truth. The ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, to do it well, and to finish it completely, is the key to great success, achievement, respect, status, and happiness in life.”
— Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog
The problem with programming, along with entrepreneurship and most jobs in tech, is that it requires a lot of mental effort. So no matter how pointless or trivial the task, we still feel productive.
While your brain may be sweating from the sheer challenge of it all, it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is automatically the best use of your time.
Your best use of time is always going to be adding value. Sometimes that’s code, sometimes not.
If you’re an entrepreneur or single founder, your job is to add value to your customers lives. If you’re employed or want to be, your job is to add value to your company, and the company’s customers.
Nothing in life will move you forward, faster, than consistent prioritization of things that add the most value for others (and for yourself.)
This is what separates the top performers from everyone else, the highest paid from the resentful, the productive and impactful from the overworked.
Don’t be fooled by what you see on social media. The answer is not 18 hour days and 100 hour weeks. The hustle never stops!
You’ll sleep when you’re dead, right?
Well, I like sleeping. And I like clocking into work, getting a lot done, getting paid well for it, and leaving work at work. I like having the free time to write and work on my own stuff.
I’m afforded these “luxuries” (you know, like a work-life balance) because my company trusts me. I’m far from a world-class developer. In fact, I’m a self-taught programmer and I didn’t start coding seriously until my late 20's.
But I’ve built up a track record of getting the stuff done that adds value for other people and the organization. I’ve achieved this through systems and techniques anyone can learn.
We all have a never-ending list of things we have to do.
But they’re only a few key things that provide the most value and contribution, more than the rest of your list combined.
And we all have a few hours each day when our energy levels and circadian rhythm line up and we’re truly engaged (or least, can be truly engaged). The time of day and length will vary, but we all have it in us.
Spend your most valuable time on your most valuable activities and you’ll change the trajectory of your life.
You don’t have to be the best in the world.
But if you’re in the top 10% of developers in your organization or city, or in the top 10% of job candidates, or in the top 10% of freelancers on Upwork, then you’re going to do pretty well.
You’ll know when you’re in the top 10% because the rewards will come to you. The rewards are both internal (fulfillment in your career, free time for family) and external (recognition, promotions, and financial rewards).
Getting More Done in Less Time By Loving to Eat Frogs for Breakfast
“Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that this is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”
— Eat That Frog p.2
Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time is a book by Brian Tracy that is loaded with simple and practical productivity advice.
It’s only about 120 pages but its dense with actionable insights and wisdom. Brian Tracy has been a pillar in the self-improvement field for decades, still going strong at 74 years old.
It’s a little outdated (well, at least my copy published in 2007.)
Blackberries get mentioned a lot, and it can get cheesy and repetitive. Some of it can sound a little old-school and hardline, like an old grandpa yelling clichés at you.
But the main ideas are sound. Most have worked really well for me.
All self-help and productivity advice ultimately boils down to the same thing: A little planning. Prioritization. Taking action on the hard stuff. Procrastinating on the stuff that doesn’t matter. Finishing.
That’s it. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
What Are Frogs and Why Should I Eat Them?
“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.”
— Eat That Frog p.2
When you get into the habit of doing your most difficult task before you do anything else, you become a person of action and discipline.
Your identity changes from cog in the wheel to engine that moves the ship forward.
Not just any difficult task. There are a lot of difficult things we can fill our day with. Difficult does not always equate to important or greatest positive impact.
If you’re unsure what that means, the keyword is procrastination.
You’re likely to procrastinate because of fear. Fear is a great sign that this thing you have to do is an important frog.
It can be the fear of failing or looking stupid.
You don’t start the online Computer Science 101 course because you’re scared it’s going to be too complicated to understand.
As a junior developer, you don’t take on projects that are just slightly out of your comfort zone. It’s safer to work on what you already know.
It’s also the fear of success.
What if your career actually takes off and they start giving you more responsibility and money? Who wants that?!
The fear of success is often worse than the fear of failure. It’s insidious because it’s not obvious that people would be scared of achieving more. But the Jonah complex is real and many talented men and women are stopped short of their true excellence because of it.
So we procrastinate on real contribution. We procrastinate on finishing and showing our work.
Instead, we keep busy doing stuff that “should” get done, and the stuff we’re told to do, in order to avoid looking a big, ugly frog in the face.
Separating Big Ugly Frogs from Tadpoles
Tadpoles are helpless babies that aren’t frogs. They’re easy to kill. Killing tadpoles is a mindless activity that doesn’t impress anyone.
Eat the biggest, nastiest frog you’ve ever seen and now you have something to be proud of.
If you’re learning to code, your frog is starting and finishing an online course. Your frog is repeating the modules you don’t understand until you do. Your frog is doing your code camp assignments with focus and intention.
If you want to get hired, then your frog is building things. There is no better way to learn to code and get hired than building stuff, plain and simple.
Your frog is not organizing your bookmarks or polishing your Linkedin profile. Your frog is not posting to forums, Stack Overflow, Reddit, and Facebook groups. These are tadpoles. These things are mindless and easy.
If you want to launch a side project that’s been kicking around in your head for a while, then writing code is your frog. Launching is your frog. Shutting it down after it’s clear that nobody is interested? A big frog.
