I couldn’t open the car door fast enough. From the bag on the back seat, I extricated my red flats, and dropped them on the pavement. As the elastic on first one red sling-back, then the other, slipped below my heels, and each foot nestled into the waiting shoe, my feet sighed their grateful release from an eight hour constriction. I placed my materials box, computer bag and purse in the back seat, and collapsed behind the wheel. I had eaten another elephant.
I’ve been eating elephants all my life, always one bite at a time. Since I first read it decades ago, the adage has become an apt metaphor for the moments when, for whatever reason, I have had to meet deadlines within a specific, usually tight, sometimes well-nigh impossible, time frame. I have managed by taking small bites, one after another. Eating elephants is not something I was born to do. I wonder if anyone is, really. Certainly not me. I cherish leisurely and varied days when I give myself permission to deviate from my agenda and flit from one fancy to the next. If I have achieved any proficiency at eating elephants, it’s that I have had elephant-eating thrust upon me. Sometimes, the elephants present one at a time, over a period of months, just enough to satiate without getting tired of the taste. Often, though, I consume a steady elephant diet, so much that I wonder if any other kind of sustenance exists, and even looking at the plate leaves me nauseous. I am almost there now.
Over the last few weeks, my elephant diet has been relentless, if varied. Early on, I ate quite a bit of ground meat. I poured over comments and questions from the editor and reviewers of my current project, hoping to synthesize them into a coherent direction for revision. At the same time, I ate my way through a rack of ribs, each rib a daunting challenge that could fill me up and dull the taste if I wasn’t careful. I was planning sessions for teachers on student-led conferences and outcomes-based assessment, in both French and English. Each of those ribs demanded creativity and deep thought, a taste experience to be savored rather than devoured. To have any hope of success, I needed to recall and apply some elephant-eating know-how I have gleaned from experience over the years.
1 1. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Live in the now. The now can be one day at a time, for small elephants. When the elephants get big, though, the now becomes a morning, an hour, or even a few minutes.
2 2. Stay away from the forest. Check out the broad spectrum of what you have to do, then concentrate on the trees, one at a time.
3 3. Bribe yourself. After a morsel of work, treat yourself to a diversion. I like to read, take a walk, ride my bike, talk to someone, or watch a video.
4 4. Sleep. You won’t digest the elephant as quickly if you’re tired. Work from the point of view of abundance. Trust that you will meet your deadline in the time you have.
5 5. Vary the menu. An elephant diet might be satisfying over the short term, but it’s not sustainable over the long haul, as a very wise friend once told me when he heard how many I had eaten in a year.
I smiled to myself in the driver’s seat, closed my eyes, and soaked in the heat of the day and the satisfaction that comes with a sense of accomplishment. The other September elephants would travel in the back seat today. No encroaching on the wonder of the moment, no supplanting the dessert. No dispelling, either, the discomfort. Every meal has clean-up. I needed to freeze the soreness in my feet, the ache in my calves, and the fog in my brain, cautions against choosing too many elephants from the menu again too soon.