How to Eat an Elephant

2008 | Jul 30 in Systems , Management , Leadership

By E-Myth Business Coach,

There’s an old joke that goes: How do you eat an elephant? Well, one bite at a time of course!

Flickr Photo Credit to exfordy

Maybe you’ve heard that in relation to business ownership too: “having a business is like eating an elephant.” Over the years, I’ve worked with business owners from many different industries, with businesses of all shapes and sizes. There is a common sentiment when we begin working together, and it goes something like this:

There’s just too much! I need to make sure my clients are taken care of. I need to make all the sales calls. I need to talk to the newspaper about the ad. I need to make sure the bills get paid (On time? Don’t make me laugh!). And somehow—in the midst of all that—I have to perform a small miracle to get my employees to show up to work on time and do their jobs. How can I possibly do all that? I don’t have time to sit down and develop all these systems, scripts, forms and standards. It would take me a solid six weeks of work just to get this place organized!

Does that sound familiar? Can you hear some of yourself in that tirade? You’re not alone. Every business owner since the beginning of time has struggled with how to do it. How do they develop their business, when they can barely get it to run in the first place?

I’m sorry, but I have some bad news for you. You can’t. You will probably never find the time to do it all, if you’re focused on how to do it. Why? Because your focus is off. It doesn’t matter how many times you release your arrow of good intentions, you’ll never hit the target if you’re not aiming at it. Oh sure, you may get lucky every now and then, and hit the target out of sheer luck. It happens. But you’ll never achieve consistent, predictable results if you don’t take careful aim each time.

You Can’t Hit a Target if you’re Aiming at the Sky

At the risk of seriously mixing my metaphors, that’s why you can’t eat that elephant: your aim is off. It’s not about how. It’s about what. The problem is not how to eat the elephant. It’s identifying the elephant in the first place. Once you’ve identified the elephant, then you can focus on having a system to prioritize where you’re going to start.

You need a vision of what your business will look like when the elephant has been eaten. Without the vision, nothing you do in your business will make much of a difference. You may make some small changes, and you may even see some good results of those changes. Everyone gets lucky, once in a while. But without the vision, your business will never truly become a great business. You have to stop focusing on the work, and start focusing on the results.

Focus on the Results, Not on the Work

What is your vision of your business? What do you want it to look like?

As the a business owner, your most important job is the development of your vision. That’s it. It’s not taking care of your clients, it’s not making sales calls, it’s not advertising your services, it’s not paying the bills it’s not even managing your employees. Your job, your most important role, is defining what your business will look like when it’s finished, and effectively communicating that with your staff.

This is such an important concept we created a two-day Leadership Intensive seminar to help business owners work on their business vision. It can be a real struggle for some people. But think about it this way: this isn't about how you’re going to produce a widget. It’s not about how you’re going to deliver your widget to your customer. It’s not about how your employees are going to help you make your widgets the best on the market. You need to focus on the what. You need to focus on the vision. What is the widget going to do for your client? What will it look like? What is your promise to your customers? What will your employees feel like, coming to work every day? What will set your widget company apart from every other widget company out there? Focus on the results, not on the work.

Now you might be thinking, “I have a vision for my business, but my employees aren’t helping me achieve it!” Of course not. If your employees aren’t helping you achieve your vision, it’s because you haven’t effectively communicated that vision to them. They can’t help you hit the target if they don’t know where the target is. They can’t help you hit the target if they don’t know what it looks like.

Approach that Elephant Strategically

To determine what bite you need to take first, you need a strategy. With a defined strategy, you can choose where to start. What is your system for prioritizing? Without that system, you’ll get stuck in reactive mode. You’ll develop whatever system seems most important right at that moment. You’ll deal only with your biggest frustration that minute. And while you’re putting together a system to deal with that frustration, five more problems will show up, each seemingly more important, more vital to the survival of your business than the one you’ve started working on. You need a system to prioritize. You have to pick and choose your battles.

At E-Myth, we use the Seven Centers of Management Attention™ business success model. Each Center focuses on a key element in your business. Whether you know it or not, your business does each and every one of these seven things: Leadership, Management, Money, Marketing, Lead Generation, Lead Conversion, and Client Fulfillment. If you take that elephant that is your business, and break it up into those Seven Centers of Management Attention, you’ll start to see how to take smaller bites.

