Boiling Frog Syndrome

I often use a metaphor to describe how we sometimes find ourselves in situations we didn’t see coming. It goes something like this:

If you put a frog in a pot of hot water it will jump out immediately, because it senses danger. But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and heat it slowly, the frog will adapt to the changes. It will not perceive danger, and eventually it will cook to death.*

I fear I’ve become a victim of Boiling Frog Syndrome.

(Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.)

I used to live a very organized, efficient life. I worked outside the home, worked inside the home, mothered three kids. As an Army wife, I often did it solo. I managed our rental properties, cared for my parents, volunteered at my kids’ schools, taught Catechism at my church. And all the while I managed to maintain a decent standard of hygiene in my home and a semi-active social life.

I’m not sure when the fire was turned on under me, but somewhere along the way that cool pot started heating up, and my surroundings became a threat to my survival.

At some point, having the right uniforms clean on school days became a challenge. (Enter Febreeze into my life.)

Homework became a lifestyle-altering component of my family’s schedule.

Carpool and lacrosse practice became the events that dictated the rest of the day.

I had to take an afternoon off of work to wait for the exterminator, the plumber, the AC guy.

Meals at home became grab and go events, not sit downs.

Taking my parents and in-laws to the doctor became a frequent activity.

I was overwhelmed by my routine day.

Lists didn’t help. I never could get the things on the list done by the time they were supposed to be done. The unchecked list became a reminder of my failure.

Requests for assistance didn’t help. I had created a system that only I knew, so asking for help meant doing it over when it wasn’t done right, and stopping to explain ‘what or how’ became as time-consuming as doing it myself. I had painted myself into a proverbial corner.

Years went by, and I couldn’t figure a way out. I reminded myself to be patient. “This, too, shall pass,” became my mantra. I watched as my friends went on weekend jaunts to Napa, while I tried to dig out of paperwork. I was jealous of those who went to the zoo when I could barely get to the grocery store. The lists grew longer and longer. But I couldn’t figure out how to change anything.

The events of the last year turned the fire up even hotter. And I started to feel the heat. Anxiety attacks, hives, a trip to the ER after passing out. My body was sending me clear signals, but I still couldn’t figure out how to reduce the flame beneath me. I knew I had to get out of the pot for my own survival, but I just couldn’t find the way out.

So I scoured the internet for some inspiration, and I stumbled on this blog.

The steps seemed simple enough, so I thought I’d give it a try to see how I could apply these business practices to my life.

7 Tips for Prioritizing Tasks Effectively

1. Respect Deadlines.

An absolute must. I was prone to putting off the things that stressed me the most, even if there was a cost. Practical translation: Laundry must be done. If I have to Febreeze a uniform so my son can wear it to school unwashed, I’ve failed. Monday morning, laundry must be caught up.

2. Set Milestone Deadlines.

Don’t complete one task at the expense of the others. If it all has to be done, set reasonable milestones and work toward them. Leaving a monumental task until the last minute will bite you in the ass every time. Practical translation: The insurance claim must be filed within two weeks. The apartment must be ready to show by the 20th.

3. Consider the Consequences.

There will be things that just can’t get done. Choose the ones you can let go, and then… let them go.  Practical translation: I won’t be making those spectacular Halloween decorations I saw on Pinterest. In fact, I’m may delete my Pinterest account. All it does is make me feel more inadequate.

4. Consider the Payment Terms.

Some commitments do pay rewards. Get them done. Practical translation: Get the apartment ready. Missing another month’s rent will set the cause back even further. Two teenage boys on the car insurance is no laughing matter.

5. Consider Time Required.

When facing two equally important tasks I’ve started using the low-hanging-fruit method. Practical translation: Choose the one I can get finished. The reward of checking something off that list will often give me the energy to tackle the next one. And then the next one.

6. Set Goals and Work Backwards.

Keep the big picture in mind. Prioritize the steps, keeping in mind that some are foundational for others. Doing things in the wrong order makes for extra work. Practical translation: Clean the kitchen before starting dinner. Put away laundry before packing for vacation.

7. Schedule a Percentage of Your Time for Personal Projects.

Personal indulgences were always the first thing to be cut. But tasks that energize me – even if they take up valuable time – leave me better equipped to tackle the necessary things. Cutting these activities backfired on me in the long run because it left me feeling unfulfilled. Practical translation: Don’t eliminate the things that fulfill me. Spend time with friends. Exercise. Read. Dare I even say it… travel.

Now I’m not sure if using this method is going to solve my problem. But I am already gaining some sense of control over things, and I’m sure that will cool the water down a bit. I’m giving myself a month to knock out some big items and make decisions on how to work smarter on the small items. And I’m planning a trip. (A really big trip! Just for me! More on that later.)

