Eating elephants and conquering huge goals

Have you ever heard the quip that says, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” We have heard it. We have heard other things similar to it. We hear this kind of advice all the time. Little words of wisdom that are suppose to help us navagate our lives more easily, or with less effort, or get us to be more successful.

Is there wisdom in these sayings? Sure. But I always feel like they are out dated. The knowledge of our current time has advanced so far past what the creators of these old sayings could have ever imagined that the advice becomes hard to understand and implement in our modern world. And who knows, the words and meanings may have even evolved over time. Do we really know the full intent of the original speaker. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I want to break down these pieces of advice and implement them in a real world situation. I want to add in the detail with action steps to truly benefit from the original piece of wisdom.

Lets start with the elephant.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The basic meaning…

  • You have a big task.
  • You need to complete the task.
  • You must start with little tasks.
  • Eventually all the little tasks finish the whole task.

It is pretty simple but haven’t we all had a huge task that overwhelmed us. It was too big to even begin, Or if we did begin we couldn’t finish because there seemed to be no progress. The graveyard of good intentioned ideas and inspiration is filled with the bones of elephants that we couldn’t finish.

Eating an elephant in the real world.

Over the past 15 months I had a huge task to accomplish. I was to study, take exams, and learn how to pass my CFP designation exam. It was one of the biggest, longest, and continuous tasks I have ever been asked to do.

I had to take it one bite at a time. The saying was a good starting point but it wasn’t enough to truly complete the task. Something more was needed. Luckily I had two things working in my favor.

The first was the course design. It was broken down into 7 sections that lasted 5-8 weeks at a time with an exam at the end. So right there I was forced to break down the CFP elephant into 7 parts, smaller parts.

The second thing was further intentional deconstruction of the material. I broke down the chapters into days and wrote them on a paper calendar. I would assess the length of each chapter and allocate days to finish each one. Longer chapters got more days allotted  than shorter chapters. Then all I had to do was study on the appropriate day as much as the plan dictated.

How did this work? Great, unless it didn’t. I would miss whole days, I would get behind by whole chapters. However, I built in extra catch up time before each exam. It wasn’t a walk in the park. I had to study nearly everyday and study for hours. But I kept getting through the books and learning enough to pass the exams.

I kept this up book after book after book. It was NOT easy but it was the only way to eat my elephant.

So lets talk about how we can improve on just taking one bite at a time. There has to be something more. Smaller tasks are still tasks, and now you have many more of them. Yes smaller tasks are easier to accomplish and the sum total of these tasks will add up to an elephant, but how do you keep the motivation?

Here’s what I did.

I gave myself smaller rewards along the way. For example if I finished 5 chapters I would give myself a night off and get in an extra bike ride or workout, an extremely coveted reward for me. If I finished a whole book and passed an exam I might take a whole weekend off from studying and treat myself to a nice lunch with my buddy.

These seem small but they are powerful. It is hard to keep motivated for such a long term task. Which brings me to my next point.

Extending your time horizon.

I don’t think I have ever put in such sustained effort over such a long period of time on a single task. It was something new and it was hard. But now that it is finished I am so grateful for the challenge and the opportunity to overcome that challenge. It made me a better person, more mentally tough.

Whats the takeaway? You have to change your mindset to understand that real meaningful life goals take time. The bigger the elephant the longer it will take to eat. It’s difficult at first and I think reminding yourself often is the only way to practice. Tell yourself to trust the process. Trust that you have broken the task down in to whats important and if you keep working the plan you will complete the task.

Ill say it again, it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time, extend your time horizon.

This was the hardest lesson to learn, and I am sure I will have to learn it many more times over my life.


How did I do?

I passed the exam on my first attempt. Now I don’t have to keep studying. The small continuous efforts upfront resulted in releasing me from those efforts now. I can use the time for my real passions. I can’t even begin to tell you how rewarding it is. Accomplishing a huge, LONG, task and now having more time for things I love.

If you break down your elephants, set intermediate goals, extend your time horizon, and don’t stop until you have eaten it all, you truly can accomplish whatever you wish.




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