Drain the Swamp as You Slay the Alligators! How to Balance Today’s Demands & Your Long Term Goals

Posted July 17, 2013 by Kristen Zavo in On the Ladder


Drain the Swamp as You Slay the Alligators

I first encountered this phrase when reading I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This * by Kate White. According to the book,

The phrase is a derivation from what’s supposedly an old southern expression: “When you’re up to your ass in gnats and alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial objective was to drain the swamp.” It means that when you’re working toward a long-term goal (draining the swamp), your time and energy can be eaten up by urgent, daily tasks (slaying alligators) that don’t necessarily aid you in achieving more important future objectives.

Kate tells us we have to learn to do both – to successfully and simultaneously keep up with today’s demands without losing sight of our long term goals. Easier said than done, right?! After much trial and error, below are my thoughts on how to get it done:

Check In Regularly

Since grad school, I’ve always made it a habit to update my resume once a year around the holidays. This was my time to reflect on my accomplishments and think about goals for the year ahead. Checking in regularly is important, but I can see now that a once a year cursory resume review is not enough.

At the very least, we should make time to step away from our day-to-day activities once a quarter – better yet, once a month, or even once a week, to look at the bigger picture. Whatever you decide is right for you, I’m a big believer in scheduling the time as you would any other appointment – and taking it just as seriously.

Ask Questions

What you do with this scheduled time is up to you. It is your time to reflect, to plan, and to ask yourself the tough questions.

  • What are your goals for the near, short and long-term?
  • Are your actions today getting you closer to those goals?
  • What can you do to get closer to those goals? (take on new responsibilities in your current role? a side hustle? an entirely new job?)
  • If you are looking for a promotion, what can you do to stand out? Do you know what you need to do to get that promotion? Have you even discussed it with your manager?
  • Do you like your job – what you do, who you work with, the overall quality of life it affords you? If not, what will you do to fix that?
  • Are you happy?

Take Action, then Repeat

For some of us, we know exactly what we need to do – and the next step is to take action towards those goals. It is important to repeat the process and continue to step back and look at the big picture. This allows us to monitor not just the progress towards our goals, but the goals themselves.

You, your dreams, relationships, and overall circumstances are all a moving target – which means that your goals of a few years ago, even a few months ago may be slightly (or completely!) different today, and the steps needed to get there will need some adjusting.

A Note On Being True to Yourself

At times the hardest part in this process will be to really listen to your honest answers to those hard questions. I’m not talking about the answers you think you should have – what would be good to build the resume for example – but what your heart is really telling you. It’s okay if those answers don’t come right away – that’s why you set up regular meetings with yourself to reflect.

In her book, Kate talks about a friend who calls her thirties “the lost decade” because she was so busy and the time went by so fast that she didn’t have time to think about what she personally wanted to achieve. What better reminder that life is short and just how important it is to be true to yourself – do what makes you happy!

Keep in mind that while we are focused on career here, this concept applies to every aspect of life – your relationships, family, home, personal, etc. When it comes to your personal life, draining the swamp is where you re-evaluate your life and see if there’s anything that needs changing to make you happier and more satisfied – whatever that may be, more time with friends, pursuing your passions, or finally chasing that childhood dream (Kate’s was to write a murder mystery!).


*If you haven’t already read Kate White’s I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This, do yourself a favor and add it to your summer reading list. This is one of my favorite business books for many reasons – not only is it full of great advice, but it is easy to pick up and read just a chapter at a time. And once you’ve read it, it can be used as a resource when you have a particular problem at work.


About the Author

Kristen Zavo

Kristen Zavo is a strategy and marketing professional, with a special interest in the retail industry. Having always been interested in the people side of business, Kristen loves to explore, reflect on, and share stories about the challenges and adventures of being a businesswoman. No topic is off limits - whether it's how to handle being the only woman in the boardroom, or figuring out how to to pack all the "essentials" for a 2-week business trip in just a carry-on! Outside of work, she loves exploring new places, spending time at the beach and meeting friends to workout (spin or yoga, anyone?!).