Because I’ve already lost enough time sitting in this pot, waiting for the water to cool on its own.

* Before publishing I confirmed the accuracy of this anecdote with the trusted online source Wikipedia. According to Wiki, the frog will eventually realize its demise is near and jump out. But revealing this at the beginning of the post would have ruined the whole metaphor. Ignorance is bliss. 

** No frogs were harmed in the writing of this post.


How do you manage tasks and stress? What organization methods help you function more efficiently? And have you ever actually seen a frog in a pot of water?


43 thoughts on “Boiling Frog Syndrome

  1. Transitioning Mom

    Such a great post! I’m always “setting myself straight” before tipping the scale out of balance once again. I’m really pretty good about 1-6, but boy that last one…. It’s usually #7 that is quickly deleted from my daily “to do’s.” I’ll bet my kids were to graph my short-fused days in relation to a trending neglect for “personal projects”, they and I would find a direct relationship.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      I think many of us with children this age feel it. But the great news is that “our time” is near! So give yourself the same priority you give the others, and #7 will become a new habit in no time!

  2. becca3416

    Are you from the top of the boot, middle or the bottom? I love the frog analogy. It is easy to overlook a potentially harmful path developing when you aren’t paying attention to the individual setbacks adding up.

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      And add up they do! For me, life seems to turn in cycles of busy and not. During the smooth patches I get complacent, and don’t keep my eye on the thermometer. Bad, bad habit!

      And I’m from the bottom of the boot. The western suburbs of NOLA. 🙂

  3. icescreammama

    I totally get how sometimes you can’t even see the danger of a situation until it is overwhelming. when you live it, you get used to it, until it is intolerable. Jump out of that pot!!
    And i hope never to see a frog in a pot of water.

  4. Deborah the Closet Monster

    I’d never heard of this “boiling frog” situation before, but as I read it, it felt so, so very familiar! I love how you conclude with not waiting for the pot to cool on its own. Reading that felt so cathartic and hopeful.

    I’m trying to share this on FB, but so far to little success. *shakes fist* *immediately considers better uses of time*

  5. Running from Hell with El

    Good on ya hun! Delete that Pinterest account–wahoo!!! I hear you all too well on being the frog. I thought you presented a well-organized system for getting out of the pot. Now it’s a matter of leaping, eh? Damn water is getting hotter for me too . . . but what’s really saved me is taking my writing career as seriously as I took my legal career–you know?

    Where are you going to go on your trip?

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      Good on you, too! All of our endeavors should receive 100%. Even the ones that don’t earn us a salary. I felt that water heating up today, and I got the hell out of the pot. Now if I can just remember not to slip back in.

      Where am I going?? PARIS! In three weeks!! No husband or kids!!!

  6. singleworkingmomswm

    I completely relate, Lisha. And, I think the steps you outlined above are wonderful, and I do use them, myself…I actually. There are certain priorities I stick to: ie, each pay period I do my budget and get my bills for that time period paid. No ifs, ands, or buts. Focusing on Maycee’s homework time and having dinner on the counter (we rarely eat at our table)-another priority that I try not to push aside for outside activities. I use my dry erase board (a former tidbits and tips subject from my blog) to write down what HAS to be done during the week and weekend, school events, etc. and erase them as they happen. For to-do’s, I follow the same protocol, list and erase as they get done. But, to me, the most important number listed is #7, and it’s also the hardest: make time for yourself doing the things you love. It may only be for a few hours once week, but we have to do something that really feeds our soul apart from mother, wife, daughter, etc. I believe this is great modeling for our kids, as well. Okay, I could go on and on! Lots of hugs…XOXO-SWM.♥

  7. just another s-a-h-mother

    So far the only organization method that has helped me function more efficiently is having my bff come help me get organized. For some reason it’s easy with her help … the hard part is keeping it up during the times she’s not here. (I don’t just take, I also give .. as the same seems to hold true for her.)

    This frog is feeling warm .. but it might be an early hot flash. 🙂

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      What a great partnership! I can definitely see how having someone come in and guide you would be helpful. We see our own systems from the inside, they see them from the outside.

      Great idea. I’m off to think about which friend I can propose this to here.

  8. Bonnie

    Thanks Lisha, as usual, you’ve hit the nail (my head). . . I’m gob smacked how you seem to be living my life and it sounds more fun with you in it. Let me add on that the “guilt” of never getting these things accomplished and was there enough “quality time” with the progeny was paralyzing. I was caught in one of those self-perpetuating loops. I had to just stop and do it, because like you, not doing it made it worse. Thanks for the smiles.

