How to eat an Elephant

By Chris Helm

Chris is fascinated by how people and businesses connect their aspirations together to create mutual benefit.

We’ve all been there, both at work and at play. Big task. In fact, just too big and we don’t know where to start.

Well, we might know where to start but what’s the point? We’ll never get it finished. A recent experience springs to mind where I spent all of my Saturday afternoon NOT renovating my shed. What did I do in its place I hear you ask? Well, nothing of course. What else would I be doing when I’m supposed to be rebuilding my shed?

The better question to ask is why was I not renovating my shed? Well, simply put, the size of the task was just too darned big. The floor was rotten, the roof was sagging and leaking, the door was wonky, the lock was rusty, a window was broken and the shelving was inadequate and creaking. As you can see, not a small job and as a result I felt slightly paralysed. I knew from the start that I had no chance of completing the task in the time that I’d allowed myself. So now you can see, the only logical thing to do was to procrastinate, beat myself up, eat some comfort food (buttered crumpets followed by Tim Tam biscuits and a bag of Haribo if you must know) and waste three hours of my life. Not to mention the guilt, shame and disappointment when my wife returned home after taking our daughter swimming.

So how do you do it? How on Earth do you get started on something so big? Well, enter my ever helpful colleague with the simple answer of – “It’s, easy; like eating an elephant really. You just take one bite at a time.” So there we are, the golden answer I’d been waiting for. You WHAT??? Eating an elephant? Ridiculous!!!

Well, it turns out it’s not quite as ridiculous as it sounds. Now I’m pretty sure none of us particularly want to be eating elephants so the good news is that you don’t have to actually eat an elephant [cue sighs of relief from concerned diners and animal rights groups around the world]. It is indeed only a metaphor and where this particular metaphor comes into its own is around trying to break down a big task or problem. Imagine actually trying to work out how to eat a whole elephant, what would you do?

Well, you’d probably do some of the following:

  • Break it into manageable chunks
  • Look up a recipe online
  • Have some now and come back for the rest later
  • Get some friends to help

So that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve eaten the elephant. The result? Procrastination – 0%, productive action – 100%. My shed isn’t quite there yet but the roof looks great (thanks Dad) and no longer leaks, the new window is in (thanks Google) and the door is straight and locked. Floor and shelving planned in. I can never get back the three hours that I lost one Saturday morning in September but I can darn well make sure I don’t lose any more.

Now, after riveting tales of shed roofing and shelving, how does all of this apply to the real world of business? Simple, you can apply the principles of elephant eating to any piece of work that you’re feeling daunted by; be it your plan to overhaul your performance management system or the new project your boss has just dropped on your desk. Just take the actions above to say goodbye to procrastination and hello to progress, virtue and a perfectly reasonable touch of smugness.

Please note that no elephants were harmed in the making of this blog (or my shed…).


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