How to eat an Elephant

A fellow professor once asked me, “How will you eat an Elephant?” I didn’t have a clue what to answer and didn’t have time to come up with a smart answer before he answered; “One bite at a time”. Of course, what else, but you have to take an awful lot of bites to eat even a small elephant. The elephant is, of course, a metaphor as I don’t think elephants taste that weel and aren’t they preserved too? Setting out to eat an elephant is very similar to start writing a doctoral dissertation. In my case, my doctoral dissertation had to be at least 100.000 words excluding appendixes, tables and indexes.

Choosing a dissertation writing strategy

Before getting paralysed over the number of words and the complex analytical work you have to go through I thought it would be a good idea to take some time thinking through the right strategy before writing a single word or doing the first bit of literature review.

Make it easy for the reader

When I was about to write my dissertation I had been reading thousands of assignments, articles, dissertations and theses as I had been a reviewer for academic publications and a censor at several business schools and universities around the world. Let me disclose a secret about this type of work. It is utterly boring and it is not paid very well. As a student, you might think it is your chance to contribute with something important to the world heritage, but for us, in the other end who have to read your dissertation, it is just a job that has to be done as fair and quickly as possible. That means you can improve your grade a lot just by making it easy for the reader. If the reader doesn’t have to struggle following your chain of thoughts, if the reader is informed about the structure in advance, if the reader knows the context well, if you write in a smooth and error language you will get a much higher grade irrespectively of the academic quality if your dissertation. The easier you make it for the reader, the higher the grade you get.

Structure is everything

Having a clear, consistent, well-communicated structure is crucial for your success. Having the structure in place is like having a good map when you are in a city you don’t know and you have to meet your loved one in 30 minutes. So do spend sufficient time developing a good structure for your entire project. I have developed a generic structure that I propose to the students I counsel. It is not particularly complex, but it helps your brain focusing on one thing at a time and bring all the pieces together nicely in the end. Some business schools and universities have their preferred structure. Some are good and helpful, others are far from doing that. It is always a good idea to have a fixed structure for each chapter too. Start each chapter by explaining what you are going to do. Then do it and finish the chapter with a summary of what you have done. This method helps you focus on one subject at a time and it helps the reader focus his or her brain. One of the most annoying things you can experience as a reader of dissertations is if you lose track of where things are going. It is a safe way to a lower grade.


Eating an elephant or writing a dissertation requires a lot of self-discipline, motivation and sacrifice but not a lot more than that. Throughout your education, you have worked against deadlines. Assignments had to be submitted, tests had to be taken etc. But now – now finally you are free. Free to work at your own pace. It is going to be so good! At least until you realise you accomplish nothing or very little. You use your freedom to be together with family and friends and catch up with your work. You do, after all, have plenty of time for your dissertation – right? Around 40% of the PhD and DBA students haven’t graduated after 7 years. They are not stupid, they are just humans.

So how can you cheat your brain so that you don’t give up eating the elephant or writing your dissertation?

You have probably thought about how you are going to reward yourself once you have graduated. A long vacation? Travel to the destination of your dreams? A fantastic meal? A month doing absolutely nothing? The problem with these rewards is that they don’t serve as a motivator when you have a monstrous elephant or unwritten dissertation in front of you. In general, rewards only work as intended if the work you have to do get the reward is fairly easily achievable. That is why your structure and well-defined work pattern is so important. Set goals you know you can achieve with hard work, dedication and sacrifice without burning your candle in both ends at the same time. Finding the balance is crucial and it this one of the most important discussions I have with the students I counsel.

Here is what worked for me

When I was ready to write (After having done my field study) I decided on writing 10000 words per week for 10 weeks. When I had accomplished writing the 10000 words I gave myself a reward. It could be going out with friends, going to a concert, going to a good restaurant etc. I always started Monday morning. If I finished, for instance, Thursday night I would not touch my computer until Monday morning. My brain relaxed, but still, I could feel it worked on its own generating ideas for next week. So when I returned to the computer Monday my brain already had a lot of ideas ready I had to put down on mind maps. I organised myself pretty quickly and was highly motivated to write. And because I had a very solid structure and strategy it was easy fitting all the ideas into the right places, which freed up a lot of energy. Working intensely without burning out is the key. When you find the balance you are extremely efficient because your brain is on it day and night – even when you do something else. Our brain needs small rewards all the time, otherwise, it gets demotivated and lazy. it is like when you are reading a book. If you read too slowly you lose focus and forgot what you have been reading. Whereas if you force yourself to read fast your brain stays focused you remember what you have been reading.

Find your way

Find out what works for you. If you want my help and coaching including the tools and frameworks then please get in touch at [email protected]