Excuse me but why are you eating so many frogs
We've got the wrong theory about how minds work and it's ruining our lives
I think the devil is real and he wants you to be more productive. He’s everywhere, spreading wickedness disguised as wisdom. Here he is in Forbes:
Stop confusing productivity with laziness. While no one likes admitting it, sheer laziness is the No. 1 contributor to lost productivity.
And in Harvard Business Review:
Every evening, [Marshall Goldsmith, the “well-known CEO coach”] reviews a 40-item spreadsheet consisting of every important behavior he hopes to achieve. Among the items: the number of words he wrote, the distance he walked, and the number of nice things he said to his wife, daughter, and grandchildren.
And The New York Times:
Some inveterate procrastinators even agree on a set of rewards or punishments to go along with their deadlines, depending on what motivates them the most. A reward could be a free lunch; a punishment could be an email to the department announcing that a deadline was not me [sic].
If you get a Chipotle gift card when you meet a deadline and a public shaming when you miss a deadline, guess what buddy: you’re in hell.
For legal reasons, I’m not saying the people who write this stuff are literally Lucifer in human skin. It’s just that, if I wanted to maximize human misery, I would 100% try to convince people to spend more time doing things they hate, like this:
What is the one task that you despise doing but it needs to be done?
What task is going to propel you farther and faster toward overall success?
Once you have chosen your “frog,” make it a habit to wake up every morning and do that task first. In other words: eat that frog!
I have developed simple methods that make it easier to identify your frog and eat it, too.
The internet is full of this devilry. Millions of articles about how to find frogs, season frogs, cook frogs, and unhinge your jaw so you can cram more frogs down your gullet. Want to optimize your frog-eating? Just fork over $597 for a 12-session e-course!
Amidst it all, nobody’s asking the obvious question: Dude, why are you eating frogs??
YOU ARE NOT A LAZY PIECE OF TRASH
Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, and sometimes we don’t know how to prioritize or organize. Getting help with that is good! But if that’s all we wanted, I don’t think motivational grifters could get rich telling us how lazy we are.
I think we seek out and soak up productivity pablum because we’re ashamed of ourselves. We embarrassed that we can’t get our work done. We’re angry with ourselves for slacking off. Why can’t you just send those emails? And so we beg productivity gurus to make us better.
Why are we so hard on ourselves? I think it’s because we have a bad theory about how our minds work, one so dastardly that it could have only been devised by the devil himself. It goes like this:
We humans are, deep down, lazy and gluttonous creatures. If left to our own devices, we will do nothing but eat Pringles and watch Netflix. The only way we can escape our indolent nature is to exert our higher faculties over our base instincts.
If you believe that, it’s no surprise you’d shell out major moolah to be cured of your sloth. But every one of those words is fat, stinkin’ lie.
First, humans are not “naturally” lazy, because humans are not “naturally” anything. The state of nature never existed, and it definitely doesn’t now. Our DNA places some wide boundaries around our possible selves, and then our environments push and pull us between them. That’s why humans differ so much across time and space. For example, 100 years ago, people were two inches shorter, they argued bitterly about whether women should have the right to vote, and they would regularly eat sandwiches filled with, among other things, fruit salad, spaghetti, and watermelon/pimento mix. We’re different today not because our genes changed, but because our culture changed. Whatever our current level of industriousness is, then, there’s nothing “natural” about it, just like there’s nothing natural about our current height, politics, or sandwich preferences.
Second, those “base instincts" deserve more credit, because they probably solve 99% of your problems without you even realizing it. Your unconscious mind keeps your heart pumping and your spleen spleening. It turns the photons that hit your retina into colors and shapes and objects. It stores and retrieves a lifetime of information, like how to juggle and where you keep your socks and the name of your spouse. It even sets goals, forms opinions, and does math.
And third, using your “higher faculties” doesn't always leave you better off. As I wrote recently, smart people aren’t happier. That’s partly because people have all sorts of wrong theories about the things that make them happy, so all their smarty-pants scheming is in vain. In fact, sometimes thinking harder actually makes people worse at figuring at their actual preferences. So expanding conscious control over more and more of your brain’s real estate––a sort of Cognitive Reconquista––is probably a bad idea.
OKAY BUT WHY DO I FEEL LIKE A LAZY PIECE OF TRASH?
If our minds aren’t made up of a sluggish unconscious with a saintly consciousness on top, why does it feel that way? My head is full of lots of internal conflicts like, “No, we can’t eat a whole cheesecake right now,” and “We have to stop staring at the screen and go to sleep,” and “We must continue to edit this sentence instead of picking our nose.” And it feels like the guy saying all that stuff is a little CEO nestled in my prefrontal cortex (“Good, Conscious Me”) and he’s talking to a bunch of slobs that inhabit the rest of my skull (“Bad, Unconscious Me”). Isn’t that evidence for the “lazy unconscious, diligent conscious” hypothesis?
