At a certain point in the biology curriculum here in France, pupils learn about the curious behaviour of frogs. Given where they have grown up, the pupils know a fair amount about the topic already of course, but in biology class they learn more specifically about the behaviour of frogs of the amphibian kind.

If you put a frog swim in a pot of water and heat the water just a bit the frog will continue swimming happily. Make the water a few degrees hotter and the frog will still swim, but her reflexes will get slower. As the temperature continues to rise the movements diminish to nothing, and the frog will eventually die. Boiled alive.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, that apparently doesn’t happen if you throw the frog into a pot of boiling water. The shock has her employ those famous leg muscles to escape in a single bound. 

Personally, I hate this story – and whoever conducted the tests on which it was based – but I love the metaphor it offers:

As the piles of papers on the desk become higher, the list of emails in the inbox longer, the sea of red flags wave more vigorously and the number of started-and-not-done-to-do-lists naggier, we see the employee initially continues to work mostly normally. Might even speed up a bit to try to cope. Start earlier, finish later, do a bit on the weekend to catch up. But eventually, like our frog friends, she seems to shrink behind her desk, motivation draining away while her smile fades and her blood-pressure rises. If it goes on too long, she ends up being the workplace equivalent of boiled: burnt out. 

Why do we let it come to that? 

Dropped quickly into the same mess that most people have gotten used to working in, many would use their leg muscles and walk straight back out the door of their workplace to find a saner place to work. 

I think people don’t because, like our amphibian friends in slowly warming water, we don’t realise just how the ongoing accumulation of unclarified things stresses our nervous system. A small number of them, early in our careers, seem manageable. We’ve got this. No problems here.

It’s only with our first child or first promotion that trying to manage them all in our heads begins to create real problems. And we lack indicators that tell us to step out of this situation when we start getting buried under all the stuff that has our attention at the same time. We want to be helpful, ‘good girls’ or ‘good boys’, and get it all done.

Unless we take the time to stop, step back, and get some perspective, we simply cannot see what is wrong with the situation, or just how bad it is for our mental and physical health.

As a GTD® Trainer, I’m often working with the human version of our frog friends. Unfortunately, some of them are already half cooked when I meet them.

My job is to help them to look at their way of working from the outside, to get a sense of what exactly is wrong with it, and then implement a sound and healthy system with indicators that will allow them to measure the “temperature” of their environment.

An example? Some of my clients are unsure of why we ask them to take some time to get crystal clear on what it feels like to be stuck in an “unproductive experience”. ‘Why all that focus on the negative?’, they ask. 

What they don’t yet see is that getting clarity on what it feels like when they start to get uncomfortably overwhelmed, and what their initial stress reactions are – headaches, digestive problems, tense neck muscles or sleep problems –  will give them earlier warning signals when heading towards being totally cooked. 

Participants leave our seminars not only with a system that works, but also with a real understanding of the physical manifestations of being either stuck in the work equivalent of ever hotter water, or (to torture my metaphor one last time) standing on the board and surfing the waves of their work.

And you? What’s your preference? Boiling or surfing?

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