Saturday, June 11, 2011

Day 84: How to Do Big Things - a.k.a. "Eating the Elephant."

Eating an elephant can be intimidating.
Someone asked me the other day how I “do it.” They were looking over my blog, and thinking about the book project and were kind of intimidated by the amount of work going in. And I get that. There is a lot of work. Writing a novel takes a long time. Revising it actually takes longer. But that wasn’t even the thing they were asking about. They were talking about my website, really, because I have been bitching about it for a while trying to make it work, and this person, like myself, is not a technical person at all. This person was issuing lots of “Ohhs” and “Ahhs” about my site and was just really thinking how cool it was that it got done—and, that it got done in the vein of the larger novel project. I took the inquiry as a compliment, and it made me feel good to have someone appreciate my hard work. But, I also took it as evidence that sometimes people believe they can’t do stuff that other people can. Big stuff. The stuff of dreams. Stuff that people really want bad, but believe it is too huge, too far away, too complicated and time consuming to really make happen. Stuff that, in the corporate world, is sometimes called “an elephant.”

The purpose of the elephant idea is to represent the big dream. The desire. Stemming from that is the question “How do you eat an elephant?” How do you make something that is big and intimidating become part of you for real, an internal fulfillment rather than something you can’t do anything about? So how do you do it; how do you eat an elephant?

Answer: one bite at a time.

There are books and seminars and all sorts of things you can find on this idea, so I’ll try to be brief while still providing something useful. (Some of this I hit in an earlier blog HERE. )
Find ways to cut it up.

To eat your elephant, whatever it may be, you have to step away and figure out how to cut the impossible task into possible ones. Just like you can’t shove a whole elephant into your mouth, you can’t shove an “I’m published now” into your reality either. You can’t do it with opening a restaurant, getting a college degree, learning how to paint, fly a plane, or even making a website from scratch. Those are elephants. To enjoy any one of them for real in your life, you have to cut it up (sorry vegetarians), so you can eat it. Then you make a plan to eat a bite or two every day and actually do it until your plate is clean and your dream fulfilled.

To make that plan, you have to start from the goal and then figure out what the halfway point looks like. Figure out what the quarter point is. The eighth of the way. Etc. If you don’t know what those are at first, then start with what you do know. You do know what your first bite looks like, because having no clue tells you what you need: a clue. For my website, as an example, I had no idea how to start. I knew I needed to buy a domain name, but that was it. So my first task was not building a website, but researching how to begin. So bite one was: Find an article on how to start a website. But from there I was still lost, so my plan looked like this:

  • Bite 1: find at least two articles by Wednesday of next week
  • Bite 2: read articles by Friday of next week
  • Bite 3: Schedule next five tasks (bites) based on articles by Saturday, with first task to begin by Monday.

That’s pretty much how it began. I write that stuff into my daily planner/calendar (covered in the blog post I linked above), and I begin. Even though I don’t know what the next steps are going to be after bite 2, I have arranged for them anyway. I know after I read the articles, I’ll know what’s next after steps one and two. It’s important to note that there’s a due date on each one, including the tasks that are undefined. You have to have an end point, so you can hold yourself accountable.

Also notice how small those bites are. I didn’t make myself a task that was “learn how to make a website.” That’s too hard. It’s like a mini-elephant almost. A rhino. Or maybe a cow. You can’t just “learn how to make a website” any more than you can just make one. Same with “write a novel” or “start a restaurant” or “learn how to start a restaurant.” So each task is something that I can, for sure, without any question at all, definitely do, typically in one attempt, one day, one sitting. I know for a fact I can definitely find an article. That is a specific task with a clearly defined outcome. I will know when I have achieved it. A task can even be, “Ask my friend Josh to help me past this problem I can’t figure out.” It doesn’t matter what it is. Each “bite” you schedule just has to have those two traits: specific and doable.

Once you figure out how to make bite sized pieces, you can approach the dream, eat the elephant, in a realistic way. You make your plan, you write it down with each bite on its own day, spread out over the course of time. If you really want that dream, now you can have it, because rather than being a big, intimidating thing that serves as its own excuse for why it will never happen, it is a series of little things you have no excuse not to do. It’s all stuff that you can do. So do it. Or don’t bitch that you don’t have the things you want in life.

A last thing I will add in is tracking. You have to track progress or you get lost. I covered a little of this in that blog post I linked, and I hit some points on strategy in an article I wrote on novel writing a year or so ago (part 3 of THIS article ). A dream is a big thing; it’s a journey. And one of the dangers of journeys is getting lost. So you have to track yourself. You have to keep score. It’s the only way you know how you are doing.  And it’s extremely important for motivation and staying on course.

