Eating The Elephant

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” – Creighton Abrams

Do you have a tendency to try and eat the elephant in as few bites as possible? You know, try to accomplish something quickly and in big pieces as opposed to working at it slowly, one little bit at a time, over a longer period of time? I know I do.  And I think our society sort of pushes us in that direction – there’s always so much to do and not enough time to do it in that we are always looking for ways to get more done faster.  This is something I personally have wrestled with a lot in my adult life, particularly in the past 2 years as I have started up my coaching business.

When I do something I am almost always “all in”. Not a bad thing on the surface, but what it translates into is an almost obsession-like focus on that thing. It’s like I have to do it all, every aspect of it, NOW.  I sit down to work on something, focused on getting it all done right away, and the next thing I know it is hours later – all those other things that needed done in my “regular” life are left untouched (i.e. laundry, eating dinner, exercise, etc.).  Productive on one hand (although one could probably argue that to some degree, as I will attempt to do to some degree below), but also neglectful on the other hand.  A few personal examples to help illustrate my point…

  1. I recently completed an online course. It was self-paced with videos, exercises, and occasional live Q&A sessions. A new module was released each week, but it is available to me forever, so there’s no rush to have to get to the new module each week.  Not to mention that it’s the kind of material you really should work through slowly so the knowledge has a chance to sink in and become a part of you.  But I found myself, each week when the new module would come out, sitting down and trying to complete the whole module in an evening.  On several occasions I caught myself playing one of the the video lessons while simultaneously checking emails or working on something else.  I’d get to the end of the video and be surprised it was over…not remembering much of what was said.  Needless to say, I watched quite a few videos more than once.  Finally I made myself stop trying to get the new modules done in one night, and eventually I gave myself permission to not even try to fit it in within one week if my schedule didn’t allow for that in way that also allowed me to retain what I was to be learning.
  2. As I began to develop the idea for my coaching business, I came across a lot of helpful resources – podcasts, websites, books, online courses and webinars, etc. At times it was overwhelming because again when I come across something I am interested in I can get caught up in digesting it all at once.  Numerous times I caught myself being sucked into podcasts, webinars, websites, or books to such a great degree that I was not getting other things done.  And when I tried to alter my schedule so I got to other things that needed done as well, I found myself still trying to keep up the previous pace of absorbing my new-found resources.  The brain can only attend to so much at one time and, like with my experience with the online course I took, I would finish listening to a podcast or webinar or finish reading an article or book and not remember what I read or not get out of it what I should have because I was rushing through it and/or multi-tasking. But I was getting through the new resources in lightning-fast time.
  3. In my former career-life, I was a teacher. And for one of the graduate courses I took on how to create a positive classroom culture/climate we were given an assignment to integrate a tool from our textbook into our current classroom and then write a paper on how it worked. Our textbook was filled with dozens of ideas for how to create a positive classroom climate and culture.  All I had to do was pick one to incorporate.  Instead, I totally redesigned my classroom incorporating a majority of the ideas from the book.  A perfectly fine idea if I had done it over the course of a semester or a whole school year, but I did it in a few short weeks (after all the paper had to be turned in on a specific date).  It radically transformed my classroom and my teaching in a wonderful way, but the stress I put myself under to complete it in the time allotted my the professor was crazy.  But to me, it was all or nothing – eat the whole elephant now or not at all.  In hindsight, I did that type of thing a lot as a teacher.  I pushed myself to do so much in a short period of time in an effort to give my students the best I could give them.  There was no moderation, no gradual phasing in – it was all now or not at all.

Again, on the surface being super focused on these things and dedicating time to getting them done as soon as possible is not a bad thing overall. But the reality of doing that can be bad often times. What could be so bad about it?  Well, for one, my hyper-focus on this one thing means other things are going by the wayside.  It’s a fact, there is just so many hours in the day.  Plus, I can sometimes be so focused on getting one thing done that as I am inundating myself with all the reading, assignments, work, etc. associated with that one thing and I get tired or lose focus, I force myself to keep going often at the expense of really learning, growing, or grasping the information.  I catch myself sometimes simply going through the motions to say I did them without really reaping the benefits of having done them.  In those cases I often have to go back to it again at some point.

“The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at a time.” – Mozart

Why do I do this if I know from experience that I end up either redoing some things multiple times or not accomplishing what I set out to in the first place? My best guess is that it’s partly patience, partly excitement, and partly my personality. The good news is I have noticed this tendency and can work to be cognizant of it.  That is the first and often hardest step when it comes to creating change in your own life.  I have gotten better at noticing when I am doing this in the moment of doing it, not just after the fact.  Noticing it as I am doing it means I have the chance to change what I am doing or how I am doing it.

Ultimately I need to learn to take smaller bites of the elephant, savoring each bite, instead of trying to swallow the whole darn thing in as few quick bites as possible. But this too is a practice. And so I endeavor to keep noticing when I am trying to eat the whole thing at one time, redirect myself to slow down, enjoying the opportunity and moment, and then eat the elephant one small bite at a time.  I will end up in the same place ultimately, but I will have learned more, had to redo fewer things, and I will have enjoyed the journey a whole lot more.

There’s something to be said for appreciating the journey, for enjoying each step of the way, for soaking in all that an experience has to offer. Eating the whole elephant at once may technically get you done faster, but at what cost to you, those around you, and the end product or result? Like much of life, it is a practice, something to work at, but it is certainly worth the time and energy to do so.  And it is definitely something I continue to work on in my own life.