Your frog is not never-ending market research or reading about how other people launched their side projects. Your frog is most definitely not tweeting about how hard you’re “hustling.”
How to Find Your Highest Value Activities
You may already know what your frogs are, but take some time to do the exercises below. A few minutes of reflection is worth a hundred times more than hours of mindless busy work.
When you realize importance of deciding, starting, and finishing the things that will have the greatest impact on your life, career and organization, then you’re going to do better than 90% of the people out there.
Step 1 — Write Out Everything You Have To Do To Reach Your Goal
Goals and goal-setting have fallen out of favor these days. Instead, we’re all about systems, habits, and daily practice.
I agree because goals can be dangerous. Goals focus on the outcome, which we don’t control.
If you don’t reach your goal, it can make you feel like a complete failure. Or you may end up so obsessed with the outcome that you neglect to do any real work towards achieving it. The term “wantrepreneur” comes to mind.
Systems are better because we have control over our systems. We can measure “success” with a system because every day we either do it or we don’t. Focus is on the daily process, not the eventual outcome.
Frog eating is a system. When you organize the things you have to do in order of impact, plan ahead, and then focus on the most important tasks until they’re done, every day, that’s a system.
But you need some idea where to aim your energy. Without some clarity, all of the effort we put into our systems can go to waste.
Write Your Goal
So let’s pretend goals are cool for a second. Use the present tense with a positive voice. Be specific. You want clarity because vague, general goals aren’t helpful.
Don’t write “Learn to code.” A specific and achievable goal would be “I am an experienced front-end developer who has finished the freeCodeCamp curriculum and built three small side projects for my portfolio.”
“Get a new job” is not a good goal. Instead, “I’m earning 50% more than my current salary, working my dream job at X company.”
List Everything You Need To Do To Achieve That Goal
Write out every single thing, large and small, that would be required to achieve your goal. Add in all of your obligations, the stuff you have to do anyway.
This exercise of listing everything has a few benefits.
First, this gives you a master list. Every new thing that comes your way, or that you think of, should be added to your master list. That doesn’t mean you have to do it. It just means you get it out of your head so you stop worrying about it.
Next, working from a list is also great way to be more productive. (Chapter 2 — Plan Everyday in Advance)
When you have a big list, you can pick off the big frogs and get started immediately. When you start your day without knowing what to work on, it becomes much easier to procrastinate on doing anything at all.
Plus, breaking down the huge, overwhelming tasks into actionable steps is the only way you’re going to get started on them. (Chapter 18 — Slice and Dice the Task)
Lastly, it gives you clarity.
You can “Learn React,” an admirable accomplishment for any budding front-end developer. But if it has nothing to do with your goals at this point in your life, then your time is better spent elsewhere.
Step 2 — Organize the Biggest Frogs Down to the Tiniest Tadpoles
“One of the very worst uses of time is to do something very well that need not be done at all”
— Eat That Frog p.10
Recognizing the difference between high-value and low-value activities is the core of Eat That Frog. It’s the core of most productivity advice.
If you learn only one thing from this post, I hope it’s the ability to separate true contribution and value from everything else that doesn’t really matter.
Do More of What’s Working
If something you’re doing is working, do more of it. Recognize when you have a hit on your hands.
“I’d finally created something people wanted. It was like I’d written a hit song. Once you have a hit, all the locked doors open wide. People love it so much it seems to promote itself. Don’t persistently do what’s not working.”
— Derek Sivers about CDBaby
If your side project is growing without much effort, keep working on it. Don’t start on some new brain fart of an idea.
If you’re doing something for your career that is getting recognized, like giving talks at conferences, do more of it.
If people love what you write, write more.
It’s rare to strike gold. So when you do, put more of your time and energy into mining that precious vein, and eliminate everything that doesn’t add to its success.
Organize Your List with the ABCDE Approach
If you haven’t struck gold yet, that’s OK.
There’s work to be done before opportunity can even show up. Your chances increase when you’re working on high impact activities, not low value nonsense.
We can give weight to each activity using the ABCDE method.
Think about how much each item moves you towards your goal. Think about the short-term and long-term consequences of doing or not doing each thing on your list.
- A items — Things you must do, which will have a serious positive or negative consequence if you do or don’t do it. If you have multiple A items, rank them A-1, A-2, etc.
- B items — Things you should do. Tadpoles that have minor consequences. Someone might be inconvenienced if you don’t do these things, but it’s not the end of the world. Never do a B task when an A task is left unfinished.
- C items — Things that are nice to do but don’t have any real consequences when they’re done. These items can be chunked together and done all at once when you finish your A tasks. For example, replying to emails.
- D items — Things to delegate so you can free up more time to do A tasks.
- E items — Things to eliminate. Generally stuff you do out of habit, like checking social media or reading news headlines.
Let’s stick with the “Land your dream job” goal.
Applying to jobs by submitting your resume everywhere might seem like the obvious A activity, but there are bigger impact ways to achieve this goal.
