This was originally a thread on Twitter; you can read the original
here, but this one has
been lightly edited for grammar and clarity, plus I added a pretty rad picture
of a frog to it.
I’m in the midst of trying to unlearn a few things about neurotypical
productivity advice but this is one I’ve been thinking about a lot:
“Eat the frog first” is particularly toxic advice for ADHDers.
Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash
First, for anyone who happens not to know already: “eat the frog
first” is a technique which involves
finding the task you’re most likely to ignore or put off, and doing it first in
your day to ensure that you don’t avoid it.
For a neurotypical person, eating the frog first makes sense, which is of
course why this advice exists in the first place. If you’ve been avoiding a
task, put it first in your day when you’re going to have the most energy, and
use the allure of the more fun tasks later to push through it.
This makes intuitive sense.
The premise of this advice is that you rely on the promise of delayed
gratification—and the anticipated inherent satisfaction of having completed the
boring and unpleasant thing—in order to motivate you to do it.
Here’s the problem for ADHDers: ADHD is literally the condition of not
generating enough dopamine, which means delayed gratification is inherently
more difficult for us. The anticipated inherent satisfaction is less
motivating because it’s less intense, on a physical level.
An ADHD brain powering through tasks needs momentum. You need to be in a
sufficiently excited state to begin doing things. A bored, dopamine-starved
ADHD brain is going to be clawing at the walls looking for ANY
dopamine-generating distraction to avoid thinking about the frog.
Of course where dopamine won’t do, there’s always adrenaline. Panic can trigger
sufficient states of activity as well, although the stress is unhealthy and
it’s less reliable in the absence of a real, immediate threats that you can’t
So what frog-first ADHD days often look like (particularly for adult ADHDers)
is a slow slog of not really doing anything useful, while stewing in
increasingly negative self-talk, attempting to generate the necessary anger and
self-loathing required to truly panic about the frog.
Unfortunately this type of attempt at internal motivation is more likely to
result in depression than motivation, which creates a spiral that makes the
The neurotypical’s metaphorical frog is just sitting there, waiting to be
eaten. Maybe they’ve been avoiding it because it’s a little gross, but fine,
they can exert a little willpower and just do it, and move on to more pleasant
activities. But the ADHD frog is running away.
Trying to use the same technique just results in the ADHDer sitting in the
swamp where the frog used to be, chugging ever-increasing volumes of toxic mud
in the hopes that we’ll find a frog in there. Sometimes we even find one! But
that’s not success.
At the end of the day, the metaphorical frog does need eating; that’s what
makes it a frog. What is the conscientious ADHDer to do?
Unfortunately, there is no singular, snappy answer; difficulty with this type
of task is the impenetrable core of the “disorder” part of ADHD. It’ll always
be difficult. But there are definitely strategies which can make it
None of these are guaranteed to work, but I am at least reasonably sure that
they won’t build a spiral into guilt and depression:
- start with a fun task, and build momentum until the frog seems like no big
- use hype music; yell; get excited to an embarrassing degree.
- exercise; i.e. “go for a walk”
It might literally be better to start the day with something actively
unproductive, but fun, like a video game, although this can obviously be
risky. For this to work, you need to have very good systems in place.
Start the frog at the end of the day and deliberately interrupt yourself when
you stop work. Leave it lingering so some aspect of it annoys you and it
distracts you at night. Start the next day pissed off at and obsessing over
murdering that piece of shit frog as soon as you can get your hands on it.
This technique is also good because at the end of the day you only need to push
yourself just hard enough to load the task into your brain, not all the way
Remember that while “stimulated” doesn’t have to mean “panicked”, it also
doesn’t need to mean “happy”. Sometimes, annoyance or irritation is the best
way to ensure that you go do something. Consider, for example, the
compelling motivation of reading a comment on the Internet that you disagree
Overall the distinguishing characteristic of toxic productivity advice is that
it makes you spend more time feeling bad than doing stuff.
It substitutes panic for healthy motivation, and low self-esteem for a feeling
of accomplishment. The most important point I am trying to make is this: when
you take productivity advice — even, or perhaps especially, from me – try to
measure its impact on your work and your mental health. If eating the frog
is working for you, by all means keep doing it. But you have to ask
Are you actually getting more done?