In Chip and Dan Heath's book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, they describe the process of behavior change with the concept of a rider, an elephant and the path.
The rider represents planning and direction, the elephant represents our emotion and response to the plan, and the path is, well, the path. They use this framework to describe social and organizational change, but a similar view can be applied to personal changes.
If you want to achieve a goal, you have to steer the Elephant, who just wants to do what’s familiar and comfortable. So the rider must have a firm hand and clear vision of where he wants the elephant to go.
When the path is health, we often lose our firm grip because the way is not always clear-cut. There are so many conflicting messages. Fat is bad. Fat is good. Don’t snack. Eat six small meals a day. Get fitted for proper running shoes to avoid injury. Run barefoot to strengthen your feet and legs and prevent injury.
That kind of confusion will cause the rider and the elephant to curl up on the couch together with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and binge-watch The Bachelorette. It is just too overwhelming. As the Heath brothers explain,
“Ambiguity is exhausting to the Rider, because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path. But when the road in uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path, the most familiar path… Why? Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious…. And that’s why decision paralysis can be deadly for change — because the most familiar path is always the status quo.”
The other pitfall when you decide to make a healthy change has to do with the path itself. The new path isn’t worn yet, so it’s not very inviting. And the old paths are clear and familiar. It’s going to be hard work steering the elephant down the new path.
This is why weight loss experts tell you not to keep bad food in your pantry – elephants have long and dexterous trunks that can reach comfort foods on even the highest shelf. It’s also why habit formation experts suggest that you take tiny steps to build a habit. BJ Fogg of Tiny Habits even knocks it down to the miniscule, starting with flossing one tooth, for example. Tiny chunks offer short and easy paths to coax the elephant along. Once on the path, it’s easier to capitalize on the momentum and get the other 31 teeth flossed.
So how can you make a healthy change with this framework in mind?
First make a concrete decision about what change you want to make. Let’s say you want to start running, but it’s much easier to research topics like running for novices, running shoes, and injury prevention.
Tell your rider to stop researching and make a decision already. It is okay to adjust course once you are on the path. In fact, the Heaths tell us, “When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle, because the middle is going to look different once you get there. Just look for a strong beginning and a strong ending and get moving.” Your decision should be very specific. For example, mark your calendar for a 30-minute run/walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings before it gets too hot.
Second, clear the path to make it as easy as possible to engage in the behavior without thinking too much about it. The night before your run set out your running clothes and shoes. Queue up your music or a podcast to listen to. And if you want to make it really easy, download an app like Get Running. It will tell you when to warm up, when to jog and when to walk, as it builds you up to running a 5K over 9 weeks.
The more automatic you can make the path, the more likely your elephant will be to just go with it, and the less exhausting control the rider has to exert over the massive beast. Again from the Heath brothers: “The more instinctive a behavior becomes, the less self-control from the Rider it requires, and the more sustainable it becomes.”
You may not want to start running. Perhaps you want to change your diet, lose weight, or incorporate another physical activity into your routine. You can still use this framework to help you make the changes.
As the Heaths tell us, “…when change works, it’s because the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path are all aligned in support of the switch.” So connect with your inner elephant, and make some healthy changes.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.