Have you ever repeatedly snoozed your alarm in the morning even though you were the one who set it to get up early and exercise? Have you ever tried to build a meditation habit and failed? Have you ever said something harsh in the heat of the moment and later wished you had behaved differently?
On the one hand, it may seem that we’re all in-charge of ourselves. If someone asks me to raise my right hand and touch my nose, I can do so at will. Most people can. On the other hand, we have frustratingly little control over some of our actions, as the questions above demonstrate. What is going on? What holds us back from doing what we know is good for us? Is there something we can do about it?
The Rider and the Elephants
Jonathan Haidt suggests that our minds are divided into two types of mental processing systems. There is the automatic system that he calls the elephant. It includes our gut reactions, emotions, and habits. Then there is the controlled system, which he calls the rider. It is responsible for rational thinking, conscious thoughts, and future planning.
Having evolved over millions of years, the elephant is extremely powerful and drives most of our behavior. The rider has evolved more recently and is no match for the elephant’s strength. Both these systems have an intelligence of their own. When they want the same things, we can make miracles happen.
However, a conflict between these two systems within us results in failures of self-control and a sense of powerlessness over our own lives. Just as in the case of an actual human rider on an elephant, things go well as long as the elephant has been trained and is following orders. If the elephant decides to go its own way, there is little the rider can do.
In fact, our brains have many modules that work independently and outside of conscious awareness. If we extend the metaphor to consider these various modules, we are essentially talking about a rider who trying to control an entire herd of elephants. The illusion of control lasts as long as everyone’s wishes align. But if the different elephants within us want to do different things, the rider is in major trouble and may have much difficulty in restoring order.
It is the rider who chooses to set an alarm at night, and the elephant that decides to sleep in and forgo exercise in the morning. The rider knows about the benefits of meditation and sets goals to meditate regularly, while the elephant compels us to do anything but sit down to meditate. These ongoing battles between the elephant and the rider are the reason why we seem to be in conflict with our own selves, leading to consternation.
Path to Peace Framework
To help coaching clients succeed at what they know is good for them, I often use a 3-step process that helps align the elephant and the rider. I call this the Path to Peace framework.
- Awareness: The first step towards any change we want to create in our life is awareness. An important first step toward change is to achieve an awareness of the tension between our rider and our elephant and an awareness of what truly drives and motivates us.
Let’s take the example of wanting to get up early and exercise. Repeatedly snoozing an alarm we set at night is an indication that our rider and our elephant want different things. Perhaps the rider values health while the elephant values comfort. If you are stuck in a situation like this, ask yourself: have there been times when you were able to exercise on a regular basis? What made it possible?
One of my coaching clients was going through this dilemma, and when I asked him to look at his past successes, he realized that whenever he could go for a run with a friend, he had no trouble getting up early in the morning. He learned that his elephant found it way more fun to run with a friend. The comfort of staying in bed became less important in comparison. To exercise more regularly, then, he didn’t need to force himself to get up early. He needed a running buddy. Once he could make that happen, snoozing his alarm was no longer a big problem.
Think about this in your own life: what does your elephant truly value? How can you align the values of your rider and your elephant?
- Acceptance: Once you’ve become aware of what your rider and elephant want, you may be tempted to jump into action. In my experience, acceptance is an important step that comes before action. Even after we become aware of our natural human tendency to seek instant gratification and comfort over what we know is good for us, we may find ourselves continuing to resist/fight it. We don’t like not being in control. However, fighting biology is an uphill battle.
Acceptance gives us the power to stop wasting our energy on what we can’t control and instead look for a more effective way to use our time.
My coaching client who wanted to exercise more regularly needed to accept that his elephant cared more about having fun than exercising for good health. Once he accepted this about himself, instead of trying to force himself to care about exercising, he started asking how he could make exercise fun. The answer, for him, came in the form of having a running buddy.
For someone else, listening to music while exercising may be important. For yet another person, finding an enjoyable form of exercise such as dance classes can be the solution.
It is difficult to proceed without first accepting that one is not motivated to exercise for the sake of one’s health. Acceptance can bring a tremendous amount of peace to the change process.
- Action: Once we know what is driving us on and accept what is, we can devise ways to make progress on our goals.
One important aspect of taking action when creating changes in our lives is to start small, as recommended by behavior scientist B. J. Fogg. Big, drastic changes can be overwhelming for the elephant. So, if you currently get up at 7 am, don’t set a goal to start waking up at 4 am and going for a run. Aim for 6:30 or 6:45 am at first. Similarly, you don’t have to run five miles each day of the week starting tomorrow. Maybe begin with a brisk walk for 20 minutes if you haven’t exercised in a while. Once you are able to meet these smaller goals on a regular basis, you can keep increasing them in small increments until you get to where you want to be.
The conflicts we experience within ourselves come from our evolution. While we cannot change our biology, we can still make progress toward our goals by developing a deeper awareness of what drives us, accepting what can and cannot be changed, and taking action to change what we can. This can be iterative process that moves us toward actually doing what we know is good for us.
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Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Fogg, B. J. (2021). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Harvest.
Mother and Baby Elephant Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash
Rider on Elephant Photo by Godwin Angeline Benjo on Unsplash
Meditator Photo by Le Minh Phuong on Unsplash
Running Buddies Photo by Tomasz Woźniak on Unsplash