Self-help books advocate the practice of swallowing a live frog at breakfast to ensure that nothing worse will happen to you that day. In other words, do your most difficult task first thing in the morning.
Coffee mugs with the frog sage advice have been circulated for decades by a self-help speaker named Danny Cox. The most viral version of the advice comes from Eat That Frog! from Brian Tracy International:
Mark Twain once said that, if the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning is to eat a live frog, you have the satisfaction of knowing that’s probably the worst thing that’s going to happen to you all day long.
However, Mark Twain never said that. Ray Girvan did some detective work and found that the real source of the quote is Nicolas De Chamfort (1741-1794), a French moralist. Chamfort got the idea from Armand de Madaillan de Lesparre, the Marquis de Lassay (1652-1738). The most common English translation goes like this:
Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day
There are three occurrences of toad in the collected works of Mark Twain, but these are not the toads we are looking for. The switch-in-bait from frogs to toads makes the advice more dangerous because most 18th century folks thought that toads were poison. Quack doctors called Charletins toured Europe huckstering magical cures. Charletins proved drug efficacy by forcing a poor assistant, now called a toady, to swallow a live toad and drink snake oil. The toady always survives, demonstrating that snake-oil cures toad-poisoning.
In German, a similar saying is found in the works of pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who has been called an icon of despair, Schopenhauer advocated daily poison toads from a sort of black humor perspective because he believed everything was getting worse anyways.
Man müsste jeden Morgen eine Kröte schlucken, wenn man sichergehen wollte, bis zum Abend nichts Ekelhafterem zu begegnen (you’d have to swallow a toad every morning, if you wanted to be sure not to encounter anything more disgusting before nightfall).
For most of the German-speaking world, swallowing a toad means something closer to the English “eat crow.” Toad-swallowing involves doing what one has been told, swallowing one’s pride, biting the bullet, or making a concession.
So did Mark Twain say anything about procrastination written in spirit of “eat a frog”? Twain wrote the Pudd’nhead Maxims, which are wise sayings in the style Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanack.
Two of these aphorisms address the issue of avoiding unpleasant actions:
Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring a habit of doing your duty without pain.
The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not
Of course, Twain also offered a different view about procrastination, which he concocted in 1870 as a fake Ben Franklin anti-proverb:
Never put off till to-morrow what you can do the day after to-morrow just as well.