How Do You Eat an Elephant?

How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Everyone has big dreams. But not everyone accomplishes them.

It is fun to think about and plan all the amazing things you want to do in life. Maybe you want to open a store or start your own company or run a marathon. Studies have actually shown that thinking about accomplishing a goal feels just as good as actually accomplishing it — so no wonder we love to dream.

But there’s something that happens along the way for most people and these big goals don’t get done. The overwhelming scope of a big goal is overwhelming and you don’t know where to begin. So you don’t.

Of course, we all want to accomplish big things. We don’t ever plan to get sidetracked or scared off from our big dreams.

So how do you make progress on a big goal? How do you get started when you don’t even know what the finish line looks like or when you’ll hit it?

The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by a massive goal or project, ask yourself this question:

How do you eat an elephant?

The answer: one bite at a time.

In today’s post, we want to share some of our best tips for facing down a big goal and actually making progress. Because who wants to be the person looking back on their life and regretting not doing the things they wanted to do?

It’s time to make your biggest goals a reality — or at least to stop shying away from the journey of becoming the person you really want to be.

Identify the things you do know

When a goal is too big to visualize all at once, that is when many of us shut down. We don’t even know how to begin, because we don’t know where we will end up. When the end of the project is too far away, we don’t want to get started.

So the first thing to do is to actually wrap your head around your goal.

Maybe you don’t know exactly where you will end up. For example, you know you want to start your own company but you don’t even know yet what the product will be. Or maybe you want to buy a house but don’t know if the answer is saving more money or getting a higher paying job or shopping in a different neighborhood.

The first step, then, is to clarify where you are going. You don’t have to know the final destination yet — especially for big goals, sometimes you learn along the way where you will end up.

But you do need to define the meaning of the goal. You need to answer this question:

What will success look like to me?

This answer may change over time, but in order to make progress now — to start actually working towards this goal today — you’ve got to know the direction you’re going in.

The best way to do this is to start making lists. What concrete parts of your goal can you identify? Get them on paper so you can start to understand them and build on them.

For example:

If you want to start a business, one thing you need to know is what the business does. How can you begin working towards an answer to that question? Start brainstorming.

  • Make a list of ideas you have for businesses
  • Make a list of existing businesses that you admire
  • Interview people you know who have started businesses and ask them how they came up with their idea
  • Identify the unique, valuable skills you have that could be the basis for a business

Then move on to the next steps. What else do you need to start a business? Keep writing: you’ll need capital, you’ll need a place to work, you’ll need customers… What are the steps to get each one?

Even though it might be overwhelming to create long lists of things that you have to do in order to even start working on your dream, it is far better to be looking at tactical lists of steps than just thinking about vague ideas.

Real steps are something you can take action on, one bite at a time.

Start with the smallest steps you can take

Part of what makes big goals so hard to get started on is that there is so much to do — it’s easy to get discouraged by wondering how anything you could do today would make an impact at all.

And the truth is, the thing you do today is not what is going to make or break the success of this project.

It is by consistently taking small steps every day that you will ultimately be successful. It is like compound interest in a bank. It doesn’t grow in a day; it adds up and grows valuable over time.

Some days you will make huge progress, and that will be awesome! But most days you won’t. Especially in the early days when you are still creating a foundation and finding your footing.

To start building your momentum and investing that compound interest of effort, here are a few ways to help you get going with small steps.

  • Turn one aspect of the project into a series of small steps. Breaking a big goal into small steps can be just as daunting as tackling the goal! If you’re struggling to identify first steps, start by thinking about just one part of the project. For example, if you’re starting your own company, you’ll need a logo. How can you turn that into small steps? Get super granular, down to “find 3 graphic designers to call for quotes” and “create a Pinterest board for inspiration”. Then put those steps on your calendar to get accomplished.
  • Look for people who have accomplished similar goals. How did they succeed? It is naive to think you have to reinvent the wheel to accomplish your goal. Look around for inspiration and ideas everywhere. It is unlikely your idea is 100% never-before-done. What can you learn from other people’s journeys, and how can you improve on their results?
  • Give yourself a 5 minute task to start. Maybe it is sending an email to a vendor, or googling a question you have. It might feel too small to “count”, but these small steps are progress towards your goal. Every small bite you take is one that you can cross off your to-do list. Plus, once you get one thing done it is so much easier to do a second thing.

Every big project is really just a long series of many small steps. Reframe the way you are thinking about this goal. It might take 2 years, which can seem like forever, but 2 years is just 730 todays that are waiting for you to make the most of them.

Just look at the day in front of you. How will you make it count?

Create deadlines for big and small tasks

If your goal isn’t part of your normal day job, you’ll have to work extra hard to build in accountability and structure to make sure you are making progress. Working alone, it is too easy to let things slide or to let outside pressures (like your day job, friends, etc) take over time you wanted to be spending on your goal.

