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Valerie Alexander Headshot

Stop Eating Frogs! Just Be Happy

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Mark Twain is often credited with saying, "Eat a live frog the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." (In truth, that was coined by Nicolas Chamfort and only linked to Mark Twain long after reports of Twain's death were no longer an exaggeration.) Provenance aside, that particular quote has been vigorously adopted in management training, self-help books and motivational speeches for at least the last decade, and it's time we retired it and moved past eating frogs.

First off, if I ate a live frog first thing in the morning, I am pretty sure the worst thing that would happen to me that day is I would vomit up a frog.

Second, why start your day with something awful? A lot of the "eat a frog" business practices say to get your worst task out of the way first, and the rest of your day gets better, but has there been any empirical evidence of this? Who's to say that starting your day doing something wretched (and wretching) doesn't set the tone for a miserable day?

Instead of fixating on how much you dread a task, and forcing yourself to do it first, try changing your mindset about the supposedly unpleasant thing you have to do. Decide in advance that performing that job will make you happy, then come up with a list of all the ways that will happen. Use this list as a touchstone to motivate you through the onerous chore and feel much happier at its completion.

Need a root canal? Before going, rattle off all the ways getting a root canal might make you happy. If this is a strain, that's fine. You are building new neural pathways to train your brain to see something in a whole new light, and that can be pretty tiring, but it's so worth it. Like doing sit-ups, but less painful and with more immediate results.

Still lost? Try these cogitations: I'm happy to get a root canal today because it means saving a tooth that I don't want to lose; I'm happy that I live in a place where services like this are available to me; I'm happy to have a dentist I trust, and who will do everything in her power to minimize my pain and discomfort (and if this isn't the case -- switch dentists!); I'm happy that I can afford this, even though I still think it's outrageously overpriced; I'm happy that my job affords me the freedom to take time to take care of myself; I'm happy that the procedure takes less than an hour, that's not that long and I can survive an hour of anything; I'm happy that once I do this, I will never need to do it on that tooth again. I could come up with several more, but you get the point. With effort, seeing something as positive can make everything about doing it seem less grueling.

And what if your grim undertaking is something you can't imagine making you happy, like having to tell your boss that you won't complete a project on time? There are still ways to steel yourself for the task and find happiness in the doing and the outcome. Some possible thoughts include: I'm happy that I am taking responsibility for this shortfall, that will make me a better person and a better employee in the future; I'm happy that I have a clearer understanding of this job and what is required, and will be able to communicate that going forward; I'm happy that I have prepared enough for this moment that I won't lose my cool or get sidetracked during the conversation; I'm happy that I will keep my job after this, and will have the chance to prove myself next time; I'm happy to be seen as someone who acts quickly and admits mistakes early, and seeks to find solutions rather than making excuses or laying blame. And if talking to the boss gets you fired? Try this -- I'm happy to have the motivation to find work more suited to my skills, personality and interests, since clearly this job wasn't a good fit or I would have kept it.

Of course, there are going to be terrible things on your to-do list that you'd rather avoid than confront, but simply confronting them first thing probably won't make them any less miserable. With just a little bit of brainwork, you can actively feel better about what you're doing, and get more satisfaction having done it, whether that's going through a huge stack of contracts to find one elusive number, cleaning the decomposed vegetables out of the fridge, telling your wife that you won't be able to get Thanksgiving off this year, or saying, "no" to someone who wants something from you.

If you have a venture on your to-do list that is really dreadful, write down all of the things about doing that task that will make you happy. All of them. Some entries might be a stretch, but that's fine. Resetting your brain to see this drudgery as something positive will make you truly happy while doing it and even happier once it's completed. And it will make you a whole lot happier than eating a live frog.

To read more, you can visit Valerie Alexander's website, Speak Happiness, and follow Speak Happiness on Facebook and Twitter. For more detailed instruction in achieving lasting, permanent happiness, you can get "Happiness as a Second Language" on Amazon, and for added amusement, please check out the Happiest Book Trailer Ever.

For more by Valerie Alexander, click here.

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