When Simple Isn’t Easy: Using Emotions to Make Lasting Change

By Coach Mike Flanagan

01/11/2021

For many athletes, the start of a New Year is a time for goal setting; we ask ourselves what we can do to get healthier, to improve our performance, or to master a new skill.  Some goals are complex, like improving our Olympic lifts or gymnastics.  Others are direct in concept, but audacious in scope—like finishing a triathlon or a long Spartan race—and so require complex planning to train and prepare.   Complex goals are good!  The mental challenge they offer us can give them a sense of urgency, making them more engaging and fun.   

With that said, even the most dedicated athletes can only spend so much time in the gym, and a hard truth is that once we’re done with our workouts and back to our daily grinds, it’s all too easy to make choices that undermine our recovery, progress, and overall health.  What can be even more frustrating is that many of the changes that will benefit us most aren’t complex at all.  Rather, they are brutally simple.   Consider this list: 

  • Get enough sleep
  • Stay properly hydrated
  • Move more
  • Eat more nutritious foods
  • Drink less alcohol 
  • Mobilize

Perhaps you’re nailing every one of these, every day.  If so, congrats!  You’re probably crushing it in the gym and in life, and you should celebrate that, because doing so takes constant commitment: it’s hard work.  But if you’re like most of us, and you’re being honest with yourself, at least a few of these are in the “should” category, as in: “Yeah I really should . . . ”   

So what’s keeping us from doing these things?  It’s not their complexity—none of them needs any explanation or special training.  Rather, what can make changes like these so hard is that we don’t really feel like changing.  More precisely, our rational/logical brains know that there is value in changing, but our emotional/affective selves prefer (strongly!) the things we’d have to give up to make these changes happen.   In short, we have what authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to as an “Elephant/Rider” problem.

As experts in organizational psychology and behavioral economics, the Heath brothers generally focus on challenges faced by leaders and entrepreneurs, but their 2010 best-seller – Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard  – offers lessons around change management that apply to individuals struggling with their own goal setting.  They frame their work with a metaphor from psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

The conventional wisdom in psychology . . . is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times.  First, there’s . . . the emotional side.  It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure.  Second, there’s the rational side. . . the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

. . . 

Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.  Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

As someone who has historically struggled with managing my diet and therefore my weight, but has made a lot of progress this year on both, the power of the Elephant/Rider metaphor is three-fold:

  • It acknowledges and frames the scope of the challenge.  None of our “simple” changes is easy, because none of them can be made by the Rider alone.  The Elephant is a non-negotiable part of the equation, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can “get real” about the level of effort and planning that will be required.
  • It takes negative self-talk—cycles of recrimination and blame–out of the equation.  Since it’s not physically possible for the Rider to restrain the Elephant, it would be ridiculous to blame the Rider for failing to do so.  Yelling and
    cajoling won’t change the power imbalance between the two.
  • It illuminates a path forward, through what the Heaths describe as “finding the feeling.”   “In almost all successful change efforts,” they tell us, “the sequence of change is not ANALYZE – THINK – CHANGE,” but rather SEE – FEEL – CHANGE”.  You’re presented with evidence that makes you feel something . . . something that hits you at the emotional level.  It’s something that speaks to the Elephant.”  

There are two keys to this last move.  The first, of course, is “Feeling”, which is what makes it so powerful.  Emotions are universal.  Everyone has an Elephant, and the Elephant is always in charge.   The second, however, is “Finding,” which takes real time and effort.  Emotions are personal. The specific emotion that will drive you to make a tough change will likely differ from a friend’s, even if you’re making the same change.  

To make this approach work, then, you have to reflect to find a specific emotion, and also consciously align it with your rational goal, reminding yourself of that connection as often as necessary.  You have to be very intentional, in other words, in training your Elephant and Rider to pull in the same direction.    In my case, I found motivation from freak pairing of health scares in the spring: my father had a heart attack and needed a stent implanted, and the same week, a college classmate of mine had heart issues requiring an identical stent.

On one hand, this was not the most transferable of lessons–it was based on events outside my control, was specific to my relationships, and it involved a weird fluke of probability—but on the other hand, that’s what made it so powerful; it was a laser-guided munition targeted at things that spoke to me: “this terrifying event that happened to someone you love also happened to a friend who is your exact age and in seemingly good health.”   What is transferable is how I used the resulting fear: I chose to harness it, to help me do something I had been trying to do anyway.  After all, my Rider has always known that I’ll be leaner and more energetic if I eat more lean protein and fewer processed carbs—but that knowledge alone hasn’t delivered lasting results.  The difference now is that I’ve gotten my Elephant on board, rather than pulling me towards the cookie jar or beer fridge.

Using emotions as motivation isn’t new.  Rather, what’s different here is a matter of sequencing.  Whether it’s the camaraderie of a tough group class, the delight of discovering a new skill, or the pride in ringing the PR bell, the typical sequence is that our hard work is the cause, and our emotions the effect: we then go back to class and back to work to find that feeling again.  What I’d like to propose is that this year, you flip the script and use the feeling to drive the work.  As part of your planning process, take the time to find an emotion that you can rely on to motivate you, and then mentally tether it to a hard change, perhaps one you’ve been struggling to make.  My hope is to see you drive that change successfully through 2021 and beyond, with your own Elephant leading the way.