How to Manage a Mammoth Task – See it as an Elephant

Posted by martin.parnell |

In 2005, I embarked on a cycling trip through Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town.  A total of 11,500 Kilometres and 10 countries in four months.   I kept a detailed journal and, on my return used it as a basis for my book “How Do You Eat An Elephant?” I chose that title because it pretty well sums up how I approached the ride, the answer being “one bite at a time.”  In my case, I just had to get to a campsite at the end of each day. This certainly helped me succeed and made the trip less daunting. When I present my workshops on thetheme of  “Finish The Race Attitude”, I encourage participants to do just that, when embarking on a new project.

The workshop title is “Unlock Your Potential: Set Goals and Achieve Results you Never Thought Possible.” Key areas include Goal Setting, Goal Execution and Goal Completion. We discuss what resources they will need to achieve their Goals including tools, time and funds available.  We discuss the need as to how they are going to manage their project. This is when the doubt can creep in. For those who have not tackled a large project before, the task can seem overwhelming.

To ensure that they do not become discouraged, I ask them to look at ways in which the task can be divided up into smaller, mini projects. Working in this way, allows for each area to be thoroughly researched. It encourages creativity by way of looking at various aspects of working and allows for evaluation at each stage.  It is important that deadlines are set for each stage, in order to keep the project on track and stick to a predetermined timeline. When a part of the project has been completed, it gives a sense of achievement and acts as a prompt to embark on the next step. It also provides a sense of accomplishment and, psychologically, it motivates us and gives us less chance of failure.

According to Lauren Marchese's “The Psychology of Checklists: Why Setting Small Goals Motivates Us to Accomplish Bigger Things”, on the Trello Website, January 27th. 2016: “When we experience even small amounts of success, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, learning and motivation. When we feel the effects of dopamine, we’re eager to repeat the actions that resulted in success in the first place. Neuroscientists refer to this as self-directed learning. This is why achieving small goals is such an effective way to stay motivated during long-term projects and processes.”

Of course, this approach may not be right for you and Mike Martell, in his piece “Don’t Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time!” originally published on Dumb Little Man,  argues that :  “The real problem with taking it step by step is that most people lose interest and end up quitting. If they can’t quit at let’s say a job related task they get so sick of it, they find every reason to get the project killed by their boss.”

He suggests that, instead of breaking things down into “bite size” pieces, we should create: “Big chunks that can be taken on at the same time. In the information technology world, you call this parallel instead of serial processes. You have several things running at once, instead of one at a time each after the other. In addition to breaking the item into big parts, you find others to help you with it. This might be outsourcing, it might mean finding partners, paying affiliates, or even bartering your skills for assistance. Getting outside help with these big chunks will make it go much quicker and you will get the results you wanted while you still remember why you wanted them.”

He does add, however: “Now I am not saying that this is for everyone and for every situation. Some people have a very disciplined mindset and a methodical, linear approach works for them. In my experience though, there aren’t that many people like that around.” What I would argue is that, whether you take small bites or large chunks, approaching a project in manageable pieces can be more productive, less daunting and more satisfying. What we all want is to make sure that we achieve our goals and can celebrate our success. In business, as in life, it is important that we see things through.

On thePsychology Today website, in an article “Why we hate not finishing what we start”, posted Mar 31, 2014 Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph. D explains: “According to the "Zeigarnik Effect," you are much more likely to recall uncompleted tasks than one you completed. In a 1927 study Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik asked subjects to complete a set of tasks. During some of the tasks, the subjects were interrupted before they could finish. When asked later about the tasks, they recalled the tasks during which they were interrupted at a much higher rate than those they were able to complete. It turns out that the brain has a powerful need to finish what it starts. When it can't complete something, it gets stuck on it. Intrusive thoughts about what we could not finish may pop into our heads as a way to remind the cognitive system that something still needs to be completed.” 

So whether you are confident enough to tackle a complete task head-on or find that chunking things down in to more manageable pieces, it is worth looking at different ways of achieving your goal.

I’m a great believer in the premise that anything is achievable, if you take the right approach.

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential”. Martin has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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