Agenda Item 3: Save the World

Giant-Size Bites

Denny was always choking himself at our school lunch table. You’ve heard of biting off more than you can chew? Not Denny. I never saw him chew.

He’d bite off more than he could swallow. At least twice a day he’d shovel in too much and we’d see him stop, his eyes watering, while he strained to get it all down. In the four years I knew him, Denny never learned to take smaller bites.

The ironic thing? We used to laugh at Denny, and yet, for years I did exactly the same thing with my daily schedules.

A typical To-Do list might look like:


1. Write my new book
2. Submit it to 10 publishers
3. Promote the book on radio stations
4. Outline my next book

I’m exaggerating here, but not by much.

At the end of the day, I’d look at my list, with nothing checked off, and get discouraged. It takes forever to check anything off a list like that.

My problem? I was greedy and didn’t want to settle for little bites.

Like Denny, what I really needed to do was cut things up into smaller, bite-size chunks and then tackle them one at a time.

To-Do lists serve two purposes. First, of course, they help you organize your activities and get things done in a logical sequence. But the second purpose is to supply positive feedback. We need to know that we’re making forward progress, and how much.

Part of motivating yourself is supplying that positive feedback to yourself. And if you use lists with over-size chunks, it can take days or weeks to get one item done.

That makes it hard to keep the feeling of momentum, so it’s naturally hard to stay motivated.

The main problem is, I can be impatient to get started. I like doing things more than I like planning them.

So I’d often be tempted to cut short my morning planning time. I’d throw all sorts of things into my list, assuring myself, that, well, I know I won’t get all the way down the list today, so I can carry some items over till tomorrow.

That’s when I would write in these huge jobs. I did that because I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to think it through and break them down into the individual steps.

I wasn’t cutting the chunks into small, manageable bites.

I guess everybody has heard the old riddle: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. It may be a joke, but there’s a lot of wisdom underneath the laughter.

The job of a To-Do list is to feed you bites, not elephants.

If your To-Do list usually has you scheduled to move boulders and mountains instead of pebbles and rocks, you probably need to cut up those tasks into smaller pieces. Some people refer to this as “chunking down.”

So if there are days when you have trouble finishing your To-Do list, take a closer look at the items you’ve written there. How big are they?

Can you really write that eBook today? Or design and write an entire website?

Try taking more time to think your tasks through. By cutting that elephant into bites, it’s a lot easier to get the job done. And it forces us to do something that may be very unfamiliar — thinking.

When you find yourself impatient to just go ahead and get started and to heck with the details, you’re setting yourself up for extreme frustration.

That’s the way you cheat your project (and yourself) of the analytical thought needed for logical continuity.

And don’t try to kid yourself that you’re a “natural manager” who handles details intuitively, on the fly. That’s just rationalization.

Even natural managers choke when they try, like my friend Denny, to swallow elephants.