On Eating Frogs and Elephants

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time!

animal big elephant endangered
Aw, he’s so cute! It’s just a saying, little guy!
Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

If you’re required to eat a live frog, best to eat it first thing in the morning so you can be sure your day isn’t going to get any worse.

closeup photo of blue poison dart frog on green surface
You definitely don’t want to try this flavor, though! 
Photo by Thierry Fillieul on Pexels.com

While the origins of these quotes are largely speculative (Mark Twain didn’t actually say that about the frog), I’m sure you’ve heard at least one. They’re popular in self-help books and motivational Instagram memes. They get at two important principles for meeting goals: setting up a process and avoiding procrastination.

We often set long-term goals with good intentions but no step-wise process or deeper meaning for pursuing them. Likewise, when it comes to the activities required to meet these goals, the short-term sacrifice of an unpleasant task often outweighs the long-term benefit of reaching the goal. Without inspiration, motivation eventually wanes, and without discipline, we end up abandoning the pursuit altogether. I’ve seen this depicted in various graphs that I believe should be credited to Seth Godin, who wrote The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). It’s depicted thusly in one example on a great blog about giving up by Andy Pockock of Living Real:

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Image Source

While this is a well-known phenomenon for dieters, it’s relevant in education and coaching, as well. Long-term or ‘Outcome Goals’ in education are often referred to as ‘learning objectives,’ and in coaching they can manifest as new one-rep maxes or a target body weight. These goals may take weeks or months to reach, and just like trying to cross a wide river–or eat an elephant–you can’t do it in a single leap or bite. So, these small ‘bites’ are called Process Goals. In education, a single learning objective may require students to complete several lessons and worksheets before passing an exam. In coaching, a client’s macrocycle may span an entire competitive season, with mesocycles for strength or hypertrophy lasting weeks, and microcycles composed of just a single training bout. Each lesson or training session must meet a Process Goal that will bring the student or client closer to the Outcome Goal. Focusing on Process Goals ensures specificity and progression while making the Outcome Goal more feasible. Plus, it allows for short-term, frequent feedback and rewards to instill a sense of self-efficacy and prevent procrastination in the face of waiting for that long-term payout. Reward yourself heartily for each little bite you take, and reflect on how to make the next one better!

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Even with a well-designed process, some things are just going to suck. Even if you love to write, lift, and eat vegetables, at some point you won’t feel like working on your essay, running on sore legs, or saying no to dessert. This is where eating the frog comes into play: do the most unpleasant things first and enjoy the rest of your day. There is a theory that willpower is finite, so if you put off the unpleasant tasks, you may not have enough to spend at the end of the night, and your procrastination will win the day. You may give yourself enough time to justify putting off the task, allowing the short-term reward of freedom to override the long-term benefit of inching closer to your goal. The loveliest of to-do lists is useless if you spend all of your time writing it and none actually doing it. Just eat that frog and enjoy the rest of your day!

orange and green pen on graphing notepad
But first, coffee! 
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Before you can commit to eating elephants and frogs, however, you have to figure out your ‘why.’ What makes this goal so important? How will it change you or your life? Who will it affect, for better or worse? This is what will keep you going when you and your goals are past the honeymoon phase and suddenly you’re noticing all of their annoying habits, and how they don’t load the dishwasher the right way, or the way they chew, or leave hair in the sink…you get where I’m going with this. You will fall out of love with your goal at some point, so commitment needs to come from a deeper place than the infatuation of an exciting change.

For the first time in my four years as an assistant professor, I am not teaching a summer course. My work-life balance had become so skewed as to affect my mental health, and I felt that my personal and intellectual growth were beginning to stagnate. I knew that I needed to make some changes and devote time to personal and professional development. Thus, my Why’s were born:

Why? I want to be a better coach and educator so I can more effectively help my clients and students reach their goals.

Why? I feel fulfilled and purposeful when I’m learning and disseminating information. My identity is tied to my role as an educator, and to teach I must learn.

Why? There is no known limit to the amount of information my brain can retain. My lifespan, however, is finite, so I want to soak up as much knowledge as I can while I’m here.

I’m sure there are more Why’s floating around in my headspace, but these three stuck out. These principles are rooted in my values, character, and identity. They go far beyond income, employability, or client accrual. Those are certainly important aspects as well, but I’ve found that more superficial goals like money or muscle definition don’t have the same lasting effects. They come and go with the infatuation of setting the Outcome Goal. In the moment, when deciding between abs or a delicious meal, you might think, “You look fine. No one sees your abs anyway!”, but you probably won’t think “I don’t really need to be able to play catch with my kids. They want to play video games anyway!”. The former only affects you, and it has little to do with your core values. The latter affects your children, and speaks to your role as a parent.

Now that I’ve identified my Why’s…what are the Outcome Goals? *drumroll, please…*

  1. Earn my ACE Certified Health Coach credential.
  2. Earn my ACSM Certified Personal Trainer credential.
  3. Enhance my internet presence to reach more people via Facebook, Instagram, and my website.

Bonus #4: Pull >700lb total at my next meet in the 63kg weight class!

I hope this has given you some nutritious food for thought until my next installment on Process Goals! Now go grab a fork!

2 thoughts on “On Eating Frogs and Elephants

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