Worst Things First


“Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” — Zig Ziglar

“Worst things first” is a practice I learned long ago and it’s actually helpful whether it’s day to day or building software.

The idea is simple — do the worst things first.

Rather than save a big hurdle to the end, do it up front when you are at your strongest.

Get It Over With

It’s human nature to move away from pain.  Sometimes I have a meeting or a conversation or even just a task for the day that I’m not looking forward to.

I’m not talking about the stuff I can ignore forever.

I’m talking about stuff that needs to happen sooner rather than later, that I won’t enjoy doing.

Don’t Let It Loom Over You

If I push those things to the end of the day or the end of the week, they loom.  Why loom longer than necessary?

That’s draining.

Somebody long ago gave me the tip worst things first and I didn’t realize it’s actually become one of my most effective habits.

One of my mentees is going to combine Worst Things First with a 30 day Improvement Sprint to see how much energy they get back and how much more they get done.

I think this is a great experiment and I look forward to their results.

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  1. It depends on my mood. Sometimes I can handle worst things first, but some days I just need to do the easy stuff.

    Maybe I should also try a 30 day trial of “worst things first” and see what happens. I know I could use it.

  2. Hi JD,
    I try to do the same thing because if I don’t it sticks around and hangs over my head for quite a while. If it’s something I really don’t want to do then I try to break the task down even further so there are smaller bits I can work on to get me closer to the end. This works quite well and the task doesn’t loom, as you put it, since I’m actively working on it, albeit slowly.

  3. Hi JD – This is really worth trying. I learned how to do it in “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy. He encourages you to eat the biggest, yuckiest frog first. And it really does work. Once you’ve done it, everything else on your to do list seems easy.

    The only thing is, if you have a really horrid frog to eat, it’s all too easy to avoid looking at your “to do list” at all.

  4. I know exactly what you mean. Each day, when I schedule my to do list, I try to intersperse tasks that I enjoy with ones that I don’t. It’s good for building incentive and getting through the stuff that’s not so much fun.

  5. So true J.D., putting off the unpleasant things till last just ruins the whole day. If you get it out of the way right in the beginning you have the added benefit of the relief that it’s finally over as well.

  6. Hi JD

    I actually used to be better at this than I am now. Perhaps I should look into that.

    I think for me it sometimes depends what the worst thing is:

    I can actually use “the worst thing” to avoid doing something which is, in fact, good for me, but I don’t have confidence for it (or some other reason). A type of procrastination. Then I need to sort out the belief that is holding me back in terms of progressing with the beneficial task.

    If that “worst thing” is a weak spot, I also battle to do it first.

    Other times it is just the boring/unpleasant task that I would rather defer.


  7. Haven’t tried that strategy, but it sounds promising. I’m thinking that getting the “worst things first” done would make the rest of the work day a breeze. I’d need to mix it up though as sometimes doing something interesting in the morning will also focus me fo the day.

  8. @ Karl

    One thing I should mention is your boostrap is important. I think it’s important to have a routine you enjoy before you start your day. For example, when I wake up, I run for 30 minutes and then have breakfast, then listen to my favorite songs on the way to work. I need that quiet time and space before I hit my day … it’s my warm up. Then I tackle the worst things first.

    @ Sherri

    You nailed it. It’s about breaking it down into little steps or little tasks and making the hurdle smaller. It’s eating the elephant a bite at a time.

    @ Cath

    Really good point and I like the analogy of eating a frog. It’s like the principle of contrast, once you eat the worst thing, everything else is pretty good by comparison.

    @ Melissa

    I think of it like eating my vegetables before my desert.

    @ Louisa

    Whenever I don’t do it, I end up regretting it. I either run out of steam or I end up with a periodic distraction. It’s like the elephant in the room that just looks over your shoulder trying to get some attention.

    @ Juliet

    One thing that helps me is to compartmentalize it. I think of my first hour as where I try to stuff anything that sucks and make a game of it. For example, how quickly can I chop my way through the forest or what can I learn from doing X, Y, … Z. I think the idea of compartmentalizing or timeboxing it really makes a difference.

    @ Gennaro

    It does make the rest of the day go way better. In fact, the ideal scenario is that your first hour is the worst stuff and you spend the rest of the day on your strengths. It’s how you get more power hours and how you increase your energy throughout the day.

  9. JD, you may not believe this but I even do this with food sometimes – eat the stuff I least like first, so I can enjoy the rest of the plate of stuff that I do like! I must agree it’s a great way to get through a meal or a day!

  10. I prefer to deal with the big issues first, knowing how long it is going to take to work through them. The rest will be a breeze!

  11. I have to really plan to do the worst things first – like when I do my end-of-day wrap up and make a list of what I need to do tomorrow. I look over the list and see what I want to do the least, rank it first (as long as there’s nothing more important on the list) and put a time frame on it so I get it done as efficiently as possible (without sacrificing quality, of course) first thing in the morning. Then the rest of my day is clear with projects that I enjoy.

  12. @ Daphne

    I absolutely believe it because it’s exactly what I do 😉

    One of the keys in life is always having something to look forward to.

    @ Evelyn

    It’s like jumping hurdles and it makes sense to jump the biggest when you’re your strongest.

    @ Laurie

    I like your systematic approach. It’s good that you plan then execute. It’s tough to make good decisions when we’re in the thick of things, and it sounds like you set yourself up for success by doing a quick plan.

  13. Hi J.D.

    This post reminded me of Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog. You are right, “Don’t Let It Loom Over You” very true.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

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