Which Center needs the most attention in your business this week? Focus there. Spend an hour thinking about all the systems you will need for that Center of Management Attention, and write them down. Rate them on a scale of 1-10: which is more important than another? Sort your list by the most important ones, and select just one system to develop right now. Repeat this process regularly, starting each time with the question: “Which Center needs the most attention in my business this week?”

Take small bites out of your elephant. Take the right bites. But most importantly, determine what your elephant will look like when you’ve eaten the whole thing this will help keep you focused on the results, not the work.


  1. .Cherie M. says:

    This is a big help.  I never knew how hard it was to get people to show up for work - let alone get them to embrace your vision...  I am looking forward to applying what I am learning. Thank you.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 11:13 AM

  2. .Dave S. says:

    I have read the book E-Myth revisted once and have listened to it about six times on my I-Pod.  I have a better understanding of what I need to do but it is overwhelming.  This short read will help me organize and work in a more prioritized manner.  I hope to make it to the training in September.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 11:18 AM

  3. .Jonathan L. says:

    For the past 4 years I have been focusing on just creating systems to cover the daily operation of our family business.  I have transfered all daily operation responsibilties (not fustrations), through the use of those system, to our managers.  Now I'm relishing the opportunity to finally focus completely on the vison and future of our business: to cultivate a culture of change (constant improvement), growth, quality of life (including employees).  It can be done, I use to wear all the hats.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 11:33 AM

  4. .John P. says:

    I love what Peter Drucker preached, "manage for results."  He said you must allocate resources to opportunities--not problems and to focus on outside results (vision, customers, etc.), not inside results (the bureaucracy, etc.).  "The Results Bucket" is the first chapter (and maybe the most important) in my new book, "Mastering the Management Buckets: 20 Critical Competencies for Leading Your Business or Nonprofit."  In the "Book Bucket" chapter, I list "The E-Myth" on my Top-20 Books List. Three cheers for focusing on results!

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 11:47 AM

  5. .Doug A. says:

    Boy, this is so "on the nose" it's scary -- and I teach Entrepreneurial Marketing!

    How many times over the last two years have I said to myself, "I don't have time to get organized!" and "Vision? Who has time for vision? I'm busy running a business." Those are probably the most ironic statements you can make as a business owner.

    This article reminded me of when I was in architecture school. The amount of work they heaped on you was biblical. Finally, when I was nearing my breaking point, a wise sage prof said, "Don't think of all the things you need to do to complete the project; think about the overall design. Then break it down into smaller manageable parts." That's much more difficult to do because you can't get to the overall design without doing the things it takes to complete that design! But, it helped me focus my efforts, so it was very good advice.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 12:29 PM

  6. .LARRY F. says:


    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 5:52 PM

  7. .chris h. says:

    This is true. As a seasonal business owner, we are in a lull at present time. Burn out is in full force after 4 straight months of 75 hour weeks, but my focus is keeping my eye on the prize. I floundered before reading the e-myth, and incorporated it's principles immediately, with awesome results. I need a few more cycles before everything is in place, but the vision is the key... without it, I've created a job for myself, and nothing more. I look forward to creating another 50 systems to get my people on track and bring my business to the next level.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 6:46 PM

  8. .Rod D. says:

    OK I've been going to reply to lots of these blogs/emails for some time but I have resisted. (I don't wish to be seen as an idiot)

    All the talk is for well established businesses, and I certainly have my goals in sight, what I'm continually being told is I need to work out "how" to eat the elephant as I already know what it is. I'm too focused on the end result and not getting there.

    How the heck can I even move towards this 'HUGE' goal when I have no idea of how to acheive it anyway. Certainly no idea of where to start.

    Nearly all of the business advice here, in seminars I've attended and in E-Myth deal with businesses that are to the point of where one can delegate, implement sytems etc. I have worked for these kind of businesses and do know how inportant they all are.

    Don't get me wrong, even for a sart up, one man show I've been able to pull small things out that have helped streamline things, but to actualy go from a hobby, to now working from home with no borrowings except maxing out my credit card and slowly growing over a 2 year period I'm faced with the daunting process of some how funding a move to a "real" premises & build on the reputation I already have.

    My industry is in a huge faze of growth and my customers seek me out, but with out the correct premises, I have just come to a stalemate. How can one move with the vision of the eaten elephant when I can't even seem to chew on a leg ??

    No offence guy's, but all the talk, even from government for small businesses, no one wants to know you unless your established, but how do you become that ??

    Comments ??

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 8:51 PM

  9. .Milind C. says:

    It is really hitting the nail where it is required. So much important but often overlooked.The note brought my focus back on the track.

