Beginner’s Guide: Accomplish More with the Divide et Impera Method

Updated May 24, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
divide and conquer julius caesar

The Divide et Impera method is not new. As a matter of fact, it was a common war tactic during the Roman Empire. Okay, I know your life doesn’t compare to Julius Caesar’s war campaigns, but it sure seems like that sometimes, albeit on a much smaller scale. Things sometimes seem too big, too much, too often, too fast, and everything else in between. What if you could cut all of them in half and then cut those halves in half, and so on until you get to something highly manageable?

How Childhood Dreams Die

childhood dreams Have you ever had a dream when you were a child but never really thought about how to accomplish it? I’m sure you did. If you ask pretty much any kid about what they want to become when they grow up, they’ll give some kind of majestic answer, such as an astronaut or ruler of the world. And that’s okay, for that age.

But then you grow up. And the more you grow, the more you start to rationalize your dreams. You begin to put them in perspective and assess your existing skills, strengths, and weaknesses against those dreams’ requirements to come true. And soon enough, a bunch of those dreams just fade away into nothingness. Because let’s be realistic, you are never really ready for those big dreams. That’s why they’re big. So you let them slip away.

Why does that happen? Well, it’s most likely because you got scared. Fear sneaked its dirty evil tail into your business. The dream that once was a vision that gave you butterflies in your stomach, and made your eyes light up with joy and amazement, now makes you cringe and shiver.

Those dreams rise in front of you like a vertical cliff, perfectly straight and with no place to put your fingers. How are you going to climb it? It seems impossible. It’s just too enormous.

And that’s what happens with those childhood dreams. Their actual magnitude never changes, but your relative position to them becomes real. It’s a direct effect of “thinking too big.”

When you are a child, the thought of becoming an astronaut is just that, and nothing more. You probably assume that one day you’ll walk to a door that has the word astronaut written at the top, and somebody will hand you an astronaut card, and then you’re an astronaut. For the longest time, my daughter kept telling us that she’ll be five things when she grows up: Monday, she’ll be a ballerina, Tuesday-an artist, Wednesday-a teacher, and so on. At that age, that makes sense.

As you grow older, that idea gains magnitude. You begin to realize its immensity, and that scares the crap out of you. So you give up the dream of becoming an astronaut, and you turn to something else: something more down-to-earth and more tangible. Something possible.

But here’s the truth—every big dream is made up of smaller dreams. And every little dream is made up of tiny dreams. And tiny dreams are no longer scary; tiny dreams are attainable. All that’s left for you to do is connect those tiny dreams end to end to make up the small dreams, and then continue to strain the small dreams into clusters until they become those giant dreams you envision to make a real difference in your life.

That is what we call divide and conquer.

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”Christoper Reeve

Divide and Conquer and The Art of War

Niccolo Machiavelli - Divide and ConquerNiccolò Machiavelli lived in the 14th century, and he’s known as the father of political science. His name lives in infamy, as in today’s world, we label somebody as Machiavellian to refer to his or her immoral behaviors. That’s because Machiavelli suggested that unethical behavior, including lying and murder, were essential tools for success in politics.

During his lifetime, Machiavelli wrote several books, among which The Art of War is a kind of Socratic dialog in which the author provides some of his views on politics. Machiavelli advises, “A Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy.” From an early age, masterminds of war understood the power of dividing a problem into its subparts. In the realm of politics, this applies to power: If you split power, you decrease its strength, and you can approach each part independently and overcome it.

If you think about any challenge in life, it’s not that different from a war. You must conquer the challenge, and if you approach it head-on as a whole, the process will be difficult, if not impossible. But split that challenge into smaller parts, and you can begin to win small battles. Each battle won brings you closer to the final victory.

The idea of taking a big problem and splitting it into smaller, easier-to-tackle challenges is not exclusive to war tactics. In computer science, the divide and conquer idea has appeared as early as the 1940s. Because computers have a high capacity for calculation, the ability to create recursive algorithms that split a problem into parts and then re-assemble the smaller solutions into the complete overall solution was perfect.

“Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”Harriet Tubman

Big Goals are Too Big

divide and conquer to live your dream The problem with setting massive goals is that they are sometimes too large for our brains to envision a way to accomplish them. Whenever our mind sees an impossible task, it retreats. If the road seems too hard, it’s more natural to abandon that road and look for another, less treacherous one.

The conundrum, though, lies in the fact that if you don’t set magnificent goals and dreams, the actions you put toward their accomplishment won’t be big enough. In the bestselling book The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone writes that you should “never reduce a target. Instead, increase actions. When you start rethinking your targets, making up excuses, and letting yourself off the hook, you are giving up on your dreams!” This quote states that you should not lower your goals just to match your current level of activity.

So to achieve what you want, you must set goals that are enormous, at least ten times or more than what you need. That’s the only way to create the kind of action plan you need to get to where you want to be.

But then, those huge goals seem too big and daunting. So how do you deal with this paradox? Creating massive action requires big goals, but big goals deter you from the action.

That is the reason why people have a difficult time setting up visions for themselves. Just the mere existence of the vision brings fear to the forefront. Once you have decided on a personal life vision, you must execute it. But how? It’s still impossible. After all, the vision was supposed to be so grand that you’d never truly reach it. So, then, what do you do?

