The 3 Steps to Motivating Change

Who knew that asking someone to change required so much work? Or an elephant? ... anyone? Yeah, me neither.

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Yet, I have been reading this book called Switch by Chip & Dan Heath that is enlightening me to the complexity of change. I would consider myself to be a fairly rational being. I don't often (key word, often) let emotions control my decisions and can generally make a decision based on the logical course of action.

Misguided by the internal wiring of my brain, I've generally operated under the assumption that other people made decisions in a similar fashion. I haven't been so far from the truth in ages (that's a lie).

Change is affected, in a very broad sense, by three agents: your rational mind, your emotional mind and your circumstances. If you're a Freud fan, you've heard the rational mind referred to as the "ego" and the emotional mind as the "id". These two drivers of thought steer your mind in two different ways and, often, with two different results. The Rational Mind makes decisions based on what is the best course of action considering the circumstances. The Emotional Mind makes decisions based on primal instinct such as survival and self-gratification. Both mental capacities are essential for our growth as humans yet they often find themselves locked in combat. You've perhapse used the phrase "emotional battle" or "internal battle" - generally, this is referring to the struggle between what you know to be the rational choice and what you desperately want to do (despite the consequences).

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, provides us with a wonderful analogy that brings all of the high-in-the-sky psychology back down to earth. Imagine a six-ton elephant, powerful enough to overcome nearly any obstacle in its path. That is representative of your emotional mind. Now imagine a rider, sitting atop the elephant, forward thinking and knowledgeable enough to understand the route to a particular destination. The rider is your rational mind. As the pair ambles down the dirt road, the Rider calmly guides the Elephant along with his reins, tugging at them gently to take the Elephant down a particular path.

A short distance into the journey, however, the Elephant spots a banana grove just to the right, down a small dirt path. The Rider, knowing that reaching the destination requires them to take a left, pulls hard on the reins and steers the Elephant in the direction he wants him to go. Though exhausted, the Rider has gotten the pair back on track. This is called willpower. Each of us begin the day with a certain amount of willpower in which we can overpower our emotional mind with our rational mind, forcing it to bend to the logical decision that should be made. You may have drawn on your willpower reserve when you slap your alarm clock and roll out of bed for a 5:00am workout or when you pass up the snacks in the cabinet in your kitchen. You know what is good for you, you know what must be done, so you buckle down and, despite the ravenous desire to stay in bed or eat the Twinky, you do it.

Back to our story, our Rider and his Elephant are a few miles past the banana grove when the Elephant, again distracted by his immediate desires, begins straining to go off the beaten path toward a large mud hole where he can cool off. Understandably - who wouldn't want to roll around in mud hole? - but inconveniently so, he disobeys the will of the Rider and traipses off into the jungle. The Rider is tugging at the reins but to no avail - the six-ton elephant is no match for his strength. Why is it that our Rider could steer the Elephant back on course the first time he got distracted but not the second? Because willpower is not evergreen - it's a limited reserve that we are able to use up. You know what I'm talking about.

Getting home from a long day at work, in which your boss piled up more paperwork, your client asked you to "tweak the design" for the 50th time, and your co-worker requested that you take his shift, you plop down on the sofa to unwind. Fumbling around with the remote, you navigate the channels and settle in for an evening of binge watching "How I Met Your Mother." You know what would be perfect right now? Ice cream! And there's a whole gallon sitting in your freezer... but your on that stupid diet and you're only allowed one serving per week which you eagerly ate up on Monday. After pouting for a few seconds you decide that, since today was particularly stressful, you'd go ahead and eat a second serving this week and just skip it entirely next week. Digging through the cabinet, you find the largest bowl you can find before filling it with a mountain of ice cream and topping it off with some chocolate syrup. Two episodes in and you realize you've gotten another bowl full without even thinking about it.


A tired willpower is crushed under the resolve of a six-ton elephant who wants his bananas. In the end, no matter how strong your rational mind is, emotion must be along for the ride or, at some point along the way, the Elephant will get his way.

After a good roll around in the mud, the Elephant decides to give the Rider control again and continue on the journey. After a short time, they come to a 5-way intersection. The Rider knows that he can take either the 1st or 3rd route to get to his destination. Looking around, all but the 3rd route are blocked off, leaving only one path available. The Rider, happy that his choice was made for him points the Elephant toward route 3 and the Elephant, seeing only one option, heads for the open path. At this point, both the Rider and the Elephant are in sync but not because of a shared destination but simply by default. This is an example of shaped circumstance.

To put yourself back in your home, exhausted by a long day at work, this would be the equivalent of having no snacks whatsoever in your home. Your rational mind knows that it mustn't binge on snack food and your emotional mind isn't tempted by any tasty options so you settle in to watch "How I Met Your Mother" without compromising your diet. Sometimes, the easiest way to get your rational and emotional mind to play nice is to simply limit your options. This is why I've turned off all of my notifications on my phone except three - less pings should result in less time staring at my screen.

To motivate change, you must provide your Rider with direction, provide your elephant with motivation and modify your path.

1. Give Direction to your Rider

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
— Switch

Make sure your rider knows which direction to go, which path to take, how long the trip will be, how many tanks of ga... bananas his elephant will need etc. Give it to them straight and they'll be more inclined to move instead of analyze the situation to death.


2. Motivate your Elephant

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side - get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
— Switch

Getting your emotional side on board sometimes takes getting struck by lightning because a PowerPoint presentation just won't do it. You must relate to the heart, not just the mind. Give your "How" a "Why" and your Elephant will be more inclined to follow your Rider's lead.


3. Modify the Path

What looks like a people problem is often a situational problem. When you shape the “path” you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and the Elephant.
— Switch

If you're trying to form a habit, break a habit, accomplish a goal, meet a deadline or otherwise make a change, remove all options but the one you must take and saying "yes" won't be nearly as hard.

Now... go change the world.

Jacob Jolibois is the founder of The Archer's Guild. He has a habit of starting a large number of projects and is oddly enthusiastic about Disney. Ultimately, he's hoping to rid the world of mediocrity, lots of people at a time (one is too slow). Recently, he backpacked across 11 countries with Micah Webber.