Eating the elephant one bite at a time

Imagine a genie riding an elephant tells a man that he can have whatever he wishes, but first he must eat this entire elephant. The man who doesn’t have a strong enough desire would say “you’re crazy, I can’t eat an elephant! It’ll take forever!” But the man who wants something bad enough will simply pick up a knife and fork, ready to take the first bite.

Any large endeavor is an elephant. It seems so big you won’t ever finish. And because it is huge, you don’t even know where to begin. You begin with one bite. That is all you can do—a thousand more times or until the job is done.

You can’t eat an entire leg at one time—the leg is bigger than you. Eating large elephant steaks at every meal might seem like a good idea—you’ll reach the goal faster—but you’ll tire of eating nothing but elephant and will “burnout” saying you just can’t take anymore. One bite at a time. The entire elephant is just a series of bites. The entire elephant can be eaten, will be eaten, just one bite at a time, no matter how you slice it.

People who understand their limits, who are humble, have a better time with this. Why? Because they begin with the idea that they have to ease into a new experience/practice and so take their time learning it and getting better at it while doing it. The know-it-all or “expert” thinks they can do more than they can and often gives up or fails. Usually, they stay in their ego and blame others rather than accept the responsibility of their own missteps.

I’ll give you two examples from my own life.

In high school and much of college I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on my studies and got great grades. All I had to do was study right before the exams or dash off a quick five-page paper before the deadline and I was golden. When I didn’t get a perfect score on something I tended to blame the teacher or the test or the circumstances, etc. etc. When I started graduate school everything changed. I could no longer procrastinate without it resulting in failure. I was so used to waiting until just before the deadline to do things that I couldn’t ever seem to allot enough time to get my research papers done. I went from easy As with a minimum of effort to floundering big time. What I produced in school was mediocre now and I hated it. Instead of doing a little bit of research each day, outlining each day for a week, then writing the papers with plenty of time to spare for revision and editing, I was rushing the steps, skipping steps and finishing the first draft on the deadline. I wasn’t proud of myself and my intellect anymore. I could not compete with my peers. I went from feeling smart to feeling like a loser. My habits were horrible. I needed to change.

I finally had some humility and understood my limitations (at least where academics were concerned). Unfortunately, it took me the majority of my time in graduate school to turn this around. I sometimes wish I could get a redo.

Another practice that takes humility and understanding your own limitations is reading the Bible or doing any spiritual exercise. I have friends on both sides of the continuum, from atheist to those dedicated to lifelong spiritual careers and study. What I’ve found common among my atheist or agnostic friends is that if they have read the bible (and many have), they read it like they read a book for a survey class—quickly, skimming when it gets boring or predictable, and dismissing the contradictions and confusing metaphors as errors by the writers. Most (but not all!) of the faithful that I know who are reading the bible realize that the books are a difficult and profound read and so they go into it very slowly and methodically, sometimes only reading a few verses each day and journaling about the meanings of those verses. So of course the first group can say “it’s gibberish, but I recognized some important cultural allusions” after a day or two, meanwhile, the second group is still richly engaged with the first chapter of the first book! Granted, your purpose in beginning an endeavor is going to affect how you go about it—if you care, you’ll go slow.

If you are honest with yourself and your limitations, you will go slowly in each new endeavor you care about. Have humility and self-awareness and break your endeavors into bite-size pieces you cannot fail to achieve.

Common New Year’s Resolutions are “getting healthy” or finally writing the book you always said you’d write “someday.” Let’s take a closer look at both of those with the bite-sized approach.

Resolution 1: You want to write a mystery novel. Your friend tells you that since you type 60 words a minute and you’re retired, you should be able to finish an 85,000 word mystery in less than a month. But writing a novel is much more than typing speed. It would be best to break it down not into metrics of words per minute but in knowledge you don’t have that you need. Work on your storyline while taking a class about writing mystery novels. The person who does not begin from humility is likely to waste a month or more of writing—likely tens of thousands of words—without having a coherent story at the end. Lots of writers give up at this point. Typing is not writing. Come to it with humility and learn story and craft as you go. Expect this to take quite a bit of time (a year is common) for your first novel and commit to make headway each day.

Though today you might start with learning about story structure and just making some notes about the story you want to tell, you will soon write a page a day, then maybe two pages a day, etc. You’ll establish a rhythm and find your natural boundaries for creative work (most people can only sustain creative effort for a few hours each day), and you’ll then be able to determine when you’ll likely have the book finished—not because you’re throwing out an arbitrary date based on typing skill but because you know what it really takes for you to get the pages written and how many you can do in a week, etc. Creative endeavors are deeply personal and never one-size-fits-all. Until you do it yourself, you can’t know.

Resolution 2: You want to get healthy and lose weight and you’ve already done tons of research. The Internet has told you that you need to do interval training, a liver detox, intermittent fasting, and of course you need to change your eating style (to whatever diet fad is hottest that year, though you probably insist you don’t follow fads). If you jump into all of this without a “bite-size” plan, you will surely burn out or possibly even damage yourself and then give up. You’re trying to change too much at once. If you see good effects, you won’t know which activity it is from—all the good could be from one activity which means you’re wasting your time and effort on the others. (And time is a precious commodity!) If you see bad effects, you also won’t know which activity it is from and you’ll likely need to stop all of them to figure it out.

For example, if you change all these things at once but then suffer from headaches and muscle soreness that doesn’t go away, which thing do you have the problem with? Food choices? Food timing? The sprints? The weights? Could be a variety of things. You could have mineral deficiencies, you could be working yourself too hard, not allowing for recovery, you could be doing the exercise wrong—just because you did research doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert. Reading a book or watching a video is very different from actually doing an activity.

So take a bite-size approach again and think first about what is necessary for physical health—water, nutritious food, mild to vigourous movement, sunshine/outdoors, contact with other people. Without those five things the human animal begins to suffer and break down (which is why solitary confinement is seen as inhumane). Get to know yourself and your current habits in these five foundational health areas by tracking them. How much water do you drink in a day? Headaches and muscle soreness can be caused by dehydration. Drink more water. Is the food you eat nutritious? Replace low-nutrition processed foods, like pasta, with more nutritious food like vegetables. Are there times during the day when you are mostly sedentary? Break them up with a quick five-minute walk or stretching routing. Get at least 15 minutes of sunshine outdoors each day. Intentionally be friendly with people—your loved ones and people you don’t know. Once you have these basic things at healthy levels, only then should you add on to them with another activity.

Just training yourself to stay hydrated is a move in the right direction for your health. Starting interval training when you’re dehydrated is a huge mistake! First things first. Make sure you have a stable foundation before you build upon it. Start small and grow.

Getting to your goal slowly is better than overdoing it, feeling overwhelmed, quitting and not getting there at all. Small bites of daily consistent effort is key.

When you start small and make bite-sized progress, life stressors like having to work overtime at work or moving house, or having to take care of a loved one, etc., is not going to derail your efforts. If life forces you to skip one day, you can pick it up the next, because, after all, it’s just one bite.

Keep it small and keep going. Over time, you will grow in practical knowledge (learning by doing), earned confidence (each small achievement is confidence and mastery being earned not assumed) and self-motivation.  The longer you work this process of bite-sized pieces, the more certain you become of eventual completion and the more committed you are to seeing it through.

To recap: Know yourself and your limitations. Do the work in bite-size pieces. Don’t wait to get started—take the first bite and commit to learn more while you keep taking bites each day. Daily consistent effort is what it’s all about.

How about you? What goals are you trying to accomplish this year? Have you tried the bite-sized approach? How is it working for you?

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