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Eating the Elephant

by Jason Horejs on 04/08/2013 · 33 comments

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 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of 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.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul April 2, 2013 at 9:40 am

I’ve been in the framing and art installation business for 38 years. I’ve been with many families that will refer me to the next generations as their families grow. That tells me I have done something right and earned their trust. Personal service is paramount in the art industry and to be trusted with someones precious or valuable artwork is extremely gratifying.

If it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t really know why someone is in your store or gallery until you have worked with them several times. You must remember their tastes and personality and carefully and courteously work your magic with their artwork so they feel they had a large part of putting the design together.

If they came in for an art purchase, framed or not, as a business man I would of course want to make the sale and have a healthy bottom line. But again, I’ve learned that when it comes to something that will be in view 24/7 if the client feels they made a mistake, you will most likely not see them in your gallery again and they will for sure tell their friends and family. Because I took on this philosophy in the beginning, I have very few regrets and still have customers that started with me 38 years ago.

Some will dispute the idealism of this philosophy and always put the bottom line first. Especially if their overhead is huge as in many prominent cities. I was fortunate to have kept the overhead under control and for the past 18 years have had my frame shop in a building on my own property and do my frame design and art consulting mobily. I think wealth is defined by many things and what you had to do to obtain it. In this respect I feel I am extremely wealthy.

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Betty April 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm

I find this advice to be quite useful and motivating. Lately, I started using todoist on my iPhone to break up tasks per project and I’ve found that it helps me tremendously to see and have my tasks be categorized and listed out. I’ve been breaking down my tasks and checking them off as they get done and feeling very empowered! Thank you for your advice as its been helping me structure and organize my artist life and has increased my productivity.

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Arlene Schneller April 8, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I usually dive into the deep end without knowing how to swim but I love getting immersed in any new projects like that.
It feels good and I love a challenge. If I find myself getting tired (treading water) I phone a friend who I know will listen. When I’m done with a conversation updating them on “what’s going on” in my life, I always feel more energized and focused and I get back into the deep end feeling like I have floatation devices on my arms : ) The other thing I do, if my friends are tired of listening to my crazy ideas, I write them all in my journal. It’s like talking to an old friend. When I read it over again, it give me direction and focus again. My journal has saved me many times. Now I’m doing them in art journals, way more fun and colorful, like my life.

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Nubia Gala April 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Thank you Jason for your inspiring article. I plan to follow you advice…one bite at a time to organize my paper work.

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Rita Cirillo April 9, 2013 at 6:53 am

Good article. I am drowning in a sea of procrastination right now. I have more projects undone than I have life left in me. So I appreciate the suggestion to do a little every day on each thing, until I get something (anything) finished. I’ll let you know how it goes….

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Ellen Walton April 9, 2013 at 2:20 pm

My mind never seems to stop running with countless ideas. I have a list of things to do and will divide tasks into categories, sub categories and then into steps. Also somewhat rank them with deadlines if they are important to the project. I then allot time to the very top projects — instead of reading 10 pages or putting in 10 objects, I would spend 15 minutes. Time segments and deadlines work better for me. Often I set a stopwatch and can’t stop until the time is up. Everyone has to find what works best for motivation for them. But definitely breaking the task down does work. Being able to check things off shows and encourages me that I can do much if I stick with it.

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Catie Barron April 9, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Jason; I recall from a previous workshop your advice regarding the importance of a schedule. I have taken that to heart, creating time to workout, time to create, time for field trips to inspire, and time for resting with family. I believe this lesson, indeed, goes hand in hand with that one…if you make the time for something and plan accordingly, it will allow you to experience more and not get caught up in the enormity of all that needs to be done. Thank you for sharing this story!

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Lori Woodward April 10, 2013 at 6:25 am

Jason, you’ve peered into a day in my life. Thanks.. I’ll try this out on sorting through studio junk, writing that ebook I’ve been meaning to finish, and getting my paintings completed and ready to show.

Our lives are so complex these days. All the ‘conveniences’ make us think we can do a lot more stuff.

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Sue Martin April 10, 2013 at 7:25 am

I, too, break things into chunks, but I relate those chunks to time on my calendar. For me, lists are depressing rather than motivating because my lists are too long for the time available. At the end of the day, when I haven’t gotten very far down the list, I’m discouraged. But if I estimate the time tasks will take and put them on my calendar and then work my calendar, I get most everything done. Sometimes I have to adjust my calendar if something important demands my attention, or if I miscalculate the amount of time something will take. This realistic approach to time/task management also helps me get better at estimating how much time something will take. My biggest challenge is forcing myself to calendar “office cleaning.” It’s like your garage bin, and I am inspired by your solution!

