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Does the Elephant Come with a Side Salad? 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: 

Q: “How do you eat an elephant?” 

A: “One bite at a time.” 


This old joke of unknown origin has been attributed to a variety of folks, from Desmond Tutu to St. Francis of Assisi, I suppose because basing one’s life philosophy on a goofy old joke can be a bit embarrassing.  The message is straightforward enough: when faced with a task that seems impossibly huge, break it down into small, manageable steps and in just one short lifetime, you too can plant 1,300 acres of forest or carve a road through a mountain using hand-tools.  (Okay, those are more whales than elephants, but you get the idea). 


It seems like everyone I know is gnawing on elephant right now – heavy workloads, caring for family, dealing with illness, or all three at once.  With so much to do, it’s easy to neglect that other major task, maintaining your own health and well-being.  After all, when you’re eating an elephant, the last thing you want is a Caesar salad the size of Caesar’s Palace, even if you really need the vitamins. 


So how do you eat the side salad?  By mixing it in with the elephant! 


I spend most of my day on a computer in my home office, and six months ago, I began an experiment to add anaerobic exercise into my daily routine.  Since I use my work calendar to remind me to do various tasks, I scheduled two new items to pop up every couple hours throughout the day.  These alternated between “Do 10 Pushups” and “Do 10 Situps”. 


Just one set of 10 at a time, no more.  No matter how slammed my schedule was, surely, I could find the time to count to ten.  The combined total of dedicated time per day was a single minute. 


There wasn’t an excuse NOT to do it.  I could hit “snooze” and do them a bit later if needed.  I could knock out two or three sets at once if I wanted to get ahead of the schedule.  The one thing I couldn’t do was dismiss them until they were completed. 


But wait – I made things even easier! 


First, and most importantly, I decided right from the start that I wasn’t going to care about measuring results.  After all, how much can you really expect to gain from one minute a day?  My goal was just to do it, whether it made any noticeable difference or not.  Soon it became a routine part of my day, no different from checking the calendar or sending an email. 


Second, I was very loosey goosey with the “assignment”.   When I first started, I couldn’t do even one regular push-up, so I would grab the arms of my work chair and lift myself out of the seat ten times.  After a while, that got easier, so I graduated to wall push-ups, and then knee push-ups.  If I was tired, I’d go back to a previous version.  If the floor needed vacuuming, I might swap in squats for the day.  I just had to do 10 reps of something


The result is that over the past six months, I’ve done approximately 3,000 push-ups and 2,000 sit-ups.  If I hadn’t built them into my calendar this way, I would have done zero.  And believe it or not, these count-of-ten workouts have actually made me stronger!  I can do real, honest-to-goodness pushups now!  Sometimes I even find myself tossing in a few extra reps just for fun. 


The best part is that it hasn’t impacted my schedule in any noticeable way.  It doesn’t cut into my work time or wear me out to where I can’t enjoy my personal time.  I don’t even have to exert any mental capacity reminding myself to exercise.  It’s just one more pop-up reminder to check off the list. 


I know this isn’t new territory; “start small” is a common refrain when discussing how to build workouts into your day.  However, I always thought of “small” as a 10 to 15 minutes three times a week.  When you’re busy and out-of-shape, even that kind of commitment can feel daunting.  Then, when it doesn’t show noticeable results right away, it’s easy to give up. 


But with this routine, I simply have to count to ten – the occasional mouthful of salad between bites of elephant.  Somehow, the whole meal is better for it. 


The whole process has been so unexpectedly successful that I’ve recently added two new tasks to my day.  These are 10-minute windows and have just one edict:  Clean something. 

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