The Classic Question: How do you eat an elephant?

The Classic Answer: Bit by bit until it’s all gone

Slight twist on the classic question: When do you start eating an elephant?

Answer: As far enough ahead of when it has to be gone, to ensure you can eat it in bit by bit snacks and not have to try to digest x tons of elephant in one sitting. But what if you don’t like the taste of elephant and keep putting off the evil moment to light the BBQ?


The elephant in the room

The longest journey starts with a single step and eating an elephant starts with a single mouthful, but for most of us prevaricators, the hardest thing is to make that initial step, which can be very easy to put-off when the whole task seems huge. But what if the task can be broken down into manageable bite sized (!!) taskettes? Enter the iPhone and that amazing time management tool called timer!

When I was struggling to get going on my assignments during my Strategic Project Management MSc, I found myself prevaricating and putting off the awful moment of putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard and suddenly found a whole load of emails that had to be replied to and sock drawers that needed tidying and by the time I’d done these diversions, I didn’t have much time left to work……… ending the day with the promise that I’d crack on with it tomorrow, but the sock drawers rapidly became untidy again and the emails soon mounted up!

I’d historically found starting a new report or piece of written work quite a big task, something about the acres of blank paper to be filled I guess and hence putting off that dreaded task was quite a familiar ploy, so maybe it shouldn’t have been TOO surprising that I felt a bit stressed facing 3 assignments and a thesis.

The solution unexpectedly came to me in a flash of inspiration, when I was watching bits of a TV programme I’d previously recorded, between doing other things. Although I was watching it in 5 and 10 minute chunks, at the end of the day I’d watched the whole hour of the programme AND got my other things done, so I reasoned- why not reverse the process and spread x amount of effort throughout a normal day?

My first assignment had taken approximately 2 days of locking myself in a library and getting on with it, so I estimated that 16 hours would probably do per assignment. I had over 2 weeks to the deadline for the next one, so I set myself an initial target of doing 1 hour per day on my assignment, taking the weekend days off.

I promised myself I’d do exactly an hour, no less and no more, as a sportsman and aerobatics pilot, I know the temptation to keep on doing things when they’re going well and the risk of overdoing it at the time PLUS the mental pressure to do even more the next time, which makes starting the next session more difficult.

With a sense of having made a concrete commitment to myself, I set the iPhone timer to an hour, selected a soothing alarm sound and pressed start, checked the timer was running and started working. After what seemed like an age I checked the timer, 7 minutes gone. Eons went past, 13 minutes gone. I soldiered on.

My text alert beeped-salvation! But before I read the text I pressed Pause to stop the timer (21 minutes gone) as I’d promised myself I’d do an hour of work, not just sit at my table for an hour. I read the text, replied, made myself a coffee and quickly looked at the news update on Leeds Utd. Prevarication/doing essential things finished, I switched back to Word and pressed Resume on my timer, the clock was running again.

After a few more checks on time done (29, 33 and 41 ) I got into a vein of creativity which was interrupted by the soothing sound of the harp, end of timer alert going off, I finished the sentence and stopped. I’d done the hour I’d promised myself, the feeling of satisfaction, a job done and progress made was brill and I was proud of myself! I closed down Word and forgot about the assignment for the rest of the day, as I’d achieved my daily goal.

The next day was a little easier to sit down and make a start on the assignment and the time seemed to go faster. By the end of the week, the hour flew by. Productivity was high, even on just that focused hour per day and I did it, EVERY day. By week 2 the routine was easy and stopping and starting the timer to deal with interruptions meant I could do what cropped up AND know I’d done the magic hour!

By the time it came to thesis time I’d upped my daily time to 2 hours, which was easy and in the 2nd week of thesis, when I was focusing on it “”full time””, I was doing 3 hours per day, which again was easy to stick to, given the unwavering discipline of the timer. I would not go to bed until I’d done my daily target, which one night meant getting back at 02:45am from a CIO conference and then doing 38 minutes work to get to 3 hours, tired but content I’d kept my work commitment!

I’ve since suggested this technique to a handful of friends and colleagues who’ve been struggling with eating their own elephants and it HAS helped them get through difficult times……… Try it for yourself, it’s certainly working for me! I’d love to hear how you get on with it

Eating an elephant using an iPhone key points:

1. Set an easy daily time target and only increase this when you’re ready.

2. Timer running=working on the task

3. At ANY interruption or diversion, pause the timer

4. Work upto the timer alert sounding, no less and definitely no more

5. Set a pleasant end of timer alert

6. Commit to achieving the timed work before going to bed

7. Enjoy and revel in your industry and self discipline

8. Be impressed by your productivity

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