  9. Aimee

    I thought I was reading my own thoughts. I was trying to raise two daughters, and as they got older, I had less and less control over our everyday lives. I did not adapt well. Then I went and had another baby at age 42. Five months later I was pregnant again. I am expecting my fourth and FINAL child – a boy this time – in 9 weeks or less. I have no more control over things now than I did when I was working full time and being a single mom. The steps you listed seem very reasonable. Which probably means they won’t work for this ADHD brain. But I’m gonna give it a try.

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      First, congratulations on your baby! I enjoyed my last child in a very different way than I did the first two. I don’t know if it was my ‘advanced’ age, or knowing that he was the last, but hubs and I were like kids with a new toy with that one. Sweet memories.

      Mothers have to walk a fine line between worrying too much and not enough. Too much = obsessing over small things. Not enough = not living by the standard you want. The trick is to fret ‘just enough.’ Now that my Caboose is 12 years old, I’m beginning to feel like I’m going to survive. Perhaps even without a formal nervous breakdown.

      If my steps don’t work for you, seek out another set. But keep trying. You’re worth the effort.

  10. shawn

    The temperature is set very high in my pot at the moment, and it will remain that way until May 24 (last school day).

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  11. thetwistingkaleidoscope

    I think #2 is my biggest hurdle. It’s pretty hard to prioritize when it’s ALL top priority! But at least I’m learning that the big picture really matters in even setting out goals. For example, the Maiden’s room was in an awful shambles and I was trying to get the stuff for decorating it/new bedding so it could temporarily look decent until we replaced the furniture. But we just found furniture we love and it’s got a whole lot of storage, too, so I’m glad we didn’t make decisions on the minor stuff yet.

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      Things often work themselves out, but I find myself stressing out anyway. I think there were so many things beyond my control for so long that I allowed it to overtake me.

      I’m glad The Maiden is getting a new look for her room. Retail therapy is usually effective!

  12. Kelly O'Sullivan (HILWD)

    I like to think of myself as a “Type Ayyyyy, it’s cool” kind of person. I like my lists and try to prioritize but I have mastered the art of saying NO. Some non-negotiable NOs for me include parties at other houses where people try to sell me kitchen products, purses, jewelry, or make-up. I also say NO to board positions. I’ve been there, done that and now it’s someone else’s turn. I still feeling like the frog now and then but with age I am learning to let go. Life will go on if I’m not (as if I ever was ;P) Super Woman.

    1. thetwistingkaleidoscope

      Kelly, the sales parties are also unqualified “no”s for me. That way I have no obligations and I feel I’m being completely fair–I don’t buy from ANYONE’S parties, period.

    2. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      My ability to say “NO” seems to wax and wane. When my MIL moved in I started volunteering myself again to keep myself out of the house. (That backfired.) I’m going to work on it. I’m also going to try out “Why, yes, and thank you,” when someone offers help.

  13. Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson

    I am so proud of you. And this post. And I already ignore my Pinterest account. (I couldn’t figure out how to delete it. Whatever.) like you, I’m a Type A+. We’re prone to anxiety. But it looks like you have figured out how to turn down the boil. I am trying. I’ve been struggling since my computer crashed. I lost so much, and I feel so behind.




    Can’t wait to hear where. And when. And with whom!

    No more hives for you!

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      Well, I’ll spill the beans I’ve been keeping to myself for months.

      Next month I’m going to Paris. Notice I said “I,” not “we.” No husband, no kids. Me and my cousin. We’re going to drink wine and go to museums and look at old churches! C’est fantastique, non?

  14. becomingcliche

    I used to get it all done. I volunteered, took care of a handicapped adult in my home during the day, took care of a mother dog and her puppy, maintained a toddler and his little buddy. I don’t know what happened. I wonder sometimes if having Squish sent me into a bigger tailspin than I eve thought. Until recently, it was difficult to get any task done during the day. Now that I have started taking on some little part-time jobs, it feels like my brain is engaging again. I’m busier, but I actually feel able to do things.

    1. Lisha @ The Lucky Mom Post author

      My brain has definitely been disengaged. I actually had a conversation with my 17yo who has ADD recently. I explained that I’ve been so overwhelmed I can’t hold a thought. What I described and what he described his mind is like were eerily similar. I’m ready to get organized and efficient again, and see if all my synapses are still functioning.

  15. Grown and Flown

    Sometimes it seems we just need to hear the wise words of someone outside our day to day life. Blog are such an inspiration and solace at such times. I only wish such wisdom had been available when my kids were small. Good luck it seems like you have stumbled upon someone who has real wisdom to share.


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