Have you ever joined a gym to get in shape and then found you weren’t using it? Have you started a diet to lose weight and found yourself abandoning the effort? If you said “no” to both of these questions, you are among a small minority of people. We have all started down a road of change, sometimes life transforming change, and found ourselves giving up and going back to our old habits. We do this despite our best intentions and most determined resolutions.
Let’s face it, change is hard and the bigger the change the harder it is. However, there are ways to make change easier. The key is to use our rational thinking to create small wins for our emotional thinking.
In his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”, Jonathan Haidt develops his metaphor of the rider and elephant. He says that he envisions his rational, logical thinking as a rider sitting on top of an elephant that represents his emotional thinking. The rider is holding the reins, looking like he/she is in charge of the elephant. However, if the elephant decides to go in a direction the rider doesn’t want to go, the rider is powerless to stop him/her. The best the rider can do is to gently guide the elephant; never force the elephant to do something it doesn’t want to do.
To successfully make a life transforming change, like getting in shape, losing weight, or even getting our finances organized and under control, we must motivate the elephant. A key characteristic of the elephant is its short-term outlook. It always wants immediate gratification. So, to successfully make changes, we must create short-term “wins” that provide emotional gratification for the elephant.
For example, if you are trying to get control of your cash flow, commit to spending just 10 minutes each day reviewing and categorizing your checking and credit card transactions. If you are trying to payoff credit card debt, focus on paying off the lowest balance card first so you can experience the joy of crossing that one off your list. These short-term “wins” will motivate the elephant and help keep you on track.
Your rider is very good at thinking of creative ways to motivate the elephant. When there is a change you want to make, spend a little time with your rider and start to write out all the ways you can think of to create short-term motivational “wins” for your elephant. Since the emotional elephant likes novelty, this exercise will help him/her support your change effort.
If the change you want to make is big, consider the help of a professional advisor. People who are serious about getting in shape will go to a trainer to show them exercises and help keep them on track. People who are serious about losing weight will go to Weight Watchers to learn about good eating habits and help keep them on track. In the same way, those who are serious about getting their finances organized and under control can benefit from a thinking partner who can suggest strategies and help find the short-term “wins” that will keep your elephant motivated.