The saying goes: ‘The only way to eat an elephant is to cut it into small pieces and eat them one at a time.’ What a horrid saying! It conjures up revolting pictures, doesn’t it! Yet it does capture a truth about working smarter: if anything looks too big to tackle in one go, you break it down.

Now, apart from the unpleasant thought of eating an elephant in the first place, the saying implies that you only need to do this breakdown to objectively big things. Yet in our minds, even smaller tasks can seem daunting. So I would change the saying to: ‘If anything feels too big to tackle, break it down into small chunks.’

Sometimes we put off that phone call or email because it requires more than one step. We have to check our diary first, or find the right phone number or document to refer to. And we’re not that keen on sorting it out anyway! In these cases, break it down: check the date, find the document or phone number, and be pleased with yourself for doing that much. Then you can do the next step a little later.

Almost any task we have to do can be broken down into smaller pieces, so rather than putting it off, and leaving it hanging in the back of your mind – or forgetting completely to do it! – we can just identify the first step we need to take, or one thing we could do to reduce its size or complexity.

And often, when we just set ourselves to take that first step as a task, we find that, once we’ve started, we feel OK about doing a bit more of it. This works because, instead of failing to do it all, we have now done what we intended to do, so the bit more is a bonus – we can praise ourselves twice over!

I find that I get twice as much done if I only set myself easy small tasks as goals, because I feel good that I’ve achieved them so I do some more. It’s so much easier than building up the dread of doing that long, tedious complex task.

So next time you feel your own resistance to starting on a task, why not ask yourself: ‘What’s one thing I can do to get this started?’


About Jo Clarkson

Jo Clarkson is the CEO of Meta and a frequent writer of the blog.
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