don’t boil the ocean

— originally posted Jun 18, 2013 – edited

Back when I worked for the technology behemoth I learned a ton of valuable lessons; those of the business variety and also those that can be applied to life in general. One area of “learning” I never expected to pull from however is the arsenal of buzz words and cliché adages that were regularly bandied about. I thought those were filed away forever in the part of my brain that also stores the Pythagorean theorem. i.e. the part I never, ever use. Like ever.

Well colour me surprised to hear myself using one of these phrases over and over again during several health & weight loss conversations I have had recently.

The phrase in question:

Don’t boil the ocean.

I remember how much I detested the phrase when it was being thrown around at least once during every management meeting for period of several months. I winced each time someone said it. Then I wished there was a line-up of tequila-filled shot glasses so that I could pound one back each time someone uttered the phrase in question.

Sadly, tequila during business meetings was generally frowned upon.


So why is this stupid sentence coming up in my personal life all of the sudden? Because it fits.

It’s completely apropos in terms of how I describe my own journey towards better health and wellness, and is a great way for me to provide coaching, guidance and advice to others who are looking to kick off a healthier way of life.

What does it mean?

To me, it’s about taking small, realistic, sustainable steps towards the bigger goal. Simple as that. When I decided to workout every single day of 2013, that was a pretty big goal — but — it was one thing. Just one. Only one thing for me to remember to do, and to prioritize on, every day.

I didn’t say, “I’m going to workout every day. And I’m going to eat clean. And I’m going to sleep 8 hours every night. And I’m going to drink 100 oz of water each day. And…And…And…”

That’s too much. My brain would start to fry in the way that your cell phone does when you drop it in a glass of water. Or the toilet.

Instead of trying to do a million (albeit, great) things to improve my health and facilitate weight-loss, I chose to do one thing. Once that one thing became ingrained as a habit, I then started to incorporate other things, like making smarter food choices, drinking more water, etc.

Choose your one thing, and make that a no-brainer: the one thing you are committed to doing every day. Maybe it will be a decision to cut out sugary sodas. Maybe it will be a decision to walk for an hour after dinner each night. Maybe it will be a commitment to eat breakfast each and every day. Whatever it is, start with that one change. Make it a habit. Then build off that.

I spoke to a friend yesterday who told me that he and his wife had been inspired by My Year of Sweat – and had just hit their 8th consecutive day of sweat! Awesome! I love it! He told me they also just embarked on a pretty tough diet. We talked about boiling the ocean. We also talked about the sense of deprivation that a strict diet can cause.

I firmly believe that when you push your body to its limits with tough daily workouts, you need to also reward it with healthy (but good, tasty and filling) food. Imagine your poor body givin’er every day at the gym, and then being slapped with a big bunch of kale as a reward. Don’t get me wrong; kale is wonderful — but woman cannot live on kale alone. At least this woman cannot. Not without causing bodily harm to others.

He acknowledged my concerns, but told me that he was just looking at a short-term “kick-start” to get things going. Okay, I can get behind that! You all know about my massive kick-start last November. Working out 6+ hours a day for a week was definitely not sustainable (nor desirable), but it did give me a good jumping off point for a new approach to healthier living.

My advice:

  1. Put a start and end date on your kick-start — and make sure that even in the short-term it’s not so tough as to de-motivate you and throw you off your long-term goal.
  2. Pick that one thing you will commit to making part of your daily lifestyle. One thing that you will not veer from. Something that will become as second nature to you as breathing. And just do it. Every day.
  3. Add incremental lifestyle changes, one at a time, until they become daily habits. Remember, studies show that it takes 66 days, on average, to form a habit. Be patient. Honour the process.

And finally, please, please, please remember the sage advice from the boardroom:

Don’t boil the ocean.

Keep moving!

xoxo nancy

70 thoughts on “don’t boil the ocean

  1. I’ve never heard that phrase, but I love it because yes, it’s all about small, sustainable changes when it comes to weight loss and fitness (something I convey in my upcoming book). ‘Baby steps’ is what I like to say. Changing everything at once is a set-up for failure.

    Wise words, Nancy!

    • It was the phrase du jour during one planning period at work. Every single management meeting. I’m telling you, if we were playing the drinking game, I would be hammered. 🙂

      Baby steps is definitely the best way to develop sustainable habits. Totally agree.

  2. Aargh – corporate phrases drive me mad. My personal button pushers were “best of breed” (ugh!), and “ramping up” (wtf? why not just say getting on with the job??). haha. But – you’re so right about taking one step and focusing on that. I have made the mistake of “Total Lifestyle Overhaul” millions of times. You sometimes read success stories where people do turn their life around like this. But I bet for every one, there are a million who tried that way and failed (and then felt crapper about themselves as a result – my hand goes up here). All the changes I’ve made that have actually stuck have been small and focused. It’s the only way!

    • The big bang approach only works for a very small percentage of people, I suspect. Small sustainable changes is definitely the way to go.

      And, yes!, down with corporate speak!

  3. Good advice, as always, and nice to see your post. We are having a fabulous time, with nary a blog to be seen. WiFi issues. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! 😉

    • Oh Lynne, I have been THE WORST blogger ever. My last real post (i.e. Not a re-blog of an older post) feels like it was 2 months ago. I’m probably exaggerating – but, it was at least 4-5 weeks ago. Work has been bonkers – and I just can’t use whatever downtime I do get to force myself to sit at a laptop and write. I’ve been horrible on FB as well, but have been admiring your photos of your trip whenever I do get a minute to jump on and poke around. Looks like you’re having a blast!