However, even if your goal is related to your normal job, it’s very valuable to create sets of deadlines to keep yourself on track.

You can share your deadlines and plans upwards with your leadership, so they know what to expect from you and when. They can also advise you on whether certain deadlines are unrealistic or need to change, which will help your project flow more smoothly (since no one likes surprises).

Deadlines can be big or small. The key is to make them realistic — both realistic for what you are able to accomplish in a given day or week, but also realistic for actually getting the project done in this lifetime.

I find it most valuable to have deadlines every week; that way I can be sure I am making progress every single week, even if some weeks it is small progress.

Those small steps — the granular parts of your goal — are the easiest to not take seriously, which is why giving yourself deadlines helps get them done.

Depending on your project, you might want weekly deadlines or even some daily assignments where you have to get something accomplished by the end of each day — for example, calling one new client or reading 10 pages in your book.

Then it’s time to zoom out. The steps get less specific, and the deadlines are the culmination of the many small steps you’ve taken.

For example, maybe you set a deadline to launch your new website by December 1st. Put that on your calendar, and start working backwards. What needs to happen each week from now until then in order to make that launch possible?

List out every step you’ll need to take, and then start finding places for them in your schedule.

Check in with your deadlines and goals regularly

Every so often, when you are tackling a big goal, it is important to take a step back and look at the big picture again.

Goals change all the time. As you or your team get more information — which is bound to happen as you begin actually working through a big goal — you may discover that milestones you set for yourself are no longer the best fit.

It’s important to be willing to be flexible. Sticking with a plan just because it’s the one you started with is not a good enough reason to stick with it.

Here’s how to do this effectively:

If you’re part of a team. Communication is key if you’re working with other people on a huge goal. It’s critical that you share information and make sure everyone is still on the same page; otherwise it is inevitable that things will fall through the cracks, get duplicated, and that people will have misaligned priorities.

Schedule meetings on a consistent timeline — maybe every month or two weeks — for a full team check-in on status. Put these on everyone’s calendars and remind people to prepare.

It’s helpful if everyone brings consistent information to the check-ins, so you could even create a list of questions that everyone should be prepared to answer when sharing what they’ve been working on. That way, the updates will be structured and not just focused on what each person thinks is important.

If you’re working solo. As you sit down to plot out your goals every week (we call this your weekly ninja planning session!), spend a couple of minutes looking at your big project. Ask yourself:

  • Am I hitting my deadlines? If not, why? Are you not making time for them, or are you setting unrealistic deadlines?
  • Do the deadlines I have coming up still make sense? Does anything need to change?
  • Do I need to loop in anyone else to make progress this week?
  • Am I on target to hit my bigger picture goals?
  • What will be happening this week that could get in the way of my progress?
  • Does my big picture goal still make sense? Has anything changed?

Depending on your answers to these questions, make smart choice about how you will spend your time this week.

And whether you are working alone or on a team, you cannot be afraid to ask the question:

  • Has the goal changed? Do my/our plans need to change?

The more honest you are about where you’re at and where you need to be going, the more effectively you will end up in the place you want to be. It can be scary to change plans — but what is truly scary is investing a ton of time, money, and energy in a direction that leads nowhere.

Careful course correction is the key to completing a successful project.

Focus on real value

The work that matters the most is not always the work that feels best to do. That’s why it is so important, over the course of a major project, to check in and make sure you are doing the work that really matters.

Cold calling 10 potential customers every day is probably not your favorite thing to do. However, if it is how you will build your business, then it is important to carve out time for and make happen. Even though designing your logo is more fun and less scary, it will not get you closer to your goal if your goal is to start making sales.

Too often we let ourselves get distracted from things that move the needle forward.

If you’re not sure what will move the needle forward to your business, you have a few options for figuring that out:

  • Talk to someone who knows. One of the best ways to learn how to do something is to talk to someone who has done it before. How did they accomplish a goal like yours? What do they consider the 3 most important things they did? Why did those things have such a big impact? If this is a project for work, asking your manager about priorities is one of the most important things you can do to be successful.
  • Work in reverse. Imagine yourself, successful, a year in the future. Where will you be? Now think backwards about how you got there. While there are million little factors that add up to a success story, there will be some foundation structures holding the weight of the success up. What are those structures? How did they get built? What small steps added up to create those results?

What’s the biggest goal on your list?

What have you been putting off, or staring at on your to-do list not knowing how to start? Big goals are the scariest and hardest to begin, but they are almost always the most rewarding — precisely because they force you to challenge yourself and because they can take you farther than you’ve ever been before.

Follow these tips and see if you can take one step — just one — towards making this goal a reality this week. What is one thing you can do to get going? How can you take this project from an overwhelming idea and turn it into a simple list of tasks?

It will take time, but it will be worth it. You can do it! If you need encouragement, advice, or want to share your goal and progress, send us an email to or say hi on our Facebook page!

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