How to eat an elephant!!

There is a very popular book by Bill Hogan named, ‘How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time!‘. While the idea of eating an elephant sounds very weird, the metaphor is spot on. The very idea of eating an elephant can overwhelm all our senses at once. However, instead of thinking about how we will ever finish a giant pachyderm in our lifetime, we will inch closer to success, just by thinking about how to eat the next bite. This applies to all our lofty challenges that we set for ourselves. Climbing the Everest, running an ultra-marathon, generating 7 figures of revenue in your business, speaking in front of an audience of 1000, you name it. The common thing about all these goals is that the moment we think about starting on it right now, it is way too overwhelming even just to think about it. So, how do we eat an elephant?

Breaking it down to pieces

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This looks obvious, but many miss out on this necessity. Breaking a goal down into smaller achievables makes them look immediately attainable and we can start to think of a clear path between where we are now and where we want to be. It is well known that human brain can work more effortlessly with smaller numbers rather than larger ones, so give it that advantage. E.g. if your goal is to clean your entire house in the next 7 days, your mini-goals should be as little as dumping all the clothes in the washing machine to be cleaned (5 minutes), swabbing the kitchen floor, which may just be a 40 square feet area (may take just 15 minutes) and so on. The tasks immediately become small, doable and even seem to take less time. The brain suddenly gets motivated into putting a process in place and even tries to find out a time slot to make it happen.

Setting up a regular routine instead of looking at a distant goal

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Goals are typically destinations and refer to a distant future. Sometimes, thinking about this distant place on that distant day in the future can leave us unmotivated, making us spin thoughts about how long we still have to go and how we will ever get there. To arrest these far-reaching thoughts, one can do something that can make us live right here, right now.

Often goals need us to make lifestyle changes and form new habits to get there. E.g. to be able to finish our dream book, we need to write 200 pages in two months. If we are starting today, 200 pages in the future seems way too much to attempt. But if we were to set ourselves up for a habit, e.g. I will write 5 pages every day, starting at 8am. Now suddenly, we are right here, right now. All we should worry about is to get 5 pages done for the day. We just need to worry about waking up, so that we are at our desk by 8am and have started to write. Then we should worry about filling just 5 pages for the day during our writing session.

Starting off with something ridiculously simple

We often set goals that require a big jump from our current lifestyle or make us do something we have never or rarely done before. Take running a 21-km marathon for instance. The sheer thought of running so much distance can overwhelm us and make us resistant to start our practice. However, the key is not to run so much when you are just starting off. In fact, only the tiniest of pushes should be applied when you are attempting to begin a habit. It should be something so ridiculously simple that you cannot refuse. E.g. Instead of running 21km or even 2km on day 1, commit to running just half a kilometre. With such a tiny commitment, you will run out of excuses not to do it. Similarly, if you are attempting to write a book, commit to just writing one paragraph.

Chances are that once you start the tiny activity, momentum will build up and you will probably finish more that what you promised yourself and feel a sense of accomplishment and a motivation boost to continue your habit everyday.

Continuously improving in tiny steps

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Now that you have started your new habit, you may be tempted to switch gears and perform really high. It is best to resist the temptation to increase your performance by too much too soon. For one, it may lead to burnout. Secondly, in the eagerness to boost performance, you may be compromising on some good practices. E.g. Changing your swimming speed from 2kmph to 3kmph on a single day will burn your body out. If you were writing two paragraphs per day and suddenly you have written three pages today, there is a possible chance that you didn’t take your time to think through the content as well as you did the previous day and that you were more focused on getting more pages out of the way.

It is best to go with tiny increments. If you swam 10 laps yesterday, today you should do no more than 12. If you have been writing 3 pages every day, today you should increase your content by 2 more paragraphs.

Contrast this with the fact that with some habits, you may be stuck with doing the same thing everyday. E.g. swimming 10 laps a day for a month in a row or consuming the same quantity of cheese, even one month after you have promised yourself to cut down on fats. Your goal is to increase the effectiveness of your habit everyday so that it transforms your lifestyle. For this it is necessary to see continuous transformation. A rule of the thumb is to aim for an improvement of at least 1% in every successive attempts. That may to be work longer, or run faster or replacing 10 grams of fats with 10 grams of vegetables every day as your habit progresses.

Slowing down your run to a jog

Lets face it. Routines are not necessarily exciting. There will be days when you will be bored of it. Writing that 10th page of 15 pages will seem like an ordeal. And so will boredom strike you when you are running the 6th kilometre out of your 10. You will be fighting one or both of two urges. The first urge is impatience and you will be tempted to speed up so that you can get it over with. The second is the feeling of exhaustion and giving up mid-way. I would request you to not give in to either. The first urge can prompt you to do things too fast and make mistakes. In case of workout goals, you may burn out and in case of goals such as writing, the output will be sub-par and you will be forced to re-do it later. The second option of giving up is, well, never an option.

The best thing to do in this situation is what the instructors of hiking trips would tell you to do. You have to slow down your run into a walk. You cannot accelerate your way to the summit. Stopping would break your built-up momentum and may even cause cramps. The best way is to dial back your pace to about 50%, but keep progressing. This will take more time than usual, but you will still be moving forward. It also makes you more mindful and you begin to enjoy your leisurely walk, paying more attention to the surroundings.

Bored of practising long range free kicks in football? No problem, just slowly dribble the ball into the goal for sometime. Bored of writing about business in serious paragraphs? No problem, take a break from the monotony of the book and write the next paragraph as a small story / anecdote about one of your business experiences.

Reviewing and adjusting

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Even the most carefully planned path to the goal and the routine can suffer setbacks and undergo changes. Perhaps you were too slow at the beginning and you feel that your initially promised deadline will not be met. That is totally okay. You can revise your deadline if that is what needs to be done.It is okay to delay your 7-figure income goal by another 3 months. Perhaps you decided that your initial goal was a bit too lofty and that you are happier with something less. That is okay too. You can build a routine around your new target. You may have wanted your biceps to measure 21 inches, but then even 19 looks good on the mirror. No problem. You can dial back your number of reps and go a little easier on the protein supplement. Perhaps you still have a sweet tooth and your zero-sugar diet has been robbing the fun out of your life for the last 2 months. No problem, you can still continue to have sweets in moderation.

Do remember that your life changes and priorities change and that your goals should be in sync with what you want out of your life. This will need constant review and pivoting. Sometimes it may even need totally dropping a goal which isn’t working for you at all. It is okay not to finish the elephant that you started eating, but at least you didn’t give up before starting. At least you jumped in with both your feet and tried your best.

Conclusion

So there it is. You may not be able to eat an elephant in one go. You many not finish eating it today, right now. But if you build a routine, eat one bite at a time and stick to it, then you maximise your chances of getting there eventually. You may not succeed immediately, but you will succeed certainly.

How have really lofty goals overwhelmed you in the past? How did you approach them and overcome them?

Published by

Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

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  41. Reminds me of my marathon training days…by tilting the proportion of run and walk to increase run, add a few 100M more by the week, watching the diet, pre-post workout routine, and a few other bits and bytes, made it possible to finish the half marathon of 21.1 Km doable. My little bites of the elephant 🙂

    1. Yup Priya, it works wonderfully well for the long distance activities like marathon, cycling and swimming. Starting small and adding a few metres every session. Glad to know that you were not able to finish one, but four half marathons 🙂

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