The elephant lives in the now and is motivated by avoiding pain and getting pleasure. So you have to play with the elephant part of your brain because it doesn’t respond to threats and it get its’ way every time.

Spring is finally in the air in the northeast where I live – what a relief! The change in the season has prompted many of my clients to begin thinking about the changes they want to make in their lives: eating better, getting outside and moving around, taking on the challenge of doing something positive for their health.

It’s a good time to get going.

But as most of you recognize, those good intentions and spurt of motivation all too often falter before anything meaningful happens.

Why is that – and how can we address it?

I recently read an interesting book on change and motivation, Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard.  It is basically a business book, but the philosophy and research they use to illustrate brain behavior applies equally well to individuals.

My favorite illustration from the book is to picture our brains as a huge elephant with a tiny rider astride. The rider wants to go somewhere and is trying with all her might to make that elephant move. But the only thing that gets the elephant moving is what it wants. No amount of logic or pushiness or even cajoling can make the elephant cross the road if it doesn’t choose to.

elephant rider

The Heath brothers suggest that our brains are like that. The rider is the tiny rational part of our minds that gets ideas – a lot of them good and logical and even supported by data. We need to lose weight to feel better. Our bodies will be healthier when we eat fresh food – mostly plant based. Yet the siren song of the bakery we just passed gets the elephant part of our brain in motion – and all the nagging or pulling or yelling of the rider brain doesn’t stop it.

So, how do we get those two parts of our brains to act in harmony?

They put forth three suggestions.

Give the rider very clear and limited direction.

Often we overwhelm ourselves with all the good intentions we want to accomplish – especially when our energy starts to rise and we create those multi-level personal improvement plans. The rider needs very simple and linear direction – one at a time.

If you want to eat more healthily, be specific about the what and the hows.

I will eat home cooked food five nights a week and will sit at the table.

I will eat breakfast. I am eliminating snacking.

Whatever the direction is, be specific. Write it down so you stay focused.

Motivate the elephant with emotion.

The elephant doesn’t really care about the research or the long -term benefit.

The elephant lives in the now and is motivated by avoiding pain and getting pleasure. So you have to play with the elephant part of your brain because it doesn’t respond to threats and it get its’ way every time.

How do you play? How do you feed and motivate the emotional part of yourself?

With your imagination. This is the fun part.

The elephant part of your brain is very visual.  So you imagine what you want by looking at it in your mind’s eye. You smell it and taste it. You linger lovingly on the sight of beautiful healthy food. What is it? How does it feel to eat it?

Then imagine what the benefit will be. How will you feel? How differently do things look? Do this in living color. Feel the emotions of succeeding and eating well. Feel it in your body and let it sink in.

You can experiment with this and play with collages that you look at every day, or mental pictures that make you smile.

All of that pleases and entices the elephant.

Last step: Pay attention to what is working.

They call these the “bright spots.” We all have them – the things that are going well – but we usually overlook them in order to focus on the The Problem.

In order to help clear the way for the rider and the elephant to move in the right direction, see where things are already going well and build on that.

For instance, your natural food store has great takeout and when you’re near there, you pick up a good dinner that you enjoy. Voila! You already have a start on healthy eating.

How can you build on that?  Buy a few sides to have during the week? Plan to go there more regularly – so you already have two meals taken care of? You decide – but building on the “bright spot” gives you confidence and energy to move forward.

Let me know how it goes for you!