On the right you can see the little chart I made for myself when I was going through my manuscript reviewing each edit my editor suggested. Honestly, that was a monstrously painful task. It was long, tedious and just plain un-fun. So, as with all long, tedious and un-fun tasks, I might easily have procrastinated on it. Which I did not want to do. So I broke that mini-elephant down into bites and then gave myself a timeframe in which I wanted to have it done. To do that, I needed to get an idea of how long each page would take to go through, so I timed myself and did it for an hour. I came up with 18 pages in an hour. The manuscript is 276 pages, single-spaced, 12 font, 8.5” x 11” paper, so at that rate was going to take 15.64 hours. I decided I wanted it done in ten days (boy was that a mistake), which meant at 18 pages per hour, I had to do 1.42 hours per day. Being a moron and a masochist, I committed myself to that and drew up my tracking chart.

Here’s why that matters. On the left of the chart, you can see the timeline. Each day, regardless of my page progress, the day gets filled in. Time passes, whether I’m working towards my dreams or not. So, that line moves steadily towards the goal of ten days. The column on the right is tracking page count (yes, my graph is crude and weird, but I’m an old hat at this, so I don’t need the fancy stuff I used to make… just a little scorecard to keep me on track). As you can see, the last timeline day filled in is May 22 (it’s gray because I shade it lightly at the beginning of the day, and fill it in at the end, when it’s “time’s up” for that day—yes, I am anal). The reason for that being done two days early is that I got behind on this dreadful task during the week. All week prior to the weekend of May 22, the page-count line was lagging behind the timeline. An hour and forty minutes was too much to honestly expect of myself every day after work, so my scoreboard showed me slipping back all week. The timeline was moving faster than my progress. I was LOSING.

I hate losing. When Sunday rolled around and I hadn’t caught up quite yet, I was pissed. So I spent seven and a half hours grinding out the rest of my goal. I was motivated by not wanting to fail in my commitment, and I decided to make a push rather than suffer defeat. It worked, I got it done, and yes, that Sunday sucked ass. But you know what, I felt really good that night when I was done. Early. It felt like victory.

So, as dumb or childish as keeping little charts or filling in calendar squares seems, it works. If the tasks you set are truly doable, something as cheesy as a little hand-drawn “time vs. effort” graph can really make a huge difference in getting things done. You are human. Humans are emotional, and humans are weak. But we are also smart. We invent tools to help us overcome our weaknesses. We invented spears and guns to hunt animals we are too weak to defeat alone, like elephants. We invent graphs to hunt dreams we are too weak to achieve alone, like websites and restaurants.

If you have an elephant you want to eat, carve it up. Plan it out. And make a chart to keep score. You can do impossible-seeming things. 


  1. Hmmm. This is very timely for me. I've been contemplating an elephant of my own recently, but I don't have a chainsaw. I feel like you just handed me a knife at least. Now I can get started. Btw, the art is great in this one. I love how frazzled you look! :-)

  2. I have another elephant analogy. Because of a connection I have with the local Circus Flora, a small circus here. I got a tour, and there was the elephant (Flora is her name, by the way) and she was being held to the ground by a little, tiny stake, like you would use on your tent. I asked why she didn't simply pull it up. The trainer said that as a very young elephant, she was secured to the ground quite securely. Now, she just assumes that she can't pull the stake out so she never tries.

  3. My life is frazzled, Motown. I have no choice but to write. It's either chainsaws in images or chainsaws at the mall!!! lol (I wonder if the CIA or someone will come kick in my door now because they don't get jokes).

    Chris... seriously awesome and sad story. :( And yeah, we do that too, don't we? :( again.

  4. "No, ma'am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we are aware of."

    Watch your back, John.

  5. I love the simple (easily replicated) effort vs time graph. I'm meeting with my editor tomorrow so this post was very helpful.

    Also loved Chris's elephant analogy. I'm ready to start pulling up stakes!

  6. I was attempting to teach my 6 yr old this concept in relation to getting learning how to skateboard and when I asked him how would someone eat an elephant he asked, "why would they want to?"

  7. @ Charolotte: Rip those things up!!! And good luck with your editor. Hopefully he/she will tell you, "OMG, this is so awesome, there is nothing for me to do!"

    LOL,@ that, Anonymous. But, alas, that is the risk we run with rhetorical questions and metaphors. Particularly with kids.

  8. Thanks, John. My editor had a full page of notes, but most of her corrections were line edits and typos. Nothing too drastic this time, but considering this is the fifth draft of my manuscript, I was a little surprised to learn it was still riddled with so many stupid mistakes. I'm still hoping to publish by the end of the week.