I think: no. This is actually a consequence of how the unconscious and conscious mind interact.
Here’s an analogy. Imagine you’re a busy, cigar-chomping boss and you need some help around the office, so you hire an intern. “Come talk to me whenever you have a problem, otherwise, just do whatever needs to get done,” you tell him. You’re very busy, so once the new guy walks away you completely forget about him. Some time later, he knocks at your door. “Hey, I’ve got a problem,” he says. You help him solve it, he leaves, you forget about him again. Later, he’s back at your door with another problem. And then another. “Jeez,” you might think to yourself, “this new guy sucks. Whenever I see him, he’s got a problem!” But of course, he’s just doing exactly what you told him to do. You just never pay attention to him when he’s doing a good job, so it always looks like he’s doing a bad job.
Our conscious and unconscious may work a similar way. The only time your unconscious bugs your conscious is when it has a problem that needs attention: we’re tired, we’re confused, we don’t like doing whatever we’re doing right now. The rest of the time, it just invisibly solves things for you. That relationship can make it seem like your unconscious is stupid and lazy while your conscious is wise and diligent, but that’s because you never pay attention to your unconscious when it’s doing its job.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EAT TOO MANY FROGS
Everybody has to eat frogs sometimes. And some people have to eat a lot more frogs than others because they were born into poverty and prejudice while others were born into riches and respect. But everybody, no matter how many frogs allotted to them by the universe, will eat more frogs than they have to if they believe they’re a lazy good-for-nothing who needs a constant, conscious lashing to stay focused. I’ve seen where this leads, and it ain’t pretty.
I was a resident advisor for most of undergrad and graduate school, so I spent a lot of time talking to young adults who were freaking out about what to do with their lives.
“What do you like to do?” I'd ask.
“I don’t know,” they’d say.
“Well, when you feel good, what is it you’re doing?"
They’d think for a while, then say something like, “I guess I like hanging out with my friends.”
Okay, so they at least haven’t suffered major brain damage, I’d think, crossing “refer to medical center for psych evaluation” off my list of possible responses. I’d go through their classes and extracurriculars: do they like sociology 101? Intermediate computer science? Their dance group? The after-school tutoring that they do? Do any of these things make them feel alive?
Sometimes we’d find something, and I’d gently encourage them to think more about why they spend so little time doing the few things they seemed to really care about. But often we’d come up empty-handed. Their classes were merely tolerable, their activities were meaningless diversions or resume-stuffers. They did what they did all day because their parents told them to, or everyone else was doing it, or because it seemed like it might get them a job, not because they actually liked it.
These were students who had eaten enough frogs to get into Princeton and Harvard. Their reward was––surprise!––more frogs. So they ate those frogs too. And now they’re staring down a whole lifetime of frog-eating and starting to feel like maybe something, somewhere has gone wrong. But they don’t know what else to do. They’ve so thoroughly subjugated their desires that they don't even know what their desires are anymore.
(These students inevitably end up as consultants or bankers or managers at tech companies, industries that richly reward people who are willing to work very hard for no particular reason. And they usually burn out after a few years––“burnout” is just a short way of saying “too many frogs in the belly.")
This is an extra special type of tragedy, a tragedy that unfolds while everyone cheers. Strangling your passions in exchange for an elite life is like being on the Titanic after the iceberg, water up to your chin, with everybody telling you that you’re so lucky to be on the greatest steamship of all time. And the Titanic is indeed so huge and wonderful that you can’t help but agree, but you’re also feeling a bit cold and wet at the moment, and you’re not sure why.
BAD RELATIONSHIPS AND SMALL PONDS
Here’s another way of looking at it.
Have you ever thought you loved someone, and then your relationship failed for whatever reason, and some time later you fall in love with someone else, and realize that your previous love was just a make-believe love, a childish imitation that you mistook for the real thing––an honest mistake, because you had never felt the real thing before? And yet you still feel a little embarrassed that you thought something so shallow could really be love, that love was simple and weightless, like a single pop song played on repeat until you die. It’s only when you hear the rest of the album that you realize love is so much better than that one hit single, that it’s got moods and movements, sounds that you’ve never heard before, melodies you never thought you would like, but you do, and now they’re stuck in your head. It’s good in a way you didn’t know something could be good.
