Behavior Change – The Elephant in the Room

elephant rider2

If you want to change your behavior, you must address the Elephant in the room. In the New York Times bestselling book, The Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe the struggle we all face when we want to change our habits. The battle is between the logic-driven part of our brain, the Rider, and the emotion-driven part of our mind, the Elephant.[i] The Rider is weak and prone to overthinking things, becoming overwhelmed by decision fatigue and analysis paralysis. The Elephant, on the other hand, is powerful and instinctive, fueled by emotions and primal urges. The Elephant can easily overwhelm the Rider, especially when he is indecisive. The Path they travel is the external environment. The Rider can influence the Elephant’s behavior by shaping the Path, but he cannot overcome him through brute force.


Our external environment is the invisible hand that shapes our habits. Often we make choices based more on WHERE something is; than WHAT it is. Most of us live in an environment that someone else created. I recommend you design your environment, instead of merely being its consumer. Our Rider would be wise to clear the path of temptations and negative cues. Shape the Path to avoid temptation and ambiguity. We should establish conspicuous cues to trigger good habits. The best way to make a habit a big part of your day is to make the cue a big part of your environment.

The Rider cannot afford to hesitate, or he will lose control of the Elephant. Any hesitation on our Rider’s part means our impulsive Elephant will take control. He will sacrifice what we want MOST for what we want NOW. We can sometimes override our Elephant’s urges through willpower, but it is a losing strategy. It will deplete our willpower and leave us susceptible to the next temptation. It is much more effective to shape the Path and pre-decide what we will do when we encounter a cue. We still need to motivate our Elephant. We need to associate more pleasure with the new habit than the old.

Keeping a habit tracker is going to help us inspire our Elephant. He will be motivated by our consistency. He will want to keep our unbroken streak alive. Each time we put an X in our habit tracker, he is going to get a shot of dopamine. It will make the new habit immediately more rewarding. It is very satisfying, like crossing off an item on our to-do list. Creating a robust emotional linkage between the new habit and our new identity is going to likewise inspire our Elephant.

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[i] Chip Heath, and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Crown Business; 1st edition (February 16, 2010).

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