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The Problem With Trying to Eat an Elephant

I don’t want to oversell it but it’s the first thing I’ve picked up from a book that I’m still thinking about almost hourly even 3 months after completing the book.

The secret I learned is being reflected in my everyday outcomes to the point where my marriage is improved, my employer is complimenting me about the amount and quality of work that I’m able to complete, and I feel less anxiety. I’ll even go as far as to say I’m more present when I’m spending time with my kids.

And the secret on its own isn’t particularly life-shattering. I think I’ve probably received the same advice in lots of different ways in the past, but the specific way that David Allen presented the concept in his book Getting Thing Done made it stick with me in a way that no other method or approach ever could before.

How do you eat an elephant?

First of all, please don’t eat elephants.

Second of all, if you really must, the prevailing knowledge is that the only way to ever eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

And we all remember my good friend, Bob Wiley of What About Bob? fame. And do you remember what a fan he was of Dr. Leo Marvin’s book, Baby Steps?

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And lastly, E.L. Doctorow shared the following:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

And I think the gist of what all these people are saying is roughly the same. “Don’t get overwhelmed. Take things one step or one day at a time.

The problem is that there’s nothing actionable with any of those. To not do something (get overwhelmed) is pretty much impossible to execute, especially for someone who has a tendency of getting overwhelmed.

It’s all passive. So instead of taking things in stride and being less overwhelmed because it’s all about “one moment or one day at a time”, what’s always happened for me in the past is that I ended up feeling even more overwhelmed by big projects or unknowns because not only was I not making progress on them, I was also feeling constantly overwhelmed because I “should just be taking this one day at a time.”

Action-paralysis paired with guilt is a hell of a cocktail.

The good, no, the great news is that David Allen put a similar process in an entirely different way that really clicked for me. Here’s what he said:

You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.”

He has full chapters in his book about this and goes much deeper than I ever could, but my interpretation has been that rather than trying to build a detailed roadmap and trying to strategize if I should start at the trunk or the tail first, instead I ask myself a very simple question.

“What’s the next physical action I can take to move this forward?”

And sometimes it’s as simple as writing an outreach email.

And other times the next action I can take is planning some research time.

Putting the next action into practice

Here’s a video of David talking about next actions, taking control, and creating space. It’s phenomal.

Looking at almost everything in my life with this “next action” mindset has given me such a gift. It’s helped me feel a sense of control that I’ve been missing for a very long time.

Let me show you how it works:

Goal: I want to spend more time with Brady. I don’t want him to get lost in the shuffle.

Next action: Text Jackie right now and tell her that you’ll take Brady home after his football game so the two of us can share an ice cream.

That’s it. See how easy that is? And sure, on the surface that seems simple enough, and maybe even borderline obvious, but it isn’t.

Let me show you another example:

Goal: I want to run a 5K next Spring*

Next action: Go to my calendar and block out three times I’ll go to the gym this week. Make it an appointment. Plan to alternate walking and jogging in 3 minute intervals.

I didn’t have to download an app. I didn’t have to do hours of research on the best approach. I didn’t have to buy new running shoes or hire a personal trainer.

All of those things would have 100% been my first steps/actions before, but what I’ve learned about myself is that those are all distractions or ways of deferring the work. I have a special talent for procrastination, and I’ve found that anything beyond moving forward is likely a way of me subconsciously keeping myself away from the actual work that needs to be done.

Not to mention that this deferrment tactic compounds on itself. Let’s say I do buy the best app, buy the new running shoes, and hire that trainer. And then a month later when I decide to quit my training, not only do I feel bad about but I’m also out 300 bucks, so I beat myself up even more.

And don’t get me wrong. I’ll nerd out on finding the best app to help me run a 5K*, but that can be a casual thing I do in parallel to the actual training later on. It’s not a thing that actually gets me closer to the end goal, ya know what I mean?

I know I’ll need to write more about this later on. Because this Next Action concept has truly been a life changing (I really hesitate to use that phrasing because it’s so overdone but I sincerely mean that this philosophy has made my life and my mental health better in measurable ways) approach to help improve my relationships, my daily output, and to finally help quiet those voices in my head telling me that “elephant probably tastes terrible anyway, dude”.

*I have no plans of a running a 5K

**No elephants were harmed in the creation of this post.