Bite the lemon
What if you walked into your office every morning and there was a lemon sitting on your desk? And what if, every day, you knew that you would have to take a bite out of that lemon before you left for the day? Like most people, you would probably spend the entire day pushing the lemon aside, finding one reason after another not to bite that lemon.
Now consider another strategy – the “carpe lemon” (or “seize the lemon!”) approach.
Imagine starting your workday by walking to your desk, setting down your coffee, picking up that lemon and taking a big bite out of it. Sure, it’s sour and isn’t nearly as good as that muffin you eyed at Starbucks. But now look at the bright side – the day has barely started, and already you’ve gotten the most unpleasant part of the day out of the way.
“Biting the lemon” is a phrase we use when referring to taking on tasks that are complex, unpleasant – and highly important. As a general rule, tasks with a low level of “fun” and a high level of complexity also have a high level of value; correspondingly, tasks that are easier to complete typically have less value attached to them.
In this situation, the lemon represents those complex and often dreaded tasks that must be completed. Everyone has their own personal “lemon”. It may be budgeting reports, completing performance evaluations, filling out paperwork on a disciplinary item, etc. Regardless of what form they come in, lemons share certain characteristics; namely, they’re necessary but unwelcome tasks that we tend to put off as long as possible and may even let accumulate during the course of a workweek.
Biting the lemon not only lets you take control of your workday the moment it begins, but it also provides you with more energy to face the rest of the day.
If you don’t believe that tackling your greatest task will give you more energy, spend a moment thinking about what happens when you have an important assignment hanging over your head. You push it aside, but it’s still in your mind. Even as you work on other projects, that all-important task is taking up part of your thoughts. You dread having to work on it, but at the same time you’re panicked over whether or not it’s going to get done.
Every time you see that lemon, it zaps your energy and reminds you that, no matter what else you might have done today, you still have this one thing left that must be completed.
Take a bite, take control
Now let’s look at what happens when you “bite the lemon” immediately. You have a sense of relief and accomplishment that you have already completed the day’s most unpleasant – and perhaps most complicated – task. Regardless of what happens for the rest of the day, you will have a sense of accomplishment – and that sense of empowerment will bleed over into other duties. You can put your lemon away and go on with the rest of your day.
The quality of each and every day is created by the sum of many decisions that you must make during that day. When you start your day by making the decision to tackle your most dreaded task, you have just set the tone for a great day. Instead of being manipulated by the thought of what’s hanging over your head, you’ve just taken control of the day by making a conscious decision to complete that task. And let’s face it – when you start your day by biting a lemon, it’s bound to get better from there!
Higher energy = Better results
Another benefit of biting the lemon first thing in the morning is that you’re taking on that unpleasant task while your energy level is still high. When high-value tasks are pushed to the end of the day, it compromises the quality of work that is devoted to them. As the day goes on, energy levels drop, so by avoiding complex tasks, you’re actually making it even more challenging.
By the end of the day, you’re trying to do a complex task with the lowest amount of resources. Or, perhaps even worse, you find yourself unable to find enough time to finish your important task, so you end up taking it home with you. You arrive home, tired and hungry – and somewhat resentful that you’ve had to bring your work home with you after putting in a full day at the office. And nine times out of ten, that task won’t get your attention at home that night. Instead, you’ll take it back to the office, where you’ll spend the following day avoiding it, too.
There’s a reason that marathons are run early in the day! Knocking out the hardest part of your day while your energy level is at its peak actually makes these tasks easier to complete – and remember, there’s the added bonus of feeling empowered when that task is finished.
Not all lemons are created equal. While many can be handled with one large bite, others are simply too big. That doesn’t mean they should be pushed aside – it only means they should be cut down to size.
Breaking large tasks into smaller, manageable tasks is an effective way to make progress on a complex assignment while at the same time reaping all the benefits that accompany biting the lemon. If you know that you can carve out 20 minutes at the start of your day, take that lemon and break it down into 20-minute tasks. Start your day by devouring one of those wedges of time, and soon, bite by bite, you’ll see that lemon disappear.
Finally, finish each day by clearing your desk of the tasks that must be worked on the following day. The only piece of work remaining on your desk should be the lemon that you’ll bite the following morning. This gives you a sense of accomplishment and lets you know that you've had a day of great productivity.
Now, imagine walking into your office the next morning and being greeted by nothing but the lemon. Not only have you eliminated other distractions that keep you from biting the lemon, but you’ve given yourself a psychological edge. Instead of being greeted by giant stacks of unfinished tasks, or worse, being welcomed by a chaotic array of paperwork that hasn’t even made it into piles, you’re walking up to a desk with just one single challenge. With this one simple act of putting away all of the day’s unfinished business, the unspoken message from your desk the following morning changes from, “Look at all the things you didn’t get done” to “Good morning! Here’s how we’re going to start your day.”
All you have to do now is sit down, bite the lemon and know that your day is just going to keep getting better.
Key productivity points:
- Taking on the day’s most important task first thing gives you a sense of accomplishment, but also gives you control of your day.
- Pushing important tasks until later in the day – when your energy resources are low – compromises the quality of work you will do on that task.
- Breaking large tasks into smaller, more manageable duties allow you to continue working on a large project without becoming overwhelmed.
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PMA has been working with organizations, teams and leaders on their productivity for 20 years.