Changing a habit or creating a new behaviour takes effort and focused attention. This can feel physically uncomfortable and quite literally painful to over-ride habits. Know anyone trying to quit drinking or smoking? Aren’t they a joy to be around?
It’s no wonder people often avoid change or find it hard to maintain commitment. Our brains are extremely effective in maintaining the status quo. It takes far more effort to think about and do something new than to react out of instinct or habit. This is a constant battle between the rational and emotional parts of your brain. These two systems create a tension that causes us to resist changes we want to make. The rational mind wants to make healthy changes but the emotional mind enjoys the comfort of your familiar and the existing routine.
The Elephant, the Rider, and the Path.
This concept is best illustrated by a metaphor called The Elephant, The Rider and The Path¹.
• The Rider is the rational system. This part of your brain plans and problem solves. He thinks he is in charge.
• The Elephant is the emotional system. It provides the power in the journey. It listens to the rider as long as it is beneficial to it.
• The Path is the external environment. It represents the factors that are outside of our control. It may or may not be favourable to what the elephant or the rider want to accomplish. If the rider wants to eat more apples and the elephant agrees, they are still unable to eat apples if there are no apples available.
To change behaviour, you’ve got to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can occur.
Using this Analogy to Create Change
Managing all three of these factors can be difficult and require self-awareness and strategy.
• The rider needs direction and knowledge. Create a vision of the outcome and set specific goals. If the rider doesn’t know where he is going, it is unlikely that you will get to your destination. An example would be researching what makes new gym users successful, understanding that change takes time, and deciding on an obtainable goal of making it to the gym three times a week.
• Motivate the elephant, tap into emotion. “Why are you doing this”? If the elephant doesn’t know “why” they are working towards this change, you will face a difficult journey. You can try to lead and drag an elephant, but during a disagreement, who would you bet on? Looking at your goal of making it to the gym 3 times a week – you may need to learn how to entice the elephant (everyone’s elephant is different). For one person, rewarding themselves with a new book every 3 visits might get them there but that won’t work for someone else. Try to find what matters to you and connect it to your desired habits. Example: The elephant is much better behaved if it knows poutine is coming every Saturday night only if you make it to the gym all three times!
• Shape the path to allow for easy progress. Make this work for your lifestyle and eliminate possible obstacles. Going back to the example of attending the gym 3 days per week: if you know that during most days you get stuck working late, then maybe setting your alarm clock early so you can work out 3 mornings per week will work better for you. Make change easy.
The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure nothing changes; but “when Elephants and Riders move together and the proper path is chosen, change can come easily.”
Director of Fitness Services
“Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard”, Chip Heath and Dan Heath