      • Sorry work has been bonkers, but I totally get why you don’t want to sit at a computer when you get a break! It makes me laugh, because when you have nothing but fun time, the last thing you want to do is sit in front of a computer…lol! Oh well, one day. 😉

      • Totally get that. Last week it was “always on” hosting at a convention in NOLA from Sun-Fri. I got almost no sleep, and couldn’t even think of opening a WP window to read, let alone write. Once I got back home, it was a whole lot of sleep, and a bunch of blog reading to catch up, but still no writing. And this week, it’s been about catching up on work, and then enjoying the weather with whatever free time I’ve got. I’m sure my writing time will increase as the weather eventually turns colder. 🙂

        p.s. I’m back in L’ville the week after next. If you’re back from your globetrotting adventures, let me know!

      • I don’t have a calendar handy, but we are planning to be home on the 24th, just in time for my friend from Texas to arrive. I am afraid if that is the week you are there, I still won’t be able to swing it. But hopefully, the time after that!!#

      • Nope – I’m there the 18th through the 21st! No worries. It’ll probably be every 4-5 weeks after this trip. Heading into the new fiscal year means more kick-offs, planning, etc.

    • For me, that’s so true, NH. Whether that reward be finding I’m not winded from climbing a few sets of stairs, or from trying on a new dress in a smaller size. Those little ‘wins’ are a nice reminder that the changes are working, and motivation to keep at it.

  4. One step at a time I always say.
    And for the record; tequila shots at business meetings? Best. Idea. EVER!
    Would certainly loosen some folks up at least 😛

  5. When I first read the title of this post, my reaction was GAH!! I hate that expression. I too hated all those self-satisfied expressions and acronyms batted around in the typical corporate environment. Even worse was when they started to leak from my own mouth.

    Great message though and one I’m ALWAYS forgetting. My I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-now mentality keeps tripping me. Thank for the reminder to keep it simple (you would laugh if you knew how many times I had to type *simple* before I got it right!)

  6. Love this! It is so true. Whenever I fail at something it is usually because I make it too complicated. Gotta keep it simple to make it feel easy. Thx for the reminder x

  7. I’ve never heard that saying before, but techie lingo is not my strength. I just learned “the cake is a lie” [posted about it today], so what do I know?

    That being said, I love your words of advice. Just what I needed to read today. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  8. Don’t boil the ocean. Love it. Do believe I’ll start by trying to get two more days per week in on my walk-runs. In the way of not overshooting, I’ll keeping drinking wine. No kale. Peace, John

  9. In my world of the National Laboratories, I have never heard the phase “don’t boil the ocean”. Vetted was very popular on one project. Don’t polish the cannon ball was another favorite. What we are really good at is acronyms: NIF; LCLS; RHIC; PEP-II; DARHT; ATA; VISA; LLE; DTRA and the list goes on. And yes, I know what each of these acronyms means since each is a project I worked on (and will add interest to your stats). 😀 Since you mentioned dropping a phone in the toilet, I recently fished my black survival bracelet out of a urinal. Fortunately I flushed it before it fell in my own bodily fluid. Lisa was a little grossed out that I recovered it. I did gave it a through cleaning. Post is great too! When I’m not at work I prefer to monotask (new word I just made up). You summed up very well what I have been trying to accomplish and put it into a order my brain can understand. Thanks Nancy!

    • Oh the TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms)… The software behemoth was the Mecca for TLAs. Don’t even get me started on those. For more popular buzzwords and corporate jargon, click over to the first youtube clip I mentioned to joanne sisco. It’s 2 minutes of sheer corporate slang B.S. 🙂

  10. Hi Nancy! I think we all want to believe we can do it all, have it all and once we’ve “arrived” that will be the end of it–NOT! Not only should we not “boil the ocean” I think we also need to constantly remember that “life is a journey” not a destination. And while that can also sound like so much hooey if we hear it enough, there is something to be learned there. One day at a time….. ~Kathy

  11. I love this! I’ve never heard the phrase, but it makes so much sense, and I’m just giddy over the fact that it also describes how I be approached my life changes! One step at a time, and then slowly but surely kept adding in things and pushing myself. Great advice!

  12. Tremendously good advice, Nancy. Very helpful reminder…and I take it to heart! I have never previously heard “don’t boil the ocean,” and I love that phrase! It’s going to make its way into my personal vocabulary. I promise not to overuse it. 🙂

  13. Sage advice Nancy! Including the tequila line-up. I might want to borrow that idea for the meetings with my latest client… And just to say that I sympathize with the hosting marathon, did that so many times. Take care and keep moving.

  14. Oh, Nancy–the mental image of you doing shots is so in line with how I see your ballsy, no-nonsense attitude with work and life. Just perfect. And I loved the 11-minute video about advertising. That was priceless.
    I’m so glad you’re able to use your invaluable experience to influence others who are just at the beginning (or stuck in the middle) of their pursuit for a healthier life.
    If we could just clone you and spread you around the planet, we’d all be much better off.
    I could use a pocket-sized you for my desk as well.
    A squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of salt and a shot of Nancy.

  15. God I love this post!!! I’ve been meaning to get my butt over here to read it – sorry it took me so long! You nailed it Nance! And you speak from such an honest, real place. You inspire me so much, and I do this stuff for a living! People really are way too hard on themselves and put so much pressure on themselves with too many changes all at once, just like you said. One thing at a time already! I use SMART goals, personally, and can usually get the changes in place in under a year, but my goal is always within a year. I had never heard that phrase before, but will try to use it now for sure! Sums it all up perfectly! xoxo

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