How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Do you struggle with making progress on big projects? I know this is tough for me. As a writer, I often have quite a few long-term projects going at any given time. Some of these projects take over a year to finish!

I think there are two things about big projects that make them tough for me. First, I have trouble getting up my motivation to start a big project. It seems so huge and difficult. The finish line seems so far away. Sometimes getting the whole thing done seems impossible, so I lose heart and don’t even begin.

Second, I get quite a bit of satisfaction from completing a project. I like the feeling I get when it’s finished. I enjoy looking back on a job well done. The problem with big projects is that you have to wait so long for that feeling to happen. If I’m doing a writing project that takes a year to complete, I have to go 365 days without feeling the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing the project. That’s a long time to wait!

I remember hearing a speaker once who asked the audience how to best eat an elephant. It was a metaphor for how to tackle a big, overwhelming project. The answer was one bite at a time.

I think this metaphor can give us some great advice when we have to tackle our own big, long-term projects. The key is to split the large task into chunks.

A chunk is basically a smaller part of the overall project. For example, when I think about writing a book, the task feels overwhelming. It feels impossible to come up with a 250-page manuscript. But it helps if I can split the writing project into smaller chunks. For example, the book might be split up into 8 chapters each. I like to split up the chapters into even smaller chunks—for example, each chapter might be split up into 30 pages each.

If I say that my goal for the day is to write my 250-page book, I feel overwhelmed. However, if I split up that work into very small chunks, and say that my goal for the day is to write 1 page in my book, it feels a lot more manageable. It doesn’t feel impossible. I can do that.

Another important benefit of splitting your project up into smaller, manageable chunks is that you get to experience the sense of satisfaction from completing your chunk. If I finish writing my page for the day, I can cross it off my list and feel good about completing my task for the day. This is a reward, and it increases my motivation to continue my work.

Discussion: Do you struggle with completing large projects? What have you found to be the best strategies to help you make consistent progress?

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