Spend time researching the companies you would love to work for. Get to know everything about them, as if you already work there. Connect with people who do work there. Find the decision makers. Take a recruiter out to lunch. Spend time writing a thoughtful cover letter. Read great books on getting hired like “What Color is Your Parachute?” Spend lots of time thinking about how you can contribute and add value on day one.
Strive to be in the top 10% of candidates and stop doing what 90% of people do. Eliminate the shotgun strategy of blindly uploading your resume to any and every available job opening. Your chances are so much higher with an intentional, laser-focused approach.
Ask Yourself the Great Question
“What one skill, if I developed and did it in an excellent fashion, would have the greatest positive impact on my career?”
Look into yourself for the answer. Ask your boss this question. Ask your coworkers. Ask your friends and your family. Whatever the answer is, find out and then go to work to bring up your performance in this area.
— Eat That Frog p.45
The best way to figure out how you can add value, especially if you’re employed or doing work for somebody, is to ask. Have a conversation about it.
Step 3 — Choose Your Top 3 Frogs
“You can get your time and your life under control only to the degree to which you discontinue lower-value activities.”
— Eat That Frog p. 34
If you did the exercises above, you should have a pretty big list of things to do.
Now accept that you’re never going to do it all. There’s never enough time and there never will be. But your goal is not to become the best “checker of lists.”
80% of your results will come from 20%, maybe less, of the items on your list. Out of all your frogs, which one (three at most) is going to have the biggest impact on your life?
Step 4 — Create Your Daily System
You don’t have control over a company hiring you. You don’t have control over getting a raise. You don’t have control over how the market responds to your startup or side project.
What you do have control over is how many big, ugly frogs you can eat in a day.
You have control of continuous elimination and delegation of things that don’t add value.
You have control of committing to your routine, day after day, to become a person of action.
We’re not trying to be busy for 18 hours a day here. We just want to commit those few precious hours, when our ability to concentrate and focus is highest, on our most important and difficult things.
For most people, it’s in morning before the distractions of the day claw at your time.
Learning to code is huge mountain to climb for beginners, especially if you have a limited amount of time. But when you break it down into actionable steps, you can form a daily system.
- Two hours on instructor driven learning, like a Frontend Masters course or freeCodeCamp exercises.
- Last hour is spent building stuff and writing code. One of the best ways as a beginner is to extend and build on the code examples you do in the courses from the first few hours.
As you get more experienced, the contents of each hour will change, but the system remains the same.
My Frog Eating System
My frog, as far as personal projects go, is writing on Medium and launching codetip.com.
I want to produce practical and useful content that you can implement to help your career. My fear is that I’ll spend days writing something that no one will read or care about.
So I procrastinate. That is, until I toughen up and eat the frog.
My best writing comes in the morning when I open my laptop and start writing. I block all my distracting websites, put my phone in another room, start a Pomodoro timer, then write.
I start writing even when I have nothing to say, or if my thoughts are all over the place. These don’t make for good articles. But I keep taking bites of this big, nasty frog until the good stuff gets teased out.
The most productive code I write at my job happens the same way.
I get into the office early, turn off the distractions, and start working on the hardest, most difficult thing on my list. This thing is important to the company and other stakeholders, like a new feature, performance optimization, or fixing a major defect. I add value by helping the people above me look good.
Most days, I only have the stomach to eat these frogs for a few hours before I get tired.
But in those few, highly-focused hours, I add more value in a day than I would in a week if I were jumping around between a bunch of unimportant things without any intention.
The rest of the day is spent on tadpoles like responding to Slack and emails, fixing minor bugs, and planning work for tomorrow. These activities have some impact and require some effort.
The things I absolutely avoid at work are mindless activities that have zero impact on my company or career, like browsing Hacker News, Reddit, or social media.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t succumb to these entertaining temptations at times. I just do everything in my power to start my day with my most difficult tasks and get as far along on those as I can.
The Biggest, Ugliest Frog in the World is Finishing
Creative people, especially the ones with an entrepreneurial trait, are notorious for starting projects and not finishing them. The next idea comes. It’s newer and shinier, so we chase that.
“The sad fact is that ‘almost done’ probably meant ‘not yet started.’ Don’t let this happen to you.”
— Eat That Frog p.58
Our hard drives are a wasteland of ideas, articles, and half finished apps that seemed like good opportunities at the time. How’s that novel coming along, Brian?
When you don’t finish stuff, when you don’t release it out into the public, you’ll never reach the top 10% of anything. You might as well have not started in the first place.
I get that some ideas and projects are not worth finishing. I get that there’s an art of knowing when to quit. I get that there’s a obsession with struggling.
But I think most of the time we quit when we’re a few short feet from gold.
You have to finish because that’s the only way you’re going to get the feedback you need to decide if what you’re doing is adding value.
Don’t give up on your side project because you couldn’t figure out how to join two database tables.
Don’t start writing the next article before you finish the last one. Don’t start the next project unless you finish the the one you’re working on now.
If this is you, then tomorrow’s frog is finishing. Not eight hours starting something new.
Commit to thirty minutes, or an hour, whatever you need to finish your frog.
Finish it, launch it, and walk away.
Before You Go —
Also, give me a follow on Medium (Bar Franek) if you like what you see and want me to write more.