Eating the Elephant

I begin this post with a disclaimer: the subject matter of this post is a long way from original. Getting things done is a well-covered topic, and a quick web search of my title will show you that many others have covered the topic in a very similar way. That said, I think the topic is important, and through recent emails, and conversations with artists, I know the issue is pertinent to my audience. This post is my take on how to approach certain projects and tasks.

I recently finished a large project at the gallery, or at least got it far enough along that I felt I was definitively moving from one phase to another. Looking back over the work involved in the project, I realized this might have been one of the largest projects I had ever undertaken. Without getting too far into the nature of the project itself (that will be the material of future posts) I realized that I had learned some real lessons along the way about discipline and perseverance.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned, however, was the importance of breaking big jobs into manageable tasks, and it’s this lesson that I want to discuss today.

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. I had created a workshop for artists on how to approach galleries and build successful relationships with them, and I knew from feedback to the workshop, that this was material that needed to be distilled into a book so that it could be disseminated to a wider audience.

In a lot of ways, the book would be very easy to write, I thought. I had already created a very detailed outline when putting together the workshop, and in giving the workshop had refined a lot of the narrative that would accompany the main points of the book. Really, all I had to do was sit down and start typing.

For some reason, this was easier said than done. I started writing, but the progress was far slower than I had anticipated. I would find some time to write in my crazy schedule, and sit down and start writing, and while I was writing the words seemed to flow pretty easily. But then, I would be called away to deal with some other issue, or get into another project, and the next thing I knew, several weeks had passed without my having written a word.

It was clear, at this rate, the book was going to take years to write. This might have, indeed, been the case, were it not for a serendipitous conversation with a cousin.

I was giving a workshop in Nashville, TN, where this cousin lives, and was able to spend some time with him and his family while there. At breakfast, we started talking about my book (he had written a novel several years earlier) and he gave me an incredibly powerful suggestion.

My cousin told me that he had read a nonfiction book by Stephen King on the craft of writing, and that what had stood out to him was King’s suggestion that, when writing, the author shouldn’t worry about writing a book, which could be a daunting task, but should instead make a commitment to write 1500 words a day – a manageable undertaking. Ironically, I’ve still never actually read King’s book myself (for all I know I’ve completely misunderstood King’s direction) but just that suggestion was enough to get me launched.

On the flight home that day, I wrote a little over 1500 words and committed I would do the same every day until the book was completed. I wasn’t perfect – I missed a few days (which I tried to make up) – but about 4 weeks later I had a first-draft of the book completed. 4 weeks!

I’ve since written a second book using the same technique, and I apply this principle to almost everything I do, large or small, important or not.

Breaking things up works especially well for those pesky jobs that aren’t really critical, but you wish you could get done – like cleaning out your studio, for example.

Several years ago, we cleaned out our storage area at the gallery. The cleaning and organizing resulted in a huge pile of refuse. There was too much trash to place in our garbage bin; we would have filled it many times over. It also would have taken multiple trips to the dump to eliminate the pile, and somehow I couldn’t find the time or willpower to make the long drive to the municipal collection center. Looking at the pile, I would throw my hands up in the air and despair of ever getting rid of it.

Finally, I decided I would attack it a bit at a time. Every day I would move ten items from our pile to the trash bin out back. When I arrived at work, the first thing I would do is grab ten items and move them to the trash. This wouldn’t take more than a few minutes – it was easy!

A few weeks later the pile was gone.

Book Reading Calendar

I even apply this to reading books. I’m an avid reader, but I have a crazy schedule between running the gallery, giving workshops, writing for the blog and chasing 4 active kids around with my wife. If I only read when I can find time, I never read. So instead I read a book 10 pages/day (usually I have two going at a time for a total of 20 pages a day). I print out a little calendar that I create in Excel that keeps me on track. 20 pages a day is doable, but at the end of the year I’ve read 7300 pages.

Some projects aren’t as easily broken down. If you’ve decided you want to put together a marketing campaign, for example, it’s not as if you can break that kind of project into bits. Instead, make a time commitment. Thirty minutes or an hour alone might not get you far, but multiply that by five days a week, four weeks a month, and after a month you’ve put significant time to the project.
I’m not perfect at this. There are still times when I fall behind or procrastinate and end up pulling all-nighters to get ready for an important event or engagement, but I have found that any project worth committing to is also worth planning. Breaking it up into day-size pieces almost guarantees I’ll get it done.

