You’re sitting at home on a Thursday evening. You know you should be working on that important essay and yet find yourself binge watching “House of Cards” on Netflix instead. You’re eating out with a group of friends on a Saturday afternoon, you’re on a diet and know the salad is the sensible option but as always, you end up giving into temptation and ordering that delicious Pizza.

Sound familiar? So often in life, it can seem so frustratingly difficult to not only create a positive change, but to stick with it.

This article will explore the psychology behind why it can seem so difficult to make good habits stick and what we can finally start doing, to change our ways.


The Elephant and The Rider. 

In their book ‘Switch’, the authors Chip and Dan Health put forward the idea, that within each of us, exists both and elephant and a rider. The rider of this analogy, represents the logical, analytical aspect of our minds. When you are deciding what to order at the restaurant, it is the rider’s voice urging you to opt for the salad and to skip dessert.

The elephant on the other hand, represents the emotional, impulsive aspects of our character. The elephant doesn’t care so much about what is good for us in the long-term, but rather seeks pleasure in the here and now.

The problem is that as the elephant is so much bigger and stronger than the rider, whenever a conflict between the two arises, it’s the impulsive elephant that comes out on top, no matter how hard the rider pulls on the reins.

This analogy can help explain why so often in life, cultivating positive habits can seem so frustratingly difficult. The rider wants us to exercise, eat healthier and study more but so often our elephants simply want to play video games, watch Netflix and gorge on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

The key then, to start creating positive habits that stick, is to learn how to motivate both our elephant and our rider to work together.


How to motivate your Rider. 

Whilst a rogue elephant can be a problem, we also need to give our riders a clear path if we are to achieve any worthwhile goal in life.

As already mentioned, we can think off our riders as representing the logical aspect of our personality. The problem, is that as our riders are long-term strategists, they tend to get caught up analyzing every tiny detail of a plan but without ever taking action. In order to get the rider moving, two key elements needs to be in place.

Firstly, the rider needs a clear destination, it’s needs to know exactly where to direct the elephant, if we’re to see any movement at all. Too often in life, we set goals that are vague and ambiguous. We tell ourselves that we need to “exercise more” or “procrastinate less”.  

Ambiguous goals give us too much power to escape our commitments. For example, in setting vague goals such as “I want to eat more healthily” it’s easy to justify eating a donut at lunch by telling yourself “Well, I did eat fruit for breakfast and I will make sure to have a lighter dinner tonight”. In giving ourselves specific goals, we eliminate the ability to make such excuses.


Don’t tell yourself to “eat more healthy” but set a specific target to “eat no more than 2,000 calories per day”.

Don’t tell yourself to “be more productive” but set a specific goal to “Write 1000 words of my essay, by the end of the week”.

In setting specific goals, with clear calls to action, our riders have a clear destination in which to direct their elephants.


A rider needs not just a destination, but clear directions as to how to get there.

Sometimes it’s not enough simply to set the destination. When planning for a long car journey, you can have the exact postcode as to where you wish to go, but need a clear set of directions in order to get there.

Let’s suppose we’ve taken an ambiguous goal such as “I want to lose weight” and replaced it with a more specific target such as “I want to lose 1 stone in weight by my birthday, August 3rd”.  The rider now has a clear destination in mind but we also need a clear set of directions to follow, in order to get there.

In their book, Chip and Dan argue that in motivating the rider, we should learn to “script the critical moves”. Essentially, we should pre-determine a number of specific actions we will take every day, in service of our ultimate goal.

Sticking with the example of weight loss, this could take the form of formulating a set of “healthy eating rules” that you must follow everyday, such as: 


  1) I will stop taking sugar in my tea and coffee.

 2) I will eat a portion of fruit rather than a cookie with my lunch.

 3) I will drink water with all my meals except dinner.

 4) I will switch to 1% milk with my morning cereal.

 5) I will only allow myself 1 glass of wine on a Friday night.


In setting a number of clear daily instruction, such as “I will switch to 1% milk with my morning cereal” we are giving our rider not only a specific destination but also clear directions, so we know how to get there.


Learning to tame your Elephant.

