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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

How to Eat Elephants and Birds

The modern world in which we live seems to perpetuate the "glorification of busy." The hurried pace of our busy lives can wear us out both mentally and physically if we are not careful. It doesn't help matters that we are constantly bombarded in various mediums by self-help "experts" who guilt and shame us on "how to do more" and "how to be more" with their insidious life hacks. We often seem uncomfortable with down time. Our mindset is if we aren't being productive, we are merely wasting our time. When we stop and think about this, we see just how ridiculous this is. However, we all fall victim to it, nonetheless.

We can try and cut down some of the things in our lives, but the plain truth is that we always seem to have a lot of commitments and responsibilities: from family time to work commitments to health and exercise to church or temple to social life, etc., etc. Each one of these domains brings its own set of multiple demands from us in terms of effort, attention, and time. It never ends. How do we balance it all?

Most of us believe that we are good at multitasking, despite the fact that science shows us as a species we are not good at juggling multiple tasks at one time. When we have too many plates in the air spinning, we end up dropping most of them. In other words, we are more successful at accomplishing tasks in a quality manner if we prioritize them in order of importance (or time sensitivity) and knock them out one at a time. This insures that each task gets the sole focus it deserves and our best effort, instead of doing a mediocre job on six things at one time, because our attention is scatted.

One of the most impressive individuals I have ever worked with is Sable Otey. Sable, a member of the Team USA Bobsled Team, lives in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Sable impressed me on many fronts, most notably, I was amazed at how she managed to do everything in her life when she was training for the Olympics. It would be an insult to simply say she was "busy." Just looking at her schedule made me tired: she is a mother and a wife, at the time a full-time physical education teacher, and she was training around the clock and jetting off often around the world as a Team USA Bobsled member. When I asked her about life/work balance and how she did all of this so well, she said, "Advice that I would give for parents that have a lot on their plates: there will never be a such thing as “balance."  All you can do is prioritize.  Write your list down, and begin to check it off your list.  All you can do is what you can do.  Be sure that your activity contributes to you mission."

The children in our lives learn a lot by observing our actions. Whether we are parents, teachers, coaches, or youth workers, one of the most impactful lessons we can impart to the children in our care is the way in which we balance the responsibilities in our lives. By observing the ways in which we do this, they can either learn that the tasks in their lives are typically manageable when knocked out one at a time, or they can run around haplessly trying to do a dozen things at one time.

Trying to do a dozen things at one time breeds mediocrity at best. Often when I work with student-athletes, they are overwhelmed with all that they have on their plates. This is understandable, as they are essentially full-time college students and full-time athletes, and most of the time they carry the burden of having huge expectations for everything they do. One of the ways I remind them to focus on doing one thing at a time is to remind them how to "eat an elephant." This comes from the old saying: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

If we let our worries get the best of us, we start ruminating about all we have to do, and we often end up doing nothing but worrying. We end up not being able to see the forest for the trees. Having the "elephant one bite at a time" mindset can remind us to slow down, breathe, focus, and knock out the items on our list one by one. Esteemed writer Anne Lamott uses a similar phrase, which is also the title of one of her books, Bird by Bird, to express this sentiment. The origin of "bird by bird" comes from a childhood experience when her ten year-old brother was working on a school report on birds. Even though he'd had three months to write the report, he was nowhere near completion, because he had procrastinated. The poor kid was panic stricken, as it was due the next day. He sat at the kitchen table, almost in tears, immobilized by fear of the huge task ahead. Seeing this, their father sat down next to him, put his arm around him and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

We need to keep in my mind that the part of our brain responsible for executive functioning skills, the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed until around age twenty-five. So it is typical to see children struggling with organizing, completing tasks, and balancing responsibilities. Some children struggle more than others with these things. Patience is important, because it's not always their fault if they seem lazy or forgetful. Science tells us that we can blame it on their developing brains.

As adults, there are several things we can do to help their growth in these areas. In addition to modeling for kids how to focus on one thing at a time, we can also help teach them the skills that will help them with prioritizing studies, projects, and activities. I suggest teaching your child how to use a planner. While most kids will want to use an electronic planner, I highly recommend using an old-fashioned paper one for a couple of reasons. Research shows that children remember things better if they write it out as opposed to typing it. Furthermore, children with attention deficit challenges seem to fare better with paper planners, as they offer less distractions.

When working with children to set up their planners, we should have them list their subjects day by day, and then next to each one put the estimated amount of time that it will take to complete each assignment. Once they have the planner filled in, they can start working with either the assignment that will take the most amount of time, or they can start with their least favorite subject. This will give them something to look forward to, instead of saving the "worst for last" and dreading it the whole time. Have them cross out assignments as soon as they are completed. This will give them a sense of accomplishment. Teach them how to estimate and chunk time for long term projects, too. After some time has passed and they start to get the hang of it, you may want to teach them how to prioritize and estimate time for their social events and extracurricular activities as well.

This will always be a work in progress. Don't ever expect perfection. It is difficult for us as adults sometimes to balance our lives, much less kids. If all else fails, remind them how to deal with the elephants and birds when they get frustrated.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:


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