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nancy ness April 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Your advice is sound. Now, would you mind telling my husband how to do big projects?
I would just add that it’s much better when the giant elephant is something you want to accomplish. My problem is always taking on too much and expecting it to get done too fast. Breaking a big project into doable chunks is the way to go but knowing when to stop and think through a piece is on the other end of the seesaw.

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Sharon Sieben April 10, 2013 at 2:06 pm

You are SO RIGHT!!! I am blessed to have learned that lesson and can vouch for it’s value. I also have another habit that works for me. If I have something I MUST complete that day, I try to do it last. That way everything gets done.

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Xochi Madera April 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Thank you Jason . . . .

Very timely and helpful, as always!

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michael stern April 10, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I break my tasks into times of the day and days of the week…Mondays are admin days…Tuesdays and Thursdays are marketing days. Friday I wrap up the week. That leaves Wednesdays as a catch-all for all the other stuff that needs to be done.

Of course if a shoot comes up or a client need, then I’m all over it but generally my system prevents me from stressing out too much.

Hah!

Good topic Jason.

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Drina Fried April 10, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Been using a different version of your principle, Jason: Nobody wants to stuff a big greasy salami down their throat, yet if I slice it thinly and take a few slices each time, it tastes quite delicious.

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pam brekas April 10, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Thanks for the good reminder. I try and follow what I call the rule of 20. When I want to clean up my studio, I put 20 things away then I go do something else.
When I want to do more, I put 20 more things away. It’s not so daunting when it is just a little chunks.

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J. Sheen April 10, 2013 at 9:36 pm

When I retired I thought I would have more time to do jobs and finish items on my “to- do” list. Since I have always been a person with a list, I had a start. But I soon discovered that I could easily say to myself I had tomorrow to do it. This was NEVER the case when I worked – back then I was ORGANIZED! However, I got some great advice. I was to check my to -do list every morning and HAD TO DO three items on the list (order on the original list and size of the job didn’t matter). What mattered was COMPLETING THREE. No guilt attached … I learned to do the three depending on my time available and plans for later in the day and be satisfied. Now I would paint with no feeling that I really should have been doing something on the list. It has been a great remover of guilt!

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Russ Wagner April 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Thank you Jason, just what I needed to hear, my storage unit awaits me. I used something similar for my production:

I have a one year goal calendar for making paintings. I used Excel to print out each week with boxes for how many paintings I want to complete. It’s hanging on my wall where I see it everyday. My unit size is 11×14 and counts as one. A 24×36 counts as six, etc. I draw X’s through each box for how many paintings completed each week.

When I look and see all those X’s it feels good. When I see big gaps in my weeks it motivates me to watch my time and keep going.

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Elouise Roos April 10, 2013 at 10:40 pm

This is very good advice. My approach might be a little different although I think it comes down to the same thing.
Always being busy with a few different kinds of things/projects at once, I plan my doings according to the circumstances. For instance, in case of a power failure I’ll carry on with something that doesn’t need power tools. Waiting for glue or varnish to dry on one project? Carry on with another. I found that switching between different projects gives you a new view on each project every time you return to it. Providing answers to problems and resulting in progress.

Living alone has it’s advantages for me. I sleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry or lunchtime happens to fall in the same time I need to think about the next how to, or halt a project when it’s too dark to see fine work.

I do have a few rules though that I will not brake:
1. I will not weld after dark,
2. I will not work with power tools if I can’t see properly,
3. I will not touch power tools when I’m tired.

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Christina Rahm April 10, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Thanks Jason,

It is a very helpful tip to follow to avoid getting stuck in overwhelm mode.

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Nancy Darling April 11, 2013 at 3:59 am

Hi Jason,
Yes, this method has been discussed many times before but each time I read about it or hear about it (at a seminar I just attended) there is always a new tidbit or a new aha! to ponder. Your examples are very helpful and I have several overwhelming projects too.
Thank you for the inspiration
Nancy Darling

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Tom Neel April 11, 2013 at 4:49 am

Jason, while my wife an I are both experienced artists and gallery owners (Live An Artful Life.com), keeping continually smart has you absorbing the experiences of others and thank you for yours! I must admit, I learned a version of your story many years ago when I worked in racing and would have to drive long distances. Instead of looking at my final long distance destination as being 1000 miles away. Thus, exhausting myself before I even left. I would mentally break the trip down into several smaller trips, even though the whole trip might be done none stop. During this time an average coast to coast trip – one way, was a little more than 50 hours with two drivers, but mentally it was several smaller ones between cities or states.
Some of your artist base may be doing this or could use it going to shows. The point is, it works over a broad range of tasks and thank you for reminding us all. I also think it allows you appreciate the journey of life more. No one needs to race to the end of that!!

