Time Management #11: Getting Overwhelming Tasks Done One Bite at a Time

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all,
She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a little girl should...
...and eighty-nine years later she ate that whale
Because she said she would!!!
— “Melinda Mae” from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

I never came across this short poem as a child, but I certainly knew the concept. Where I’m from, we talked about elephants. 

I have no clue where the idea originated. US Army General Creighton Abrams is credited with saying, “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time,” but the saying was popular long before him. 

I heard it all the time growing up—and it upset me. The idea of anyone literally eating an elephant was quite disturbing to me, and I didn’t grasp the bigger lesson. I loved elephants—and still do! 

As I grew older and better understood the metaphor, I fell into using it often.

To my sister freaking out about the 20-page paper she hadn’t started: How do you eat an elephant? 

To my friend who faced the wreckage of her life as she knew it after a divorce: How do you eat an elephant? 

To myself, as I faced packing an entire house for yet another move: How do you eat an elephant?

The saying I once hated has become a great ally. Whenever a goal, project, task—whatever you want to call it—seems too large, when it looms over everything, I come back to my elephant. 

break it all down into bite size pieces.jpg

I break it all down into bite-size pieces, and so can you.  

Take your biggest goal (or thing you need to tackle) right now, and let’s tear it down. List out all the steps it will take to get there, even if the list becomes 50 items. 

Now do item #1. 

And if the thought of facing a list that big is too overwhelming—just look at the very next thing. Focus on the very next step in front of you, and then do that. 

You do not have to know an entire path to be able to walk it, and you do not have to finish that elephant today. 

Just take a bite.