Have You Eaten Your Frog Today?
On the art of procrastination, Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Fortunately, Mr. Twain wasn’t actually asking you to make a slimy, green amphibian the staple source of protein for your most important meal of the day. His take-home message was much less literal and, happily, much less nauseating in its significance.
He’s suggesting that if you are able to complete the most overwhelming, difficult, and repulsive task on your to-do list at the inception of your day, all of your other designated assignments will seem much less daunting in comparison.
I’m generally a very productive person at work. I can juggle an overbooked appointment schedule with a myriad of meetings (some pre-planned, others impromptu), all while taking and/or returning multiple phone calls, e-mails, text messages, etc.
In between appointments, you’ll find me completing writing assignments, working on continuing education lectures, and reading articles on current studies in veterinary oncology. There’s always a topic to research, a blog to write, or a case to catch up on.
Despite my endless capacity for multi-tasking and my passion for writing, and re-writing, and re-re-writing my list of daily tasks I want to accomplish, I'll admit a big secret:
I’m really, really bad at eating the frog.
Invariably, the task I deem to be the most challenging, demanding, and time-consuming chore on my extensive list of planned daily activities will be the one I put off the longest to complete.
Rather than getting down to business and forcing myself to eat the frog, I’ll add on additional assignments, obligations, and chores to be able to justify pushing the one thing I don’t want to do off for as long as possible.
I will become unexplainably lost within a textbook for hours, I will pre-write discharges for cases set up with appointments three days from that moment, I will clean and reorganize my desk over and over again, and, on occasion, I will become entrapped in the vortex of viral videos depicting cats knocking things off tables.
My frog varies with the day. Sometimes it’s putting off writing a lengthy summary for a complicated case. Other days it’s working on rounds presentations for the hospital staff. But typically, the most repellent frog-eating duty I face is setting aside the time to call an owner and deliver bad news.
People assume veterinary oncologists give owners devastating news on a routine basis. Cancer is a term that conjures up nothing less than the bleakest of skies and the most dubious of horizons. These misconceptions mean it’s actually never easy for me to tell strangers what I do for a living.
Most individuals are genuinely surprised when I inform them that my job is far less dramatic than what they expect. In fact, I’m far more often the hero rather than the villain. My emphasis is on the fact that I’m the one who often imparts hope to owners who have already been given the devastating news of their pet’s diagnosis by a different doctor.
There are times, however, when I am the person responsible for disclosing unfortunate news. Sometimes this relates to confirming a suspected diagnosis of cancer in a pet referred for further diagnostics. Other times, I’m there to inform them that their beloved pet’s disease has spread within their body, and that our carefully planned and executed treatment plan was unsuccessful in controlling disease. And in others, I’m calling to tell an owner there’s simply nothing more we can do.
Our nature as doctors is to impart healing to our patients. We never wish to be the bearer of anything other than stellar examination and laboratory results and proverbial clean bills of health. Doing so is akin to our admitting defeat.
We chose this path because we love science, medicine, and maintaining and restoring health. Along with those positive attributes comes the great responsibility of disseminating information, both the good and the bad.
In some instances, I put off eating the “bad news” frog because I want to be sure I have set aside an adequate amount of time to have the difficult talk with the owners. Those discussions shouldn’t be pinched in between appointments when my mind is preoccupied with dozens of other things.
In others cases, I’m too attached to the pet or the owners (often both) and worry I won’t be as objective in my delivery as I should be and my bias will influence my speech.
I stall on eating the frog because I know it will be hard and uncomfortable for me. I know it will take time and there will be questions and I won’t be able to read facial expressions or know what is being comprehended.
Most significant is I know that when I eat that frog, I know I am likely to cause another person to feel pain. No matter how temporary, it is not in my nature as a doctor to wish to willingly and purposefully make another person (or animal) hurt.
My complex emotional state boils down to a very primitive survival skill tactic: I don’t want to deal with eating the frog because it’s difficult.
Mr. Twain’s words are certainly insightful, and I’m not here to argue against the concept that attacking formidable obstacles makes us stronger individuals and gives us perspective to understand that a lot of times the “big things” are just small things with more elaborate surface structure.
But I think there’s something to be said about ensuring you’re good and hungry before sitting down to eat the frog.
It’s not something you want to face on a full or queasy stomach. Otherwise, you might not be able to finish the task to the best of your abilities.
And no one else wants to deal with your leftover frog when they have their own to savor themselves.
Dr. Joanne Intile
Image: Sergey Novikov / Shutterstock