Best, Tom

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Rani Garner April 11, 2013 at 5:26 am

I have a Big Elephant sitting in my studio right now: at 48×60 oil painting due next month for a show. Rather than thinking about how big it is, I think, “Today I will paint the sky” or “the roof of the house.” Sometimes in the real world your days are broken up and it’s easy to tell yourself you don’t have time to paint, but it’s amazing what you can do with even one hour. I loved your trash pile story, Jason!

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Diana Trout April 11, 2013 at 6:25 am

This advice comes at the perfect time for me in terms of my artwork. I thank you for the reminder.

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Charmaine Harris April 11, 2013 at 6:34 am

Jason,
I agree with your strategy, but I use time as my measure…One thing that is important to me is to step back and say “Wow, look how much I have accomplished today”and not, “Oh my gosh, look how much I still have to do.” It’s my reward to remain positive and focused.

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Suzanne Massion April 11, 2013 at 7:10 am

Jason, your “Eating the Elephant” approach makes wonderful sense to me, because I’m a list maker. Do I dare confess it? Even when it comes to starting and finishing a painting, there’s a list in my mind. Compose it, start it, cover that dreaded white canvas, fix the awkward tree, fix that highlight. I’m not referring to the creative process or imagination; that’s always going on. However, I actually do make lists and cross off things as I accomplish them. it always gives me a rush to cross off things when done. Fixed that troublesome area in the new painting, cross it off. Weird? maybe, but we artists are all individuals, and quirky too. Seems to me this is like your “Eating the Elephant”. Thanks, I feel vindicated.

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Dorothy Thibodeau April 11, 2013 at 10:05 am

Thank-you Jason,
I have that elephant in my house right now and I am going to tackle it just like you said . Thanks for sharing. Dorothy

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Tom Trindle April 11, 2013 at 11:24 am

Dear Jason: First off I want to say thank you for all of your emails and artist information. Your advice and enthusiasm have helped my art career a great deal. About this elephant thing. For years I earned my living as a custom house builder. Back then when I lost the ability to break the “big job” down into simple one or two day tasks, the craziness would indeed take over. Panic, fear, immobilization, a real anxiety attack. Of course the solution is in not trying to solve all the problems at once. This is a massive lesson, one we are all reminded of often. One more thing that comes to mind. Often when I am stuck like this, I find myself believing I need something that I don’t have. This is a convenient way to not do the work. All artists know this trick of the mind. As artists and people we must remember that at any moment we always have exactly what we need. Thank You once again Tom Trindle

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Sharon Otstot April 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

I’ve always done that, and have eaten many elephants. What I want to give you is the way my boss approaches his work. He is an attorney who is ODC and ADHD. He goes through and makes decisions on one inch of papers a day. At the end of a month he has dealt with 30 inches of paper. That’s a lot! And I commend him on it. An attorney’s office is a welter of paper, so the end is never in site. Keep up the blogs and the webinars.

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Tina Mammoser April 13, 2013 at 2:47 am

I have a similar “5 things a day” policy. I either tidy up 5 things, throw away 5 things, or bag up 5 things to take to the charity shop. (trying to downsize!) And in January I made the pact with myself to read one art book and one non-art non-fiction book a month. Yes, it may be more sometimes but I realised how much I was missing the research side of my reading when things are busy. I’ve recently finished a degree so know I can get in that reading time that used to be for course work. :) I love your little Excel list! I may need to make my own.

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Mary Ann Celinder April 14, 2013 at 8:38 am

This strategy definitely works. I had a job I was trying to work in between some larger commissions. The large job were finally done giving me time to work at it full bore, but I found myself having trouble getting into it knowing the client was out of town and wouldn’t be ready to receive. Decided to give it 2 hours a day (other work was coming in and starting to fill the rest of the days). What do ya know, it was done in a week. Client came home early, installation tomorrow!

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Andrea D. La Vigne April 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I was commissioned a few months ago to do a painting of the Grand Canyon, 24×36″. This is probably the most ambitious painting I’ve done to date, never having done something this detailed AND large at the same time. I’m finally in sight of the finish line (thank heavens!), & even though I’m at a point where I almost don’t care if I ever paint again (not quite, though, honestly), I did exactly what you suggested. I basically did this painting 2 hours or so at a time. Many, many “2 hours,” granted, but I never even considered doing much larger chunks of time in a day. I imagine I’d have been even more burned out much sooner if I had tried to paint it faster! But thanks for the re-affirmation that this is a valid way of working.

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Mary Cover April 27, 2013 at 10:46 am

Your mail always inspires me. Thank uou

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