To Maximize Competence and Confidence: Eat the Frog or Not?

When it comes to practice (and productivity) there are two big competing thoughts about how best to order work.

One way, popularized by Brian Tracy in the evocatively-named book Eat That Frog!, suggests starting your day by doing the most difficult and critical task you have to do.

Another approach involves minimizing friction in the beginning. Starting instead with easier tasks to try and “get in the zone”. Once you’ve gotten a good flow going, the more difficult and important task won’t feel like such a mountain to climb.

A recent paper by two UC Berkley researchers actually looked at these two competing approaches to see how effective they are both in getting tasks done and improving an individual’s self-confidence.

From the abstract:

Achieving competency and autonomy in one’s life—in other words, being efficacious—is a fundamental human need. A commonly endorsed strategy for building efficacy is summarized by a popular quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing.” The current paper tests this “eat-the-frog-first” strategy, examining whether completing tasks in increasing-easiness order builds efficacy more than increasing-difficulty (or randomized) order.

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 91, November 2020, 104032

The Experiment(s)

The research involved several different groups being presented with analogies. These analogies were in three different predefined groups (“easy”, “medium”, and “hard”) of 6 analogies each.

In the first experiment, 200 participants were asked to rate their preferred task ordering (easy->hard or hard->easy) with the goal being “to feel the most confident and the most skillful after completing all three rounds of these analogies”.

Not surprisingly, 60% of these participants preferred to work from easy to hard.

In a second experiment, researchers randomly assigned 363 new participants in one of three order-groups: increasing-difficulty order, increasing-easiness order, and control(random order). Each participant was given three sets (“easy”, “medium”, “hard”) of six analogies in their groups difficulty progression.

After each difficulty level, participants were asked to rate their own skill, confidence, and ability in answering these analogies on a 1 (not good) to 10 (very good) scale.

The Results

Interestingly, whether the participants started with the easy or harder analogies did not meaningfully affect their overall number of correct answers. The increasing-difficulty group had an average of 10.23 correct answers (out of 18), while the increasing-easiness group had 10.60 correct answers.

Contradicting the assessment by those in the first experiment, though, those in the increasing-easiness group felt much more confident in their (self-rated) abilities. The increasing-easiness group averaged a 6.13 (out of 10), while the increasing-difficulty group averaged a rating of 4.62.

One of the reasons the researchers give for this is that people tend to focus more on the beginning of a task rather than the end. Wanting to minimize effort or discomfort in the moment leads people to put off important or challenging things.

From the paper’s conclusion:

Folk wisdom suggests that, to improve self-efficacy, people should “eat the frog” (do the most difficult thing) first, yet people often prefer to delay difficult tasks. The present research shows that people do not see the value in “eating the frog” first—they instead believe that completing tasks in increasing-difficulty order (eating the frog last) will enhance their self-efficacy. But in reality, completing tasks in increasing-difficulty order harms efficacy more than helps it. Our data suggest that, to maximize efficacy, people should start with their hardest task first; as their task load becomes increasingly easier for them to complete, their efficacy will likewise grow. We further suggest a reason for why people misunderstand how their efficacy changes over time: they simulate the beginning of the task-difficulty sequence more than the end.

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 91, November 2020, 104032

This is a good thing to keep in mind when you’re planning out your practice or your daily schedule!