The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path


In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath look at the reasons it often feels so hard to making lasting changes in our lives.

The reasons can be surprising.

Psychologists have discovered that we have two different minds that compete for control all day long: our rational mind and our emotional mind.

This competition for control of our actions is described beautifully by Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, as our rational mind (the Rider) sitting on top of our emotional mind (the Elephant).

The Rider is constantly on the lookout for clear directions and a clear destination. In other words, the Rider wants a plan. And if there is no specific plan of action, the Rider will analyze and think and over-think and then agonize and back around again.

The Elephant is all about motivation and action. If the Elephant doesn’t want to do something, it won’t take action – no matter how much the Rider insists. If you have ever slept in when you told yourself you’d get up early, or piled up more papers on the desk right after you vowed to get organized for good this time, you’ve experienced the Elephant running the show.

The Path that the Elephant and Rider travel is equivalent to the environment and how well it is set up to support the desired action. If there seem to be insurmountable obstacles on the Path, if there is not enough support, or if the environment keeps the undesired behavior firmly in place, it’s going to be really hard for the Rider and Elephant to stay on that Path.

But the opposite is also true.

When you get the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path all on board and supporting the same desired action, change can be surprisingly fast.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Make sure the Rider is clear about what needs to be done, and be very specific. Choose a small number of actions that are critical to success, and ignore all the rest.
  2. Get the Elephant on board by connecting with the feeling of what the Elephant wants, and by taking small, bite-sized action steps that don’t trigger resistance or fear.
  3. Set up the Path to make the change easy. Make the environment supportive and instill simple habits that become routines.

When you start to eliminate the distractions go after what really matters to you, you will definitely stir up the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path.

Make no mistake: the principles we're talking about are radical. They’re not for the faint of heart. But you were led here for a reason.

You’re ready for radical.

You’re ready to make the shift from overwhelmed to calm, confident, and successful.

As you shift, the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path will synchronize more and more.