Eat an Elephant One Bite at a Time

Eating an Elephant – One Bite at a Time

Perhaps you have heard the phrase ‘how do you eat an elephant’. Have you ever heard it, or have you ever said it to someone who is overwhelmed with a problem?

Here is my issue with that particular turn of phrase: the answer.

The answer is: ‘one bite at a time’.

But where exactly do you take the first bite? the leg? the trunk? the ears? How do you know where to start when really all you see is a great big disorganized elephant.

‘One bite at a time’ is a great answer if you are comfortable looking at a disorganized area of your home or office and coming up with a plan to address it, but what if you can’t see past that Really. Large. Elephant. There are a few tips that organizers will use in their own homes as well as when working with clients, so let me pass along some of my favourite tips that will hopefully get you started.

1. Select-a-zone

Pick just one small area and focus on getting it organized. Perhaps this is the surface of a desk, one set of bookshelves, a closet, or a 3 foot square area in the back corner.

Here’s what you need:

  • a box or bin to place all items that belong elsewhere, just one box (no worries if it ends up being a big box!)
  • a box or bin for stuff to throw out
  • an area to use for sorting the stuff that will be going back into the space


  • sort all the items that will go back into the space
  • determine how you would like the now-tidy space to be laid out
  • wipe down any surfaces that have been cleared off
  • put the items in their new homes
  • take the items to be thrown out to the trash

You will need to schedule a different time to address the box of “go elsewhere” stuff.

2. Select-a-type

Focus on one kind of object in the space – the idea is to look for a type of object that doesn’t belong in the space. Try not to pick something where there is so much of it that you will feel overwhelmed part way through.

Here are some ideas of what you could focus on:

  • toys – grab a bin or two and pick up everything that is a toy, then take them to their proper room
  • clothing – pick up all the clothing and take it to where it belongs, whether a closet, drawer or laundry room
  • papers – you may choose to put all paper into one box and sort later, or have a couple of boxes for sorting “keep” and “toss”
  • dishes & food items – put all dishes into a bin to return to the kitchen, throw out food/food wrappers/napkins and put any cans or bottles into recycling
  • trash – pick up everything to be thrown out and put it in a garbage bag, then when you are done close up the bag and take it out

3. Select-a-limit

Grab a timer and set it for an amount of time that lets you get something accomplished without wearing you out – this may be 10 min or 45 min, however I recommend keeping it under an hour at least for the first time. Then, pick up the first thing you see and deal with it, pick up the next thing and deal with it, continuing until your timer goes off. Please note that this method is less structured and will only work if you are able to keep moving through items, perhaps in a room where you have a system that used to work for you, but over time just got overwhelmed.

Here’s a little secret – once you’ve taken the first few bites out of your organizing task you will find you are not so focused on the entire elephant and will have the energy to complete the task you selected.

At least for the first time you try this, it is important that you honor the amount of work you set out to do, regardless of how you are feeling at the end. Check back with yourself after a few hours to see how you feel about the organizing effort – do you feel energized or tired? This will help you with planning the next session.

Most important of all, make sure you celebrate your success!

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