Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Do You Eat an Elephant?!

In my prior posts, I’ve discussed the entire process of cognitive restructuring, or changing the self-talk that we typically attach to life events to more encouraging, realistic thoughts that will result in feeling more the way we desire. This week, I wanted to discuss a specific cognitive strategy that can be applied to one of the most frequently occurring sources of stress that I hear discussed-----feeling overwhelmed with numerous life demands.

So often I hear people say that they have a million things to do, that they are never caught up at work, that they can’t get to everything that they need to do around the house, or that they feel overwhelmed in juggling all of the life demands coming from home, family, and work. The result of all this is a constant feeling of stress and pressure that can take a significant emotional and physiological toll on a person over the years and negatively impact overall peace and happiness.

The cognitive strategy I wanted to discuss is one of the keys to reducing the feeling of this chronic stress and pressure, and it hinges on the answer to the question I asked in the title of this article, which is-----One bite at a time! Probably most people have heard this saying or some version of it, and while it is a conceptually simple idea, actually doing this takes significant practice and persistence.

We all have our own life obligations coming from work, family, home, relationships etc. that make up our personal elephant to eat, and sometimes all of this can feel insurmountable; but one way that I see many people creating more stress and pressure than is necessary or healthy is by looking at the entire elephant and consequently feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and stressed. And of course looking at the entirety of all that needs to be accomplished often results in difficulty even getting going and accomplishing anything.

I remember a stress management group when a member said that she was too stressed to practice the meditative breathing I was teaching on that day because she was leaving on a trip in 8 days and had “a million things to do before she left“. I said no wonder she felt stressed!!!! That was a lot of things to do in a short time and we should write them all down….maybe she would need to postpone her trip! So we wrote down her list, and she had seven things to get done before she left, 5 of which she was going to be able to do in a total of 2 hours! Sometimes those elephants aren’t as big as we tell ourselves they are, but as I’ve discussed before, when you hear yourself saying repeatedly that you feel overwhelmed or have a million things to do, it will start to feel that way.

In addition to looking at the whole elephant and feeling overwhelmed, many people also have the tendency to carry the weight of the entire elephant around with them most of the time. They may be at work trying to knock some things out there, but they are still thinking about all that they have to do when they get home, or they may be trying to relax at night or get to sleep, but they’re still ruminating on and feeling the weight of all the things they have to do at home and at work the next day. It gets exhausting mentally carrying around all of these life “have tos” all the time.

The more beneficial strategy for someone is to mentally put the elephant of life requirements off to the side somewhere and cut out that first bite that they are going to tackle. They’re only one person-----they can’t be in two places at once or do “a million” things at the same time, so they should take that first manageable bite, keep all awareness on only that bite until it‘s done, and then think about and cut out the next piece to accomplish.

The cognitive challenge is to get good at catching when you mentally start to ruminate, stew, churn, or carry around the many life things that are piled up. When you notice this happening, remind yourself that you already have the one bite that you are working on, and mentally put everything else off to the side again until you are ready to begin the next piece.

The same concept applies if you are trying to do something fun that doesn’t involve taking any bites out of the elephant for a little while---- remind yourself that it’s okay to take those moments to enjoy your show, play with the kids, mess around on the computer, or whatever you’re trying to do to rejuvenate and reenergize. Don’t let your mind go back to rehearsing all the things that you need to accomplish. With persistence, you can get good at carrying around only the manageable thing that you can do at that moment, letting everything else go, and greatly reducing your overall stress and pressure.


  1. Thanks! You are awesome! I needed to hear that today ;)

  2. I'm happy it came at the right time Wendy! Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Great article. This is one of my favorite teachable questions when working with our team on huge projects. It is awesome to see the light go on when they get it "Oh, I get it one bite at a time.!!!" Larry Zore