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 9:56 PM

  10. .David S. says:

    As an architect in a small (in my country which is Kenya, it is considered a medium) sized practice in a developing economy, the initial challenges and focus is on how to sustain enough income to keep the practice alive, before venturing into systems, "eating the elephant". While the talk is obviously enlightening and helps a small business owner "know" what to focus on, the issue of "paying the bills on time" is a real consideration. I guess the frustration is, how do you focus on eating the elephant when there is not enough money to pay the bills? As my architect colleague above pointed out, how do you focus on the overall design when it is predicated on the little details that make up the whole?

    Submitted Jul 31, 2008 10:25 PM

  11. .Ronald T. says:

    To Rod, the frustrated gent in the above comment; you are acting like the first person in the world to ever start a business.   Do you think we all started with established businesses??   No, we all started just like you and did the best we could at building them.  You sound way too frustrated to make any sensible moves so take it back a notch, realize you are not alone and not the first person to be in the position you are in.....and then just take smaller bites!!!    Patience and understanding will be your key along with reading The E-myth again and again and again until it starts to sink in.   Establish your vision and make it happen one little bite at a time.   If we can do it, so can you!!!   Don't let your competitors catch you and then run ahead due to their better understanding of the process.  

    Submitted Aug 1, 2008 4:42 AM

  12. .Josh M. says:

    Do I get frustrated when I'm out of stock on certain items?  Or when my store is a mess?  Of course, but my customers realize that I'm working on it, and even if they don't get what they need every time they visit my store, they see marked improvements each time they visit.  Sometimes you're so engrossed in the work you have ahead of you, you can't see the improvements you've already made.  The question I always ask myself is "What can I do today to improve my business?"  and work on that aspect for the day.  The key is to realize that you need to constantly switch gears and work on different pieces at different times.  Sometimes because it's urgent, other times because it happens to suit my mood for the day.  One thing I always keep in the back of my mind is that my business will never be finished.  It's calming to know that I have to work on something everyday, so what's the rush?

    Submitted Aug 1, 2008 9:09 AM

  13. .David O. says:

    I agree with Rod here. I have a 2 man service business, where we are trying to get to the stage of pulling a regular paycheck. I have to be able for this to happen first before any systems can happen, let alone systems. Its hard to replace yourself with an employee if your not paying yourself on a regular basis.

    Submitted Aug 2, 2008 6:07 AM

  14. .Marcella D. says:


    I am an attorney in a firm that was started 13 years ago.  We started on a shoestring and still struggle for all the reasons you addressed.  I regularly share your pain.  We started in our home, moved to an office the size of a closet and now have about 2000 sq feet in a nice area, but the struggle is the same.  Business is about process, not arrival.

    The followup book to the EMyth Revisited is EMyth Mastery.  We struggled largely unsuccessfully to implement the EMyth Revisited book for about 11 years before we got the next book and the light went on.  Now...that being said, I am no posterchild for having found the answers.  Cash flow is still an issue, systems development...an issue, etc, etc.  But it provides a shift of focus to the how, not just the what.  As we have worked the EMyth Mastery book, I have become increasingly aware that my elephant is not clearly defined.  It is MUCH more clearly defined than it was 13 years ago but it still needs distinguishing in my mind and that of the public's.  The great thing about the Mastery book is that it helped me realize that it is more of a process and I needed to let myself off the ropes once in awhile so I could breath and dream the dream again...not just struggle. 

    We bought into a ton of programs and learned alot.  For us, the time is now to start implementing before we take any more classes, read any more books...etc.  So...I don't know where you are at but the EMyth Mastery book might help you alot.  Just a thought.

    Submitted Aug 2, 2008 10:39 AM

  15. .Rod D. says:

    Thank you to all those who have commented & I certainly don't feel I'm the 'first'. Though to find not being treated seriously by the banks or government is very frustrating,  it's just another challenge.

    I'm on my second go at Emyth Mastery and as mentioned I have been able to take some of what is on offer.

    I certainly don't think I would have even acheived even my current position if I hadn't set goals and challenged myself. I hate fire fighting and like to plan, but of course the planning often happens as one moves forward & the goal posts seem to shift continuously.

    My vision is clear & always has been and it's not unachieveable. As I clear one hurdle I'm faced with another larger one, so with the pleasure of abtaining one goal comes the pain of the challenge of the next and so on. No one said it would be easy and each goal is larger than the previous, but to glance over ones shoulder occasionally does you the world of good.