Imagine getting stuck in that first relationship forever. When it goes bad—and relationships like that always go bad eventually—you simply can’t separate, for whatever reason. You become one of those couples that doesn’t actually seem like they love each other. When you make fun of one another, it sounds like you really mean it. You go on lots of business trips because you don’t have much fun being around your spouse. You get cynical about love and you scoff at every love story and love song because that’s not really what it’s like. Nobody ever actually feels deep, abiding pleasure in another human being, you think, at least not for long.
Or, if you’ve never felt a love like that—imagine that the biggest body of water you’ve ever seen is a dinky little pond and you think, “Yep, that’s about as much water as there can be! There’s nothing deeper or wider than this. Seeing water that stretches onward to the horizon, water that can turn into tidal waves, water that hides giant whales and creatures that have never seen the sun, that’s just a bunch of tall tales.”
And maybe you can be happy sitting next to your pond, so long as you never see an ocean. Maybe when you meet people who tell you about the magnificent oceans they’ve seen, you figure they’re just exaggerating what it’s like to see a pond. “Ah yes, I remember seeing my first pond,” you chuckle. But somewhere deep in your brain, there’s a little twinge of doubt.
I think lots of people are stuck in that first relationship, stuck next to their tiny little pond, skeptical that anything greater exists. But it takes a lot of work to be satisfied with their relationship and their pond, because they don’t get enough love to fill their hearts or enough fish to fill their bellies. So they end up reading articles about how to love things they don’t love that much and how to feel full without eating enough.
Some of these people are stuck there because the world is cruel and they never had a shot at something better. But some people are stuck there because they don’t believe there’s something better. They’ve been hoodwinked by the devil’s lie, fooled into thinking that they are, deep down, a lazy loser, and they must be threatened, cajoled, and caffeinated into working hard, because suffering is the natural state of life. When they get home at the end of the day and they’re so tired that all they can do is sit motionless and watch TV, they blame themselves, as if it’s their fault that they feel exhausted after racing to meet a deadline so they can avoid being publicly shamed. And that breaks my heart.
"COUGH UP THAT FROG,” HE SAID TO THE MIRROR
All of this has been a long way of saying: if you’re forcing yourself to eat frogs all day, maybe you need a vacation, or better pay, or some help organizing your life. But maybe you what you really need is to stop eating frogs.
Or, at the very least, you can stop thinking that frog-eating is such a virtuous thing to do. A little self-discipline builds character, but too much self-discipline breaks it. As Slime Mold Time Mold put it:
Pistons are always moving up and down. A piston moves up; it fires; but that action is matched by the piston moving down, and spending some time not firing. It would be foolish to complain that the piston is not firing all the time, but this is what some people do in trying to work hard all the time. They are trying to keep the piston in the down position the whole time, not recognizing that this will stop the piston from firing again, and will damage the whole engine.
Lest this all sound like a lecture, let me confess: I’m a recovering frog-eater. That’s why I’m so fired up about this; recent converts are always the best missionaries.
Last fall, I was feeling pretty down about my ability to write all of the papers that I needed to get written. I love everything about writing scientific papers––developing the ideas, running the studies, analyzing the data, and interpreting the results––except actually writing them. Editors and reviewers demand that scientific papers be extremely boring—“This paper is fun to read,” a reviewer wrote to me a few years ago, “But there are many places where the paper is a little too fun.”—and you have to listen to them or else they reject your paper and tank your career. This sucks the fun out of what is otherwise a tremendous joy and privilege.
To force myself to write, I put myself on the Pomodoro technique, which is like a diet, except instead of avoiding certain foods, you avoid having fun. You’re supposed to work for ~25 minutes, then take a five minute break, repeat a few times, then take a longer break. I downloaded an app that made a little tomato appear every time I completed one of my work periods. For a few weeks, I made a lot of tomatoes appear.
But tomatoes, frogs—none of it fills you up. I was getting more done, but I was still feeling pretty bummed all the time. As a lark, I started writing this blog. And suddenly I didn’t need self-flagellation to get work done. I lost track of time (and tomatoes), I didn’t want to take breaks, and bedtime became a disappointment because it meant I had to stop. When I’m writing this blog, I feel like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford sticks the Staff of Ra into an underground map at the right time of day and a beam of light shines through the ruby at the head of the staff and it reveals the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Which is to say, I feel like I’m in alignment with the universe, channelling sunlight, illuminating something that used to be unknown. And I'm having fun. Perhaps—Reviewer 2 be damned—too much fun.
I’m still writing those papers, but now I’m easier on myself. I no longer think there’s something wrong with me; there's something wrong with Reviewer 2. I intend to have so much fun that Reviewer 2 will simply have to join in.
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