Eating Elephants

Some of us have significant people in our lives whose words have helped us immeasurably in difficult situations.  And mostly, those people have no idea how much their pearls of wisdom have stuck with us: for me, that person is my dad.  He’s not that old, my dad.  Whilst he doesn’t have much hair left, and he’s old enough to qualify for a free bus pass, he’s certainly no wizened old sage who sits cross-legged atop a mountain.  He just has a way with words, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that half the things he says aren’t even his own words, so perhaps his real skill is knowing the right thing to say at the right time.

Why on earth was he asking me about elephants?

There was a time in my life, many years ago, when I was faced with what seemed like an insurmountable task in front of me.  I was the mother of two small children, my nearest family was 18,000 miles away, and I felt overwhelmed and alone.  In one particular phone call to my parents, my dad asked me “Do you want to know the best way to eat an elephant?”  I was dumbfounded.  Why on earth was he asking me about elephants?  Following a short silence, he answered “One mouthful at a time.”

I later found out that those words are attributed to U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams, but in that moment, my father had, in a few simple words, transformed the huge immovable beast in front of me into something I knew I could overcome.  Somehow I knew I’d be ok; that I could do it, one step at a time.

Metaphorical elephant sandwiches.

There are those who will tell you not to leave the elephant rotting on your desk – that chipping away slowly isn’t the best approach, that we should delegate and get rid of it as quickly as possible.  Dish it up and let the village feast on it, so to speak.  (That’s where a VA comes in handy; metaphorical elephant sandwiches are our speciality!)  But not all of us have a large team around us that we can hand off to.  And some of us are tackling huge personal projects that can’t easily be delegated.

So what’s the best way to start tackling a huge task?  Write down your goals.  It’s that simple.  You’ve heard it said many times before, and it is true.  Without a clear goal, you have no idea where you’re heading.  In the words of the late poet Bill Copeland, “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”  (It seems I have inherited my love for pithy quotations from my father.)  Don’t just think about your goal, write it down.  Write it somewhere prominent.  Heck, make it the background wallpaper on your computer if it helps.  But make sure you write it down.  That’s the first and arguably the most important mouthful taken care of.

Elephant steaks.

Next, you need a plan.  All the best books and the most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that a goal without a plan is simply a dream.  Break your goal down into manageable chunks.  Let’s call them elephant steaks.  They might be monthly or quarterly goals that move you, bit by bit, towards to your overall goal.

Once you have your beast broken down into chunks, chop them up into bite-sized pieces.  Each day, write down one thing you can do to move you closer to your goal.  If you’re feeling frisky, list three things each day, but keep it simple and don’t over-commit.  At the end of each day, put a nice big tick in the box next to your task, and set your task for tomorrow.  Periodically, throughout your day, you might like to ask yourself “How is what I’m doing right now moving me closer to my goal?”, “What’s the one thing I need to do today to get me there?”  That’s all it takes to stay focused.  And it works for pretty much every facet of our lives, and any given situation, whether it’s developing a business idea or running a marathon.

Thanks, father dear.

This is all just a really fancy way of saying write down your goals, make a plan, and tackle one thing at at time.  But I just had to give my dad credit for how much he’s helped me.  Thanks, father dear.  Without your exceptionally well-timed plagiary, I really don’t know where I’d be right now.  Probably sobbing somewhere beneath the shadow of a large grey land-dwelling mammal, wondering how I’d find my way home.

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