Frogs, toads and the poetic path to productivity

We can all struggle to work on some days. Who am I kidding? The feeling of swimming against the tide of a wave of professional demands can last for weeks, months, or even years. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, it drains energy that could be used in more useful and rewarding ways, and can end up souring our relationship even with jobs we enjoy.

If flow – or being “in the zone” – is the ideal state in which we are happily productive, the struggle I describe is more like constant friction between your obligations and your ability to fulfill them. It hurts, in every sense of the word including American: pissed off.

Sometimes the best course of action is to learn from others who have felt this way – fortunately, many fellow sufferers have been hyper-competent at expressing their feelings and articulating the best remedies. Because there’s nothing like writing to put a person in terrible, proscrastinating panic.

Perhaps that’s why Mark Twain, a writer always good for an aphorism, offered advice that still makes sense today.

Twain wrote, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, you better do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the bigger one first. Unquestionably, he maintained that you would be done with it and nothing even half as bad would happen to you for the rest of the day. This theory has given rise in our time to a multitude of blogs and even to a lucrative productivity method: “Eat that frog!”

There are tons of boring and ridiculous elaborations (“Prepare your frog the night before” was perhaps the favorite example I found on a night of online distraction from some macabre task or whatever) . But the basic principle is simple and effective. If your task is grim, difficult, or both, get rid of it early and you’ll feel much better.

Maybe there’s something about this strand of human and amphibian experience because after the frog I spent some time absorbing the wisdom of a meditation on its larger cousin and less attractive.

We are nearing the end of the centenary celebrations of poet Philip Larkin (b. 1922), so now is a good time to reflect Toads and Toads Revisited, produced with a seven-year gap between them. Both of these poems deal with this renowned literary curmudgeon’s resentment and subsequent acceptance of the place of work in his life (Larkin’s daily job was that of a librarian).

At first, he rails against this “brute”. The toad is work and it “squats” his life, he fantasizes about chasing him away with a pitchfork: “Ah, I had the courage/ To shout Fill your pensionOnce he’s had a few years to think, however, we find him in the park on a sunny day realizing he really belongs in the office – “When the lights come on at four o’clock / At the end of ‘another year’ (you may have endured the gloom of an English winter to get that reference). ‘Give me my baccalaureate,’ he begs.

Like much of his writing, it is tinged with disdain—in this case, for people who have nothing better to do than hang around the municipal flowerbeds: “Turn over their failures/By a bed of lobelias.” It ends with the Toad helping him make the trip “up Cemetery Road”.

Larkin’s is not an uplifting message: resistance is futile. But the kernel of truth it contains is precious: what else would you be doing, really and truly, if you weren’t working? Be honest about it – and that others are in a worse position than you. Does your work, in fact, offer rewards and consolations?

As a friend very helpfully observed when I was grappling with a project that seemed invincible: “You just have to commit to the process”. This guy is neither a frog, nor a toad, nor a writer, but he certainly helped me on my particular path. At times when I am stuck or overwhelmed, these words come back to me.

My last suggested literary canon guru is Ogden Nash. He seems, unfortunately, to have mentioned only one amphibian, the axolotl, to make it rhyme with bottle rather than to draw any moral from it. But I would say he deserves the posthumous title of Poet Laureate of Work-Related Angst, so I include him in that role.

In Procrastination is all the time, Nash points out that there is a self-serving argument for leaning in and eating your frog or kissing your toad. As he puts it: “. . . the innocent joy of not getting things done / Simmers sulks until he doesn’t have fun.

In the end, no matter how much time we spend looking for slimy career coaches, we might as well keep going. I’ll let Nash have the grand finale: “Torpor is heartbreaking, laziness is boring – /Everyone ready? Let’s go out and work.

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