We all know a friend, who despite all the advice in the world, won’t give up their habit of smoking. We all know the damage smoking does to our bodies. We’re all aware of how smoking leads to lung cancer. Yet some people, refuse to give up this disgusting habit.


You see, when you present a smoker with facts about lung cancer, you are appealing to the logical aspect of their brain. You are appealing to their rider. The rider knows all of this. The rider understands just how terrible smoking is for our health. The problem is that the elephant simply doesn’t care and as we learned earlier, in these times of conflict it is the elephant who comes out on top.

You can set a specific destination and even lay out a number of clear steps on how to get there, but if you’re still finding it difficult to motivate yourself to change, we may be dealing with a lazy elephant, rather than an indecisive rider.


So, how then do we motivate our elephants to work with, rather than against our riders?


Firstly, the elephant responds to emotion rather than reason.  Whilst specific goals such as “I want to write my 7,000 word dissertation by the end of the month” stir our riders into action, they do little to move our elephants. Motivation stems from how we feel, not what we think.

Let’s take the example of a student who needs to submit their final year dissertation by the end of the month. They need to write 7,000 words which equates to 250 words per day for the next month. What we don’t have here is a problem with our rider. We know exactly where we need to go and how to get there. But such goals don’t motivate the elephant.

To get the elephant moving, we need to find some emotional reason to care about completing such a dissertation.

The unmotivated student could spend a few minutes every morning, visualising her graduation ceremony and how proud her parents will be. She could place photographs up in her room of her younger brother, who looked so happy when he himself graduated last year. She could arrange for her and her friends to go away on holiday in order to celebrate their results.

If you’re finding it difficult to motivate yourself, spend a few minutes to remind yourself why you’re pursuing this goal in the first place. When we tap into the emotion behind why we even want to lose weight, study hard or eat healthily, we motivate our elephants into action.



The power of “small victories”.

Let’s be honest. Eating healthy can really suck. When you’re out at your favourite restaurant, sometimes you want nothing more but to dig into that delicious slice of chocolate gateau.

One of the cruel ironies of life, is that so often what feels great in the present moment, can be terrible for us in the long-term. Unfortunately, whilst our riders are long-term strategists, our elephants don’t care so much about our future selves. Our elephants constantly seek instant gratification.

Think back to the last time you tried, but failed to stick to some positive change.

Perhaps, after finishing that final roast potato last Christmas, you decided that 2017 was the year you would finally start hitting the gym. Filled with this newly found determination you went out and bought a gym membership and vowed to hit the weights every morning before work.

But what happened? Maybe you stuck with this new routine for a few days, weeks or even months. Eventually however, you fell back into old routines. Why? Because you wasn’t seeing results straight away. Even with a clear plan of action, the elephant lacks the foresight of the rider and needs a reason to start moving right now.


One way in which can motivate our elephants then, is in the power of small victories.

In his Ted Talk, the psychologist B. J Fogg talks about how rather than focusing on huge goals, we should learn to cultivate “tiny habits” in our daily lives.



For example, rather than aiming to go the gym everyday after work, start by setting yourself the target off completing 5 push ups every morning. If you want to start writing more, start by setting aside just 5 minutes every evening in order to journal your thoughts.

Overtime such small habits can lead to significant change. You start off reading just a page a night, then it becomes a chapter. Before long you are devouring a new book every week.

The real power of setting these “tiny habits” is how they appeal to both the rider and elephant. In setting aside just 5 minutes every evening to read, the goal is specific enough to motivate the rider and yet obtainable enough to stir the elephant into taking those first few steps.


No more excuses.

What change have you been wanting to make in your own life? More importantly, what’s been holding you back?

Have you been setting vague and ambiguous goals that make it difficult to know which first steps to take? If so motivate your rider by clearly defining the destination and setting clear directions so you know how to get there.

Or perhaps you have been dealing with a lacklustre elephant? Try to find the emotion behind why your goal matters so much in the first place, to motivate the elephant focus on developing small, daily habits that makes the journey less daunting.

Whatever change you have been wanting to make in your own life, you might not achieve it tomorrow, but at least you can start it today.


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