    I wouldn't swap it for the world!!

    Unfortunatly patience is something I don't have (with myself anyway) I back myself, sometimes fail, but usually I succeed. I can see the potential of what I'm trying to establish & I even have a good idea of what systems will be in place when it's all happening, it is just frustrating, because things like lack of funding are holding us back from achieving something that started as just an idea, it's now so obvious a vision that is slapping me in right in the face every day because people are demanding it and I'm not geared for it......YET !!

    Submitted Aug 3, 2008 7:47 PM

  16. .orang k. says:

    This is some thing to think about. I've read E Myth Revisited, it helps me a lot. After reading it, I know where to "aim" for eating elephant. But some how in the middle of the way, I am still lost for direction... but thanks for this short article. The Seven Centre of Management Attention will be my compass for sure! Will apply it soon. 

    Submitted Aug 4, 2008 10:22 AM

  17. .Bradley A. says:

    As a restaurant owner I know the frustrations of staff comming and going...especially the people in the front house. I appied the techniques I learnt in The E-Myth to my kithchen and it was like a dream come true .....perfect results. The problem however is with the wait staff, who are all just doing this job until their acting career or singing career kicks off. To find people who respect the job is very difficult especially here in Barcelona where it is seen as a lower class position. All that being said we are really focusing on systems so even a robot can do it. It would be easier if the restaurant was fast food but its not its 2 solid years of 80 hour-6 day weeks that my wife and I built up a faithful client base of regulars. We know how important the stratagey is but when dealing with this situation I am not sure systems can cover us.

    Does anyone have experience with this type of challenge?

    Thanks to E-myth for helping us get this far!!


    Submitted Aug 5, 2008 2:00 AM

  18. .mark r. says:

    I prefer to hunt for the elephant to ride to my favorite dinner.

    We talk about hunting elephants; we find one and then what? Do you want to eat the elephant? Really?

    To me the elephants are unresolved market problems. We hunt for them and ride them to a buffet of profits, sales and customer satisfaction.

    When we find them they carry us to where we want to go. I see small business owner's elephant hunting in their business, but not connecting with the unresolved problem they set out to solve when they launched their business. The more they dream of roasted elephant the less elephants they will have to ride to the destinations they truly desire; financial freedom, free time, business value...

    Mark Allen Roberts


    Submitted Aug 5, 2008 4:45 PM

  19. .E-Myth Business Coach says:

    To Rod (#'s 8 and 15):

    The mountain looks impossibly large if your only focus is on the summit (your overall vision).  To make it more manageable, break it down into smaller pieces.  You have your ultimate vision, but how much progress would you like to make over the next 12 months?  And what can you do THIS WEEK to move yourself closer to that 12 month goal?  If you can commit to spending time thinking and planning about how to achieve the shorter-term goals, you will grow your own confidence in your ability to make those goals a reality.

    If you need an office, how much space will you need?  How much will it cost to move in?  How much will it cost you monthly to stay there?  Start by researching the answers to these questions.  From there, you'll have a better idea of how much revenue you'll need to generate.  Translate that revenue into the number of new customers/new jobs, and you have the beginnings of a plan you can take to a lender.

    Customers are coming to you, so you're obviously doing something that has value for them.  Is it financially viable for you?  Are you charging enough to cover your expenses and generate a profit?  Check out this article for more info:


    Keep plugging away.  Planning plus execution = results!

    Submitted Aug 8, 2008 3:13 PM

  20. .Rod D. says:

    In reply to our Emyth coach,

    It certainly sounds like I'm on the right path with the more planning I do, the more questions I find that need answering that seen to produce more questions again etc etc.My planning tree is huge with so many things to consider, but after the appointment with my accountant  on Monday I feel there will be even more un answered questions raised that will need attending to. (when do I sleep!)

    My place of work I that is needed is infact a workshop/industrial premises which there inlies the problem. There are no places available to rent as a step before actual ownership/building so the huge task of funding a move to actually buy land and build something is the only real option. I have now considered if this is the only way, then to fund a 2nd building on the land (if I can find some with the appropriate zoning) and lease it out would be the smart way to go, as the more I ivestigate this the more I realise there is a huge short fall in industrial type loactions in our area &it would provide us with extra income for the future.

    For the short term, the office at home will do, but to be missing out on the work which is out there is such a crying shame, but with the large cost of a premises would also see the nessesitation of buying more equipment (more value adding) and then employing someone to start moving towards those 'long term' goals I really have.