Do you have a project looming on the horizon? Try using this strategy and see how eating the elephant one bite at a time makes the project infinitely more doable.

What strategies do you use to get your big projects done? Do you have experience using this strategy? What would you tell someone who is using it for the first time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

34 Comments

  1. Thank you Jason. A great reminder.
    My husband in sales has a saying.. ” how do you eat the elephant? ( not literally
    Of course.. ) ONE bite at a time. This calms my spirit. And yet, I love that you apply to even reading. I’m an avid reader and guilty all the time as I view them calling. Goals, so many to accomplish
    And my sons and family too. Thank you
    Once again for your earned insight.

  2. These strategies are appropriate not only for artists, but every professional with a to-do list or project looming.
    I also intend to share them with my teenage kids, who can never seem to find time (or inspiration) to get the things done that are required of them.

  3. I use a timer, especially for tackling the pile of papers on my desk or for cleaning my studio. It becomes a bit of a competition with myself to see how much I can accomplish in 15 to 30 minutes.

    1. I do this too….especially if the job is one I really don’t like. Somehow facing 15 minutes is enough to get me going and then sometimes the result is so satisfying I find myself finishing the task.

  4. I always enjoy what I read on your Blog, Jason, as well as others’ responses.
    What I have learned as an artist is that it does not necessarily pose too many concrete deadlines. Generally speaking, I know there are some when a show is involved, etc. 🙂
    So before I break down a task or goal, I first take a Sharpie to an actual paper calendar and give myself a deadline. Then I can break it down into ‘forest through the trees’ concept. True, sometimes that date will come and go, but I feel more accountable.
    Thanks again for taking your time, and everyone else, in sharing your experiences. So valuable!
    Meredith Lewis
    http://Www.MeredithAnnLewis.com

  5. Stephen King tossed the start of Carrie and his wife picked it out of the trash the next morning and wanted to know how it ended. They were still in a trailer at that point. There is a little book called ‘Daily Rituals”How Artists Work’ by Mason Curry which has a few details on how a variety of artists approached ‘eating the elephant’, including many with the ‘words a day’ ritual. They are short, a paragraph or a page and a half, a few minutes a day for me, so far I have read one a day and invariably stop and go to get my reading glasses, part of my daily ritual I guess.

  6. I have a good friend who has a technique she calls “serial panic” which she shared with me years ago. She makes a list prioritizing everything that has to be done and then proceeds down the list “panicking” over one item on the list at a time. I use the same process when getting ready for an exhibition. It helps to have a check-off list with dates.

  7. This is a great reminder. I’ve had a lot of trouble finishing books recently, and I think the 10 pages a day idea will really help. Also, my studio needs another cleanup and this idea of bite-sized tasks may help me get what seems daunting done.

  8. This was such a empowering article Jason. Thank you for passing along such a great idea, certainly sounds more ‘doable’ tackling projects and chores in this manner. Starting right now, I’m going to put this into effect! Thanks again~

  9. Excellent advice Jason, thank you for sharing. Many years ago I was faced with taking comprehensive exams to complete my masters degree and the thought of trying to prepare in only four months literally froze me into inaction. Fortunately, I had a therapist who suggested that I figure out the longest amount of time I could study (which in my case was 45 min) and then reward myself with something for 15 min , then sit down again. The reward could be anything, a cup of coffee, a snack, a walk around the yard, as long as I adhered to that schedule. It was amazing how working that way lessened my anxiety level and helped me to be more productive. I still use that technique whenever I am faced with an unpleasant but necessary task.

  10. Really enjoyed this useful reminder to take it one step at a time, but keep moving (actually timely for so many reasons). Will also be rereading my Steven King’s copy again!

