“Motivating the Elephant”

Motivating the Elephant (Heath & Heath, 2010).  I like the ring of that statement.  This statement reminds me that the brain has two sides when it is choosing to do a behaviour: a rational side (The Rider) and an emotional side (The Elephant).  Once I have a clear pathway to move (i.e., have made my schedule and have set up reminders or implementation intentions), I often must motivate my elephant in order to turn my good intentions into actual performed behaviours.

Let me explain.

To explain how both sides of the brain function when choosing to do a behaviour, the Heath brothers in their book “Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard” cite an analogy written by the psychologist Jonathon Haidt.  The rider, or the rational side of the brain, must be directed. The rider must be given information such as what is the outcome behaviour to be performed, how should it be performed, the sequence of movements or actions that must be taken to achieve the outcome performer.  For example directing my rider for writing this post would include information such as the number of words I intend to write, the ideas that I will write about, the ordering of ideas to communicate, the tone in my language I will use, and so on.  In essence, to direct the rider cold factual information describing the behaviour that is to be actualized from my intention needs to be absorbed.  This is not what the elephant needs.

The other side of my brain, elephant side, needs hot emotional energy that produces an impulse to act (in this case towards the desired behaviour that is defined by the intention).  The mouse in the picture produces hot ‘fear’ or ‘fright’ that is associated with impulse to move away.  The elephant doesn’t take the time to think, “Oh look, that mouse is closer to me than I want it to be. Perhaps I should move away” (which is the Rational side of the brain).  Rather, the mere sight of the mouse stimulates an emotion (fear) that is associated with an automatic action pattern (in this case to flea). If I am to impose this same line of thinking to my intentions to write a blog post, I need to associate the blog post with an emotion that has an automatic action pattern to move towards action.

To motivate my elephant and follow through on my intention to write this blog post I used two strategies recommended by the Heath Brothers to “Shrink the Change”.  For me, the pressure of writing blog post that is under 300 words, is ‘perfect’ (or at least witty and informative) is my mouse.  Those are daunting and overwhelming expectations.  It makes me want to avoid coming to my computer to write.  So instead I ‘shrink my expectation’ of what the outcome of the behaviour is to be.  I also use this same strategy  when I  ‘restart’ my exercise routine after being away from it for a period of time.  I ‘shrink’ the exercise.  I can do 30 minutes without expending to much energy or taking significant time from other activities.  I am sure that you can think of plenty of ways that you can ‘shrink’ that activity that you are procrastinating on.  The Heath brothers mention another ‘delicious’ example in their book.  My friend, Rebecca put me on the FLY LADY about four years ago.  Do you know her?  She is wonderful.  She advocates a system for home organization and cleaning that is not overwhelming.  Why? How? You do your cleaning (everyday) but for only 20 manageable minutes. Following the Fly Lady has changed my outlook on this  chore.  The first tool used to Shrink the Change was to break down the behaviour to something that is (perceived) to be manageable.

Another strategy that I used tonight was ‘priming’ my writing.  One of my implementation intentions is a reminder set into my calendar.  The calendar pops up a message on my computer and sends me emails to remind me.  This happens the day before I intend to write.  What happens is I start (day) dreaming about my writing, composing several sentences while I brush my teeth and make breakfast for my family, and so on.  I think that you get an idea of what is happening here.  When the designated time to write my post rolls around, I’ve already got 10 – 15% of the job done.  Voila, the I have shrunk the behaviour.  Instead of thinking that I’ve got to compose and write a whole posting, I’ve only really got to compose 85% of it.  Thinking this way, I actually find myself excited to write down my (clever?) ideas and then work my way through the rest.  I confess that it is a little more difficult for me to use this same same strategy with my exercise pursuits.  A workout is a workout is a workout. I can’t really do the ‘work’ prior to the workout.  This may happen if I do my ‘warmup’ through running or cycling to the gym or agreed meeting spot with my group.  What I have been thinking about is the fitness or the quality of my ability that I am working on.  All my workouts payoff towards building my fitness.  It isn’t like I have to start from the very beginning with each workout (although some days it really feels like that!).  I’ve made X% towards my fitness goals with each workout.  I find that I am way more excited to workout when I think about my workouts in this way. I’ve shrunk the behaviour.

Taken Home Message:  MOTIVATING THE ELEPHANT needs to be considered when actualizing intentions.  I’ve been using the “Shrinking the Change” (Heath & Heath, 2010) principle to motivate my elephant to write blog postings.  Specifically two strategies or tools have been exercised: (1) Reducing the expected behaviour to something perceived as manageable, and (2) Priming the behaviour, or viewing certain unintended actions as actions that are apart of the intended behaviour.  How can you Motivate your Elephant?  What ways can you implement the principle of ‘Shrinking the Change’ towards your intentions?

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