    The value of my time has been very under rated.....true!.... but I took the bold move & started from nothing with miniaml experience (but with encouragement from my peers) learning my craft as I go, sometimes taking on jobs that I had no idea of how I would complete them & just hoping I could produce the goods.The initial stages have been about building a reputation for quality work at a reasonable price. The fear is with increased costs that I will incure with growth, is that my prices will have to incease. I do feel that won't be a problem though as when I first started out my rates where 1/2 of what they are now & if anything the offer of work increased with my rates which goes to prove, people will pay for quality work with comments going around that I'm still too cheap!

    I could dribble on forever, but one more thing I will add is the importance of having someone to share/help with all this.Not just an accountant. I pretty well have been going it alone, (My wife works 2 full time jobs, one paid and of course the other one isn't. Home & family) I find bouncing ideas off of seclected people keeps me in check and not heading down a path with blinkers on which sometimes can be dangerous.

    YES goals do shift as you progress, I have at times had to rethink & go back and eat the knee cap of the elephant as I was about to bite the leg off completely which could have produced devestating results as I was standing underneath it at the time.

    CHEERS all !!

    Submitted Aug 8, 2008 5:07 PM

  21. .Jim S. says:

    Enjoyable discussion!  Can I ask an overly simple question?  How do people succesfully transition from the "strategic" to the "tactical" on a daily basis in any sort of systematic way?  I find myself getting stuck in one or the other mode and have a hard time getting out of it.  I have a small staff - myself and two employees - and at this point I need to stay involved on the sales and production side as well as strategizing for the future of my business.  Any thoughts?


    Submitted Aug 19, 2008 6:31 AM

  22. .Gretchen K. says:

    My suggestion for successfully transitioning from strategic to tactical work would be to appropriately schedule it into your day and calendar.  Try your best to schedule blocks of time devoted solely to the strategic work of your business. This could be an hour/day or perhaps an afternoon of strategic work once/week. Then it's easy to focus on the strategic activities and clear your calendar of distractions from the sales & production side which also warrant your attention. Use your outlook calendar to help develop this system.

    Another suggestion is to find separate working spaces to distinguish the strategic and tactical work. We've had clients who use working "ON" it rooms and working "IN" it rooms. They find working in a separate "strategic" workspace really helps ground them in that type of work and they know when they are in that office/meeting room/coffee shop/library, etc. they can only do strategic work. They also find they have less distractions and employee interruptions when they are in this space, thus you get more work done.  Walt Disney also used this method. He had a separate room for the "dreamer" (aka entrepreneur) where he did his most imaginative and strategic work!

    What would you have to do in order to create a strategic working ON it space and schedule?

    Submitted Aug 19, 2008 12:13 PM

  23. .Jim S. says:

    Great insight, Gretchen.  After reading your and putting some thought to the question, I realize that I MUST remove myself from my current office environment to have any hope of strategic thinking.  Where?  When?  At this point I'm giving my kitchen table a try, first thing in the morning.  Not sure it'll stand the test of time but we'll give it a try and find something better if it's not right.


    Submitted Aug 25, 2008 6:36 PM

  24. .shadrack i. says:

    An elephant is really too big to eat all at once.I think when you eat it in small bits it ends up as a sweet encounter.You may never even remember that you were eating a very big thing! .I mean,you can split the seemingly big tasks of big planning into small bits that you can do on a daily basis.You can work in your business and at the same time work on it by preparing logical client based routines.Routines that you create in a way  someone else can do it for you-and -you do this while you do the actual work you wish to delegate to your employee. Here you think of the routines while doing the actual work, then put the routines down in wring for the sake of he person you wish to delegate the job to.Thanks 

    Submitted Aug 26, 2008 9:23 AM

  25. .Marina G. says:

    My brother told me about this 'spiral theory'.  The basic idea is that you get the lowest viable product on the market - it may not be perfect but at least you're out there.  After you are out there you systematically start tweaking it.  Each iteration being better than the last.  As long as you have a vision for what you'd like the best version of your product/ service to look like and keep aiming for it on each go-around it can't help but improve.  I find that in the service industry you can always improve the customer/client experience - you may not know everything that matters to your customers the first time around - over time you will get to know what is important and can then integrate that into your customer experience.  The bottom line - just do it! Be humble - accept that you are working on an unfinished product but your clients/customers can still benefit from your product or service even in the lowest form. 

    Submitted Oct 27, 2010 4:20 PM

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