Divide the Fire, You Will Put It Out

Divide the Fire, and You Will Sooner Put It Out

201. Divide the fire, and you will sooner put it out.

This is reminiscent of the popular saying, “divide and conquer.” The gist is to break up a problem — whether an enemy’s forces, an engineering challenge, or an embroidery project — into smaller chunks, tackling them one at a time.

I’ve also heard this stated as, “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” When a challenge looms large, it can be overwhelming… Where to begin? How long will it take? What if x, y, or z goes wrong?

To deal with this, we can break down the problem space into more manageable chunks. Instead of looking to solve it all at once, we solve a number of smaller-sized problems in succession, all working towards the end result of solving the overarching challenge.

Let’s take a look at one example where we can apply the divide-and-conquer heuristic, and another where a reversal might be warranted.

An Example of Divide and Conquer

Completely random example — what if you are interested in quilting and would like to make some money from your hobby. You start doing research online about ecommerce and how to make money selling crafts, and soon your mind is flooded with excitement at all the possibilities.

But you also feel overwhelmed — Etsy, WordPress, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, MailChimp… SEO, keyword research, marketing funnels, conversion optimization, mailing lists… it’s a lot to take in. You are now at risk of analysis paralysis. There are so many things you could do, or maybe need to do if you want to sell as many quilts as possible, that you risk freezing up and not doing anything.

Instead, what you could do is break down the challenge into relatively bite-sized chunks, and make a plan to tackle them one at a time. Maybe one after the other, or maybe working your way through using a more “Swiss cheese” approach.

Here is how we might break up the challenge and our activities:

  • Quilting — creating the quilts you’ll actually be selling
  • Blogging — setting up a website, writing about quilting, building some web traffic
  • Marketing — setting up a Facebook page, uploading quilting video tutorials to YouTube, creating promotional offers in order to drive sales (e.g., seasonal, birthday, and holiday specials)
  • Selling — creating your Etsy page, seeing how other successful stores setup their listings, understanding what quilts sell well and creating more of those
  • and of course, Learning — learning more about SEO, how to find good keywords, setting up a marketing funnel to capture and convert people interested in quilts

And if in this example it doesn’t make sense to do these serially, one after the other, what we could do is break them further down into even smaller chunks which we progressively tackle over time:

  • Blogging
    • Setup a WordPress website with basic Google Analytics
    • Create a habit to write one post per week
    • Buy a domain name, WordPress theme, and switch to your own hosting
    • And so on…

In this way, as the year goes on, we build on the foundation that we’ve laid down in each of the 5 sections of activity. And importantly, we actually start doing, and seeing what works and what doesn’t from experience. If we waited until we had it “all figured out,” we never would get started. There is just too much to learn and too much new info coming out.

A Look at a Reversal

So how about a case where the reverse might be true? Not eating the elephant one bite at a time, but doing it all at once?

How about a barn raising — instead of building it little by little on our own, we look to “eat the elephant” all in one weekend, by inviting all our family and friends to help raise the barn. We put in a burst of effort all at once to overcome a big challenge. Simple but effective in this case.


We’ve looked at a couple examples — one where breaking a potentially overwhelming challenge into its constituent parts helps us to devise a plan to push forward, little by little. Then another where it probably makes more sense to muster up a bunch of energy and smash on through in a quick burst of concerted effort.

Which strategy and tactics you choose the next challenge you face is up to you. But consider your options first, and try to determine which is the best path forward to success.

And best of luck on your journey.

Until next time,


If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy reading more sayings from a Roman slave who lived 2,000 years ago. Because as much as things change, they also stay the same.

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