How To Eat Your Elephant

You’ve heard the old saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

It’s a trite phrase, but it does create an interesting visual for taking on a seemingly HUGE task.

Unfortunately, when you start cutting at that elephant’s snout with your steak knife, you have very little chance at making it all the way to his tail (especially if he’s objecting to you hacking away at his snout with that steak knife!)

I think one of the biggest reasons people don’t finish BIG tasks (elephants) is NOT because they don’t have the desire or the willpower. I think the biggest reason is they don’t have a strategy to help them stay organized and focused long enough to reach the elephant’s tail.

So, here’s my advice on how any of us can eat an elephant… no matter how big.

Step 1: Get clear on your outcome (result) and WHY

Get very clear on the result you want from your BIG task.

How will you feel when it’s done?

Why do you want it done in the first place?

Have a clear picture of the end result, what it means to you to get it done, and WHY you want it done in the first place.

Step 2: Make a list

People love lists. Grocery lists. Shopping lists. Wish lists. Bucket lists. Lists of lists.

You need to make a list of the activities / actions you KNOW you’ll need to take to reach your big hairy elephant (er, goal). Break it down into bite-sized parts.

AVOID making your actions too “big” to eat in a single bite.

Example: don’t say “write 10 ads.” Say “brainstorm 5 headlines in 10 minutes.”

Just like you can’t eat the elephant’s entire leg in one bite, the key to getting things done is having a list of bite-sized actions you can do in one sitting.

Step 3: Put the next 3 steps on your calendar with a deadline

Things on your calendar with a date and time tend to get done. Things with no deadline tend to get pushed off until tomorrow. By putting the next three actions on your calendar you create deadlines, you create momentum, and you DON’T create overwhelm.

Step 4: Get a Mechanical Timer

Each bite of the elephant gets cut up and eaten one tasty, mouth-watering chew at a time. But you also can’t take all freaking day to chew that sucker up! We’ve got to eat (get done) other stuff on our plate too!

To me, bite-sized means 17 minutes. Not sure where I came up with that. I’ve heard others say 15 minutes… some 53 minutes. But I’ve found I can concentrate really hard on something for 17 minutes, take a 5-10 minute break, and then do another 17 minutes without getting mentally fried.

I can do this pattern all day… especially if I’m doing things that are related (headlines, bullets, sales copy, etc.) and stay pretty fresh.

I love using a mechanical timer (kitchen timer ) because it’s a physical presence that reminds me to keep going and that time is ticking away (something a digital timer or my iPhone can’t do)!

Step 5: Put the Next Step On The Calendar

When you finish one step, put another step from your project list on your calendar. That way you always have the next 3 steps on your calendar so you keep momentum. It also keeps your big project as a priority in your daily life and prevents you from scheduling so many other things that your big project gets lost in the shuffle.

So, that’s how to eat your elephant… one bite at a time.

Let me know how your next “elephant BBQ” goes. I’m sure it’ll be a LOT more profitable (and not give you indigestion) if you follow this plan.

By the way, I’ve got some more simple, yet powerfully effective tips like this in my book, How to Overcome Procrastination available on Amazon.ย


  • Carole Brown

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Great points. Well done! Doable and small enough list anyone can use it! Thanks

  • Eddie Smith

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Excellent, JIm. Followed you, learned from you for many years.

    As a writing coach, I teach seminars. I’ve recommended what you’ve offered here, but you’ve said it much better than I have.

    Similar thoughts with regard to finishing a book:

    1. Don’t write a word until you know how the book ends and the benefits a reader will receive.

    2. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. Complete the blueprint before you “build the book.”

    3. Write quickly in 5-minute increments. (With a timer as you suggest.) Then quit, stand up, walk around.
    When you return, your writing will be clearer and more focused. A time limit for tasks works wonders.
    I’m told that the most points scored in the NFL are scored in the final two minutes of each half.

    Glad to be on your list, Jim. You are an inspiration!
    Excuse me now, while I share your blog with my FB writer’s group, and order your book! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Houston, TX

  • orvel sternberg

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Way to go Jim!
    You’ve gone and made me hungry.

  • Bob

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Good advice Jim!

    It is so easy to get sidetracked by all the things that don’t matter and that won’t lead to any results. I know this but am still guilty of it.

    I’m in the process of several BIG projects but have recently been breaking them down into logical steps to make myself more efficient…and sane.

    And accomplishing goals daily while having next steps written down helps my mind stay more clear so I can sleep at night, and be even that much MORE focused in the morning.

  • Virginia

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Jim – like the 17 minute approach. It will work in so many other areas of life as well. It’s not a big commitment but enough time to concentrate and come up with a good result.

  • BigJim

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Glad you guys like it!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • satish

    Reply Reply February 28, 2015

    Lot of good tips from you and Eddie. I did start writing a book three four yrs ago called ‘Bombay to Birmingham’ but I have just managed to get half way because of lot of distractions and the time taken to get the facts about what happend 50 yrs ago.
    Mean while I came across or heard three words ‘Wake up Calls’ and started to write another non fictional book which manged to finish in approx four months. Small book with only 50 pages. I wanted to get first book out as soon as possible to build confidence. For the first book ‘Wake Up Calls’ I didn’t follow any guide lines or seek any advice or spend much time editing. Just because I wanted my book on the Amazon.
    So far not much success for the first book. Some of the comments I’ve received, ‘should have been better if it was proof read and edited’.
    Now I’m wiser and will take note of your tips for other books.
    Thanks Jim

    • BigJim

      Reply Reply March 1, 2015


      Most people never write the first book… now that you KNOW you can do it, concentrate on getting better!

      Like working out… once you see you can do it, you work on doing it better


    • Charlotte Hyatt

      Reply Reply April 2, 2015

      Satish, you did what many of us have not done yet; get that first book out there!

      You can always go back and ‘polish it up’. But now you know you can get something out and, you see that it does not have to be huge. Ever considered making the book/novel small ‘bites of the elephant?’

  • Claudia Logan

    Reply Reply March 3, 2015

    I’ve been using an egg timer to stay on track with tasks for years!! I’ll time blocks from 10 to 50 minutes…An amazing trick that highly recommend especially for writers – it helps cure blocks, can keep self-editing to a minimum…I’ll set small goals for each page – like fact check X number of holes on 1 page in 15 minutes…set the timer, do it, move on…I do this page by page until the document is finished…I’m so happy to see this idea popping up more often…it really works!

  • Carol

    Reply Reply March 3, 2015

    Hi Jim, great post. I will definitely try this technique on a project I’m “stuck” on. Could you please also tell me how to sign up for a coaching session with you? Thank you.

  • Boudewijn Lutgerink

    Reply Reply March 25, 2015

    Indeed a good read. Doing a WBS (work breakdown structure) helps to make you achieve things. It is doing things in small babysteps.
    Since actually completing these babysteps you get that feeling of satisfaction that your brains need. The “pleasure” center in our limbic brain can get easily addicted to it, making it easy to repeat it.

    Two tips I’d like to share, are:
    * Schedule all work on 4 days a week. If, for somee reason you cannot do work on one day you still have that extra day.
    * Do not schedule your tasks in 8 working hour days. You never can be productive for 8 hours. Speaking for myself I schedule every morning and afternoon on about 2.5 hours. To tell the truth, Due to distractions I sometimes still end up finishing after 4 hours.

    • BigJim

      Reply Reply March 26, 2015

      Great contribution! Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

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