  11. One of my favorite sayings that really works is “Preparation and planning prevents a piss poor performance”

  12. Thanks, Jason. I think of this as “Divide and conquer,” although I do love the imagery of the elephant! If I have a deadline, I often start planning from the deadline backwards, filling in the time periods I know (“This part will take two weeks”), then the picture starts to take shape. I also keep a running to do list electronically so I can move things around – something is always cropping up. There actually is a fine book called “Getting Things Done.” It forever changed some of my activities for the better. My favorite is author David Smith’s contention to write everything down. He said, “The only reason to think about something more than once is because you LIKE thinking about it.” I find the more I write down, the more fascinating and important things pop into my head. I’m much less anxious if I’m able to get a task out of my head and onto a list. As for building by doing a little at a time, sculptor Kevin Caron, for whom I work, started uploading one video to YouTube a week in 2006. Now he has more than 400 videos!

  13. Somehow in my travels I came across some advice that really works for me re: time management and the guilt associated with things piling up. The advice was to only commit to doing 5 things per days, other than one’s main job. But the 5 things must cover 5 categories of one’s life. The 5 categories could be 5 of such things like: Health, Hobby, Pets, Significant Other, Housework. But they could be 5 other things for someone else. So each day I try to do at least one thing for my personal Health (working out?), one thing for my Hobby (plan that new painting?), care of my Pets ( some extra special play time or special grooming requirement?), care of my Husband (even just bringing him a cup of cold lemonade when he is outside working?), care of Home (emptying the dishwasher? vacuuming just one room? cleaning one bathroom?).
    Over time these things (even when they are of very short duration) really add up and I like the fact that this practice covers a range of responsibilities. This really works for me!
    Another advice I heard one time about decluttering when you have no time is to find 7 things to throw out/donate/recycle from your house each day. Even if it is just reading and tossing out 7 pieces of mail from the Inbox!!! Again a habit done every single day really makes a big difference over time.

    1. this has also worked for me Catherine but with a little flexibility. The night before I work out two things I must accomplish the next day before I am free to paint,write etc. Then I add in three or more others I’d like to get done.
      I also throw away two things every day and never clean the whole house, only ever one room. Sometimes that leads to cleaning more.

  14. I’ve got a project that I’ve wanted to begin for a couple of years but never did. I’d like to self-publish travel books with my own illustrations. It’ll mostly be paintings with info about geology and history of the area. I’m starting with Acadia National Park walks.

    Now I’ll begging to break it into “bite sized” steps.

  15. I find keeping a hand-noted calendar right in front of me on my desk, in addition to a weekly to-do list, motivates me to complete the most important projects to which I have committed. I also post stuff on the computer, but somehow that doesn’t seem as permanent or imposing as the physical calendar. The trick is to schedule the mundane tasks of life around the important creative efforts scheduled. Those written deadlines help me a lot.

    Thanks for your excellent observations. They are a real motivation.

  16. In 2014 I became a little detached from my personal art practice. I paint backgrounds for a day job and could stay on track with that, but getting to paint for me was hard. I came across another artists project on having committed to creating a piece of work everyday for a year, that had a time frame of roughly an hour. As there were other things happening in our house with an illness, I thought surely I could commit just one hour to myself. I also completely changed mediums, thus releasing myself from the previous measures of a finished piece having to be perfect. Not only did I complete my years task but I have continued to this day. There are days when I can’t go to complete the task but most days I do and because I changed mediums, I am able to complete the task no matter where I am or what circumstances I find myself in. I have gone from being a painter to an ephemeral artist who photographs the works I create. I only use what I find in the moment on the ground when I go for a walk and then I leave it behind for others to experience. I have done it in my local area mostly but also outback Australia, Shanghai, even San Francisco. It has given me great joy and a peaceful mind and I will be forever grateful that this way of working arrived in my life. It’s achievable, good for my health and I look at the world in a completely different way………. and best of all – it gets done. http://instagram.com/leoniebarton or http://leoniebarton.com Thank you for your article and insight. I hope this note finds you well.

  17. One step at a time always sorts out panic also it never hurts to ask for help! If you have a huge problem – mine is paperwork – then I find, for that I need help. I have a brilliant daughter who maybe twice a year comes to help. That frees off my mind. Together we do the big things which means I can then put into practice “eating the elephant!”
    Trying to conquer the world single handed can be too daunting so to ask for help can release the mental space needed to forge ahead.
    http://www.annacornsart.co.uk

  18. Well- put, and applicable to anyone in any line of work. I once wrote an article titled “Creative Clues from Stephen King.” It was surprising how much a New England horror writer could inspire this Wyoming “painter of cows.”

