The Rider and the Elephant: How to Get Motivated

Psychologists know that there are two systems in our brains; the rational system and the emotional system. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides a great analogy for these two systems. He says to imagine your brain as a human rider on top of an elephant1.

  1. The rider represents the neocortex of the brain. This is the rational part of us that plans out where we want to go.
  2. The elephant represents the limbic system of the brain. This is the emotional part of us that provides power for our journey.

These two parts need different things to do what they do. The rider needs good instructions to guide the elephant in the right direction. The elephant needs motivation to carry the rider in the right direction.

The Rider and the Elephant

As you can see, there’s a glaring problem with this arrangement. If the huge elephant has a different opinion about the tiny rider about where to go, guess who will have the final say?

The rider can try to convince, drag, or push the elephant all he wants. But if the elephant has a different destination in mind, that’s inevitably where they’ll end up.

I’ve covered how to provide the rider with the instructions he needs in other articles on habits. But before you get to that, you need to motivate the elephant to carry the rider in the right direction. And the way to do that is to get crystal clear on why the changes you want to make are important to you.

To paraphrase the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how. If you gather a set of strong enough reasons to change, you can trust the elephant to stay on track and carry the rider where he wants to go.

So, before you set out to change your habits, take a moment and ask yourself: In what ways will my life be better if I create the behavior change I want?

What Are the Pros?

Identify at least three compelling reasons. Write them down and then vividly imagine what experiencing these benefits would be like. For example:

  • I’d wake up full of energy.
  • I’d be focused and productive at work.
  • I’d be more present and loving with my family and friends.

Next, invert the question, and ask yourself: In what ways will my life be worse if I don’t create the behavior change I want?

What Are the Cons?

Identify at least three aversive reasons. Again, write them down and then vividly imagine what experiencing these things would be like. For example:

  • I’d feel tired and depressed.
  • I’d be stressed and unproductive at work.
  • I’d be distanced and cranky with my family and friends.

By contrasting these potential futures, you’ll clarify your motivation. You’ll create an emotional connection to the end goal. And that will align the power of the elephant with the plans of the rider.

Footnotes

  1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

Image courtesy of jyeltherealart.