The Remarkably Powerful Way to Tame an Elephant

The Many Facets of Mindfulness

In a few different posts, I’ve discussed various concepts related to helping your mind be consciously aware of its own thoughts and what’s going on in your environment. That’s the essence of mindfulness, and it's a powerful tool for enabling motivation and positive behavior change.


I’ve included links to those posts here, if you want to check them out.

The Surprisingly Simple Way to Build Strong Habits

Can This Simple Skill Make You Less Impulsive

How To Exploit The Power of The Frequency Illusion

How to Get Motivated With Implementation Intentions

Today I want to briefly discuss why it’s important to have that awareness (i.e. mindfulness). I’ve been looking for an analogy to help illustrate the idea of mindfulness and why it's so important, both to motivation and behavior change. Recently, an idea occurred to me that I think captures this concept pretty well. It combines a couple of different ideas from different books.

In his book The Power of Fifty Bits, author Bob Nease delves into the topic of designing ways to help people make decisions and take actions that are in alignment with their underlying desires and intentions, and that are often also in their best interests. For example, how do you use Fifty Bits design to get people to save for retirement or to keep important prescriptions filled.

The underlying premise of the book is that the human brain is wired for inattention and inertia. So, without some kind of cleverly-designed intervention to get your attention, those decisions and actions often succumb to the inertia of inaction. This idea of inattention and inertia is one of the primary reasons people don’t save enough (or sometimes anything) for retirement, and why they don’t refill prescriptions for medicines they need. I borrowed this idea of inattention and inertia.

In their book Switch, authors Chip & Dan Heath discuss a framework for helping people and organizations make change so that it's less painful and more likely to take hold. They describe how getting people to make a change is like trying to influence a person riding an elephant. The rider is the rational, information-seeking part of you, and the elephant is the emotional, impulsive part of you. If you can’t convince both the rider and the elephant to change course, you are unlikely to succeed.

I won’t go into any more detail here, because that’s not what this post is about. I just wanted to give Chip & Dan credit for the idea of a rider on an elephant, which I borrowed and applied to the context of mindfulness. And, even though this isn’t a review of Switch, I highly endorse it, and all of their books for that matter (they also wrote Decisive and Made to Stick).

Man vs. Beast

So how is mindfulness like riding an elephant? Think of the human rider as your executive brain; the part of your brain that’s capable of thinking about yourself, the future, planning, making rational judgements, etc. The elephant represents your primitive, impulsive brain; the part that feels emotions and reacts to thoughts you have and to things that happen around you.

The job of your human rider is to keep your elephant from undermining your good intentions and long-term goals by giving in to your impulses. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against them. All is not lost, however. You have a powerful tool at your disposal that can help your human rider succeed: mindfulness.

Like all animals, your elephant is highly attuned to everything in your environment. It will react to anything new or particularly stimulating unless your human rider notices it first and does something about it. That’s the inattention part of the problem. Those triggers can take the form of a particularly tempting treat, a potential mating opportunity, a snarky comment from a co-worker, or a juicy piece of news or gossip.

Once your elephant is moving in a certain direction, your human rider might as well let go of the reins. There is very little they can do to stop the elephant at that point. That’s the inertia part of the problem, and it’s effect is powerful whether the elephant is moving because it was triggered or simply because it is following the well-worn path of habits. When you check your email inbox for the forty-seventh time today, or mindlessly reach for that cigarette or piece of candy without even noticing that you’re doing it, that’s your elephant’s inertia in effect.

Don't fall into this mindfulness trap

If your normal pattern of behavior in those situations is to rely on your self control to keep you out of trouble, it’s like closing the barn door after the horse (or elephant in this case) has already escaped. Actually, it’s more like not closing the barn door at all, because you didn’t even notice the horse left. But if your human rider can see the trigger coming, they can take steps to mitigate or even prevent the automatic, impulsive response. They can cover the elephants eyes, so to speak. Or they can distract it by turning it to face a different direction, giving it food, or pointing out something else nearby. The only way your human rider is going to recognize those triggers, though, is if you practice mindfulness.

As a side note, in the case of someone with ADD/ADHD, this analogy can be more like riding a bull instead of an elephant. The mind of a person with ADD is even more prone to random, distracting thoughts and susceptible to environmental triggers. As such, their brains lurch back and forth from one thing or idea to another. While it can be more challenging for a person with ADD/ADHD to learn mindfulness, they can benefit from it tremendously.

I hope you found this analogy helpful. By keeping this concept in mind, I think you will get even more out of the other videos I mentioned at the beginning.

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