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Eating an Elephant (advice to a young engineer)

February 3, 2010

In a past work life, I headed the engineering department for a major U.S. food producer.  One day, a new engineer was having a hard time managing his work and emailed me to ask how I was able to manage so broad a range of projects.  Here is my response:

Have you ever heard the saying “how do you eat an elephant?”  There is great wisdom in this axiom.  If we remember it as life goes on, it will help us gain focus on the things we have to get done throughout our day.

Think of it like this, if we constantly jump from one problem to the next, problems are never fixed, much less fixing the underlying causes for them.  On the other hand, if we have two or three tasks in mind and work them until they are resolved, things get done.  No matter what you face, there is only so much you can accomplish at one time.  Of course, you will still have to run put out a fire now and then but that should be the exception.  Most problems are not as urgent as people would have us believe.  Give the issue the attention it needs and understand it, and then place the right priority on it.  If someone comes to you with an issue of their own creation, why should their lack of planning create for you a problem?

Another way to look at it, problems are distractions; they keep us from accomplishing work.  Always take time to understand the interruption and put it in its proper place.  Always address the most important things first.  The problem may or may not be the task you should be doing now; you make that choice.  Most importantly, if you do detour to address an issue, return to your line-up of work as soon as possible.  It is a sound engineering principle to make a plan and follow it.  In construction, an architect lays out a plan for the construction crew to follow.  Frequent meetings take place to adjust the workflow and deal with problems.  In the end, they follow a plan and work is completed.  After all, they have an elephant to eat.

This same approach works with any complex issue.  Others will not be happy with the choices you make, especially when you place their particular problem at a lower priority than they feel it warrants.  That is too bad for them, someone has to steer the boat and that requires making decisions.  By keeping the work (your elephant) before you and always knowing what comes next, you accomplish more than by trying to do everything at one time.  Sooner than later, you will see real progress as each task is completed.  You will come to understand there are damn few problems, only tasks of relative priority.

So, how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

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