The Best Way to "Eat an Elephant"

The Best Way to "Eat an Elephant"

There’s an old quote by Creighton Abrams: “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” Clearly, no one is encouraging dining on these fantastic animals, but it’s good advice about how to tackle a huge, overwhelming project—like the climb to success. As Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

For me, understanding that is one of the keys to success. First, I set a goal. And usually I set a goal that’s beyond my real goal because I understand the ways in which I am motivated. If I plan to work out for two hours, for instance, I know that I’m going to start getting tired at the 90-minute mark. I also know that if I have a bigger goal, like working out for four hours, I won’t start to get tired until the three-and-a-half-hour mark. If I have a bigger goal, I’ll perform better for longer. That’s just the way it is.

I also realize that my motivation level varies from day to day. One day I wake up and I’m planning to run 10 miles and I can hardly wait to get started. The next day I don’t want to go at all. On the low-motivation day, I approach things differently. Usually, I’ll tell myself, “Since I’m not that into it today, I’ll just go out and do two or three miles, one step at a time.” But then, once I get going, I get into the zone and I end up doing the whole 10 miles, or maybe more.

I tend to view all major life goals — like endurance races where I can’t sprint my way to success — in this same fashion. When I have a huge goal, achieving it is not a matter of running as fast as I can toward the finish line; it’s a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, without giving up.

I find that this “chipping away at success” tactic works for just about everyone, in every facet of life. So instead of seeing ourselves where we are now and then hoping to suddenly, magically be at our goal, we simply need to take the next step. And then we need to follow that up with the next next step. It’s like eating an elephant. They only way to do it is one bite at a time.

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