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When you look at your to-do list for the day, and think about where to begin, what tasks seem the most attractive to you? Do you like to start with the easy tasks, and build up some momentum before taking on the more difficult tasks? Or do you prefer to get the biggest, most dreaded task out of the way first, so it’s all downhill from there?

There’s an old saying that “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Productivity gurus often reference this saying, suggesting that “eating the frog first” helps to not only increase productivity, but also build confidence.

And when it comes to productivity, one probably could make a strong case for frog first (though I think there’s also something to be said for minimizing friction, by starting with the easiest task). But what about confidence?

If the primary goal is to build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy (i.e. how confident you are in your ability to achieve a goal), is it better to go through your tasks from easy-to-difficult? Or difficult-to-easy?

Analogy challenges

A pair of UC Berkeley researchers (Habbert & Schroeder, 2020) recruited 200 participants to complete some word puzzles.

Specifically, they were presented with three rounds of six analogies – an easy set where most people get all or nearly all correct, a medium set where most folks get about half correct, and a difficult set where most people are hard pressed to get more than one correct.

If you can remember taking the SAT’s way back when, this will be familiar, but it looked something like this:

“Orange is to fruit as _____ is to vegetable” 

a) apple 
b) rabbit 
c) carrot 
d) house

(The correct answer is carrot)

Which method did people predict would lead to more confidence?

Then the participants were presented with a series of questions that asked them to predict how confident they would feel after completing the word puzzles in a particular order. Like “If you were assigned to see the practice rounds from easy to medium to hard, how confident do you think you would feel about answering analogies correctly, after completing all three rounds?” Or “If you were assigned to see the practice rounds from hard to medium to easy, how much would you trust your ability to answer analogies correctly, after completing all three rounds?”

Preferred order

The participants were also asked what order they would prefer to complete the analogies in, if their goal was to maximize confidence:

“Your goal is to feel the most confident and the most skillful after completing all three rounds of these analogies. To achieve this goal, in which order would you prefer to see the practice rounds?” Easy, then medium, then hard? Or hard, then medium, then easy?

Results

Most participants predicted that their sense of efficacy would be greater if they completed the analogies from easy-to-difficult. So it’s not surprising that most (60%) said that this is the order they would prefer to do the puzzles in.

So were they right? Would completing analogies from easy-to-difficult lead to greater confidence than doing them from difficult-to-easy?

Which method actually led to more confidence?

The researchers recruited a new set of 363 participants, who were randomly assigned to one of three groups. An easy-to-difficult group, a difficult-to-easy group, and a control group.

The easy-to-difficult group completed the easy analogies first, then medium, then hard. The difficult-to-easy group on the other hand, did the hard analogies first, then medium, then easy. The control group’s analogies were all mixed up – each round had 2 analogies of each difficulty level, presented in random order.

Self-efficacy ratings

Before testing began, and again after each round, the participants were asked to answer questions related to their sense of efficacy. Questions like “How skilled do you think you are at these analogy tasks?”, “How confident do you feel about these analogy tasks?”, and “How much do you trust your ability to answer these analogy tasks correctly?” – where 1=not at all skilled/confident and 10=very skilled/confident/much.

So did the order of tasks make any difference?

Results

In terms of performance, there was no difference between groups. As in, whether participants started with the easy analogies or difficult analogies, their scores were all about the same (10.23 out of 18 for the easy-to-difficult group, and 10.60 for the difficult-to-easy group, and 10.39 for the control group).

Interestingly, even though there was no real difference in performance between the groups, it was a different story when it came to confidence.

The group that started with the difficult analogies and ended with the easy analogies reported feeling significantly more confident and efficacious by the end of their practice, than the group that started with easy analogies and ended with the most challenging ones (6.13/10 vs. 4.62/10). While the control group’s efficacy ratings were right between the two (5.26/10).

So what are we to take away from all of this?

What does this all mean?

Well, the study suggests that our natural preferences and assumptions about what builds confidence may need adjusting. 

That while we may prefer to start with our easiest tasks and gradually work our way toward the most difficult ones, it may be more confidence-enhancing to start with our biggest challenges, and end with the lowest hanging fruit.

But…why?

Psychological momentum

Well, research in tennis, basketball, and rowing have found that a string of successes and tiny wins leads to a greater feeling of “positive momentum” and self-efficacy than wins that are more evenly spaced out, or multiple losses in a row.

So it may be that our most recent successes, and how we end, has a greater impact on our confidence and sense of effectiveness than how we begin.

Caveats

That said, you’re not going to build much confidence if you procrastinate so much that by the time you get around to practicing, it’s late in the day, and you’re too tired to be effective at much of anything.

So while building confidence and self-efficacy is nice and all, if getting started is the primary challenge you’re facing, beginning the day with your easiest task might be the best way to reduce friction (umm…chocolate cake for breakfast vs. eating the frog first?).

And then, once you’ve built up a little momentum, maybe this is the point at which it makes sense to take on the gnarliest, most difficult challenge on your todo list. After which you can proceed in order of descending difficulty, ending with the easy tasks that make you feel pretty awesome about yourself, and totally deserving of some guacamole to go with your overstuffed Chipotle burrito.


References

Habbert, R., & Schroeder, J. (2020). To build efficacy, eat the frog first: People misunderstand how the difficulty-ordering of tasks influences efficacy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 91, 104032. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.104032