“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.”Albert Einstein

Making it Bite-Size with Divide and Conquer

One approach is to split the vision along two different dimensions:

  • Time
  • Other resources

The time dimension gives it a deadline. For example, if you want to become a law firm partner and you are not yet in law school, it may take you ten years to get there. Then you should work your way backward and create milestones along the way:

  1. Graduate law school
  2. Get an entry-level associate job.
  3. Become senior associate
  4. Become a partner.

divide and conquer fractal

Now you’ve taken this seemingly Herculean task and broken it down into manageable bites that you can execute over time.

But time is only one dimension; you need to spend time, but you also need to spend other resources. These might be financial, emotional, or both.

Going to law school costs money, but it also costs you time with your loved ones. You replace connection, which is an emotionally fulfilling activity, with learning, which is a mental activity.

By being very clear and deliberate about the resources you need to spend toward achieving a goal, you will be able to understand how you can split it into smaller sub-parts. In this context, there are many ways you can approach breaking a goal into smaller goals, which is why you must understand the goal with perfect clarity and what it takes for it to achieve it.

Long-Term and Short-Term Goals

long term goals Any goal that requires ten or more years to complete is a long-term goal. To begin the divide-and-conquer strategy, you need to write down the pieces that need to be completed each year between the present and the completion date: That’s the high-level divide and conquer.

Although it’s high-level, it is a vital step and one you need to do correctly. Of course, you cannot be sure about what will happen over the next ten years, but you must think that other things will remain constant and build enough flexibility and mitigation to deal with the unexpected.

Once you have lain down the plan for the long-term, zoom in on the very first year.

The year will be your short-term division. On the one hand, it is quite long, but on the other hand, it flies faster than you can blink. Therefore, you need to document all the things that must happen during the next twelve months so that you can complete this first part of your plan successfully.

This will involve several tasks and projects that you must spread throughout the year.

Now, continue to zoom in and focus on the first quarter. The next three months are critical, no matter where you are in your plan. Three months is long enough for you to do a lot, and it’s also long enough to reveal if your trend is moving in the right direction or not.

Be very clear about which pieces of your annual plan fall into the next three months.

Next, hone in on the first month of that group. That is an important milestone because a month flies in a flash. You snap your fingers, and it’s the beginning of the next month.

So the monthly plan now requires a lot of focus and concentration of effort.

At this point, you are down in the trenches. You need clarity and discipline. We are talking about tasks you must complete quickly, which requires elevated self-discipline. This is where your calendar and planner take the stage.

If your annual and quarterly plans are still quite flexible, your monthly plan is not. The shorter the period and the closer it is to your present day, the less flexibility. Each day, week and month must contain tiny little steps toward your big goals. This kind of consistent approach to moving forward will ensure that you can conquer the mountain by slowly overcoming one hill at a time.

In addition, as life continues to throw new things at you, you must develop the resilience to say no to those things that are pulling you away from your life plan and be more open to saying yes to those things that contribute to your vision.

“Dream big – dream very big. Work hard – work very hard. And after you’ve done all you can, you stand, wait, and fully surrender.”Oprah Winfrey

Divide et Impera for Your Time

time-alarm-clockOne of the best ways to apply the divide and conquer method to a big goal is to think in terms of time. What if you only had thirty minutes per day to work toward a particular goal? How much time would it take you to complete it if you were to do it consistently over several days?

Here’s a classic example. Let’s say that you want to write a 100,000-word novel. That is a decent-sized book, quite worthy of a fantasy or science fiction story by all accounts. The goal in itself seems daunting, as that number looks big and scary. So, let’s bring it down to bite-size pieces: one day at a time, thirty minutes per day.

Let’s assume that you are a slow typist, and you type about 30 words per minute, which is at the lower end of the average. At thirty words per minute, you will output 900 words in half an hour. That means it will take you about 111 days to write 100,000 words. That equals about four months.

All of a sudden, the 100k number doesn’t sound so scary, does it?

Of course, there is a lot more to writing a novel than the pure words on paper, but I wanted to exemplify how something that looks hugely unattainable becomes no longer scary once you break it down into smaller parts. And it’s up to you how big the pieces are, too. Let’s say you only want to write 250 words per day, which is roughly one page. That level of action would lead to approximately 400 days to reach the finish line. That’s one year and three months. Even that sounds doable.

The power of the divide and conquer lies in how our mind reacts when faced with things that we believe are impossible tasks. Our innate reaction is to be scared of the prospect and run away. Luckily, in our day-to-day, most items are already broken down for us.

Going to school is nothing but a series of bite-size pieces that eventually lead to your degree. Your job, your marriage, having kids-they all begin as something small and turn enormous over time.

But when it comes to your personal goals and dreams, the only way they will motivate you is if they are big. Huge. Behemoth. 10X.

You must let your imagination go there and envision those big goals. Once you have a picture of them, resist the urge to rationalize. Accept them as being your vision and start to break them down. Close the gap between today and that ‘future you’ by defining the little steps you need to take to get there.

And soon, you will get there. Just like that—one step at a time.

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Have you had any experience of encountering a huge task and got deterred by fear?
  2. Do you see yourself applying the divide and conquer method in your daily life and where?
  3. What aspects of your life you think would benefit from the divide and conquer method?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!



action, organization, process

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