  19. Time management and self discipline eventually come to us. It is important to allocate the appropriate amount of time to the job.
    Paperwork; I learned this in the USAF. “Handle every piece of paper once.” Don’t open the mail and leave it on the desk to be moved around constantly. Deal with the task or file it immediately, info only or action needed. Household and business require set times to manage. A must.
    Writing; it is mental with critical uninterrupted time. Rather than counted words I do time. Two hours, early mornings with coffee. A novel will take a year … I spent ten years on a biography with research and travel.
    Housework; advice from a pro cleaning service. “Rather than give a whole day over to cleaning divide your rooms by days. Kitchen, Monday, bath, Tuesday, living room, Wednesday, etc.”
    Painting; hours in front of an easel can be tiring but I stay with it daily until it is finished. I usually work medium to larger canvases with a realistic style … I don’t place a time limit on myself. It will be done when I’m done.
    Reading; … is not a task. I don’t give myself reading assignments. Usually before bedtime because it relaxes the body and helps turn off my mind.
    Goof off time; in the world we live in we all need a certain amount of down time to unwind and regenerate … every minute of every day does not have to be programmed. If you complete your professional and personal obligations take a break.

  20. Great suggestions, everyone! This year I set 4 large overarching goals for the entire year, then broke those goals down into monthly goals. I began with January-March(quarterly), but then further by individual month. Once per week I look at that month’s goals and write down what I am going to do for the week toward those goals. I check them off as I accomplish them(yes I’m a list maker and it’s very satisfying to check things off!) so I can see what I still need to do in the weeks to come. I circle anything not complete by the end of the month and add it to next month’s goals. It works!

  21. One bite at a time is good advice. The only concern I have is that the elephant may rot before I can eat it all.

    I couldn’t resist. LOL 😉

    I will not go hungry in the mean time. I suppose I could invite others over for the feast.

  22. Thanks for your insights. I need to read that King book! When facing a large project for next year – featuring several large paintings – I found myself thinking that I wasn’t making enough “progress” right off the bat – even though I was putting in regular hours. An artist friend reminded me that every minute spent prepping canvases, doing photography and designing my new works – were ALL moving me towards that goal. Art-making is more than putting an image on canvas. It’s researching what images I want to paint and carefully prepping the surfaces for those images as well. It’s a whole package.

  23. EMBARRASSED to say: Who

    Health can be advanced through giving oneself the comfort of relaxing on the throne in the bathroom while reading 5 pages everyday! In two months you can read a full 300 pages book and in one year 6 books. The books you’ve long to read but you never did because you didn’t have time that were just setting for years on your bookshelf. This is a way to improve both physical and mental health. Be sure to put a pair of reading glasses next to the throne so your eyes are cared for also.

  24. It is SO helpful to break big tasks down into parts but some people also need something else to make it happen: accountability.
    There are various ways of creating accountability such as committing publicly to doing something and posting on your blog or social media each time you accomplish a step or having an accountability partner.
    If neither of these appeals, Coach.me is a great platform – smart phone and browser version – where you can set daily goals, check in when you accomplish them and receive support from others on a similar path and give support to them in turn 🙂

  25. Whenever I have a large project (I’m an art quilter), I commit to 5 minutes. I say 5 because it is not much and can be squeezed in any where. I almost never do JUST 5 minutes but it gets me psyched to jump in to my project as well as get me through the tedious parts. Five minutes or more adds up a lot faster than 0.

  26. I apply this way of thinking to my photography as well. Instead of just repeatedly selling the older (reliable) work, I need to keep producing fresh material for my shows and website so my body of work doesn’t get stale. I make a point to shoot daily, at least one photo, and typically it inspires me to shoot more! Thank you for showing me that I can also apply this method to reading as well. I have no problem purchasing the books, but I too often leave the reading of them behind – thinking I don’t have the time. 🙂

  27. It works! My mom explained to me how she breaks down a large task. Even if she has only 5 minutes, she’ll work on it. Pretty soon: Voila! Her project is completed. She also said if she waited until she had time to complete the whole project, she’d never get it finished. I work regularly to do this; sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not. But her, and now your, words ring in my head.

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