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VOL. 37 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 5, 2013
Can you really train that elephant?
Early in his book “Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt states that the mind is divided into separate parts that sometimes work against each other. “Like a rider on an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.”
For years I’ve wondered why I, and most of my clients, often know exactly what we need to do, but then consistently fail to follow through on our knowledge?
In terms of the rider/elephant example, the rider can direct and control things – as long as the elephant does not have desires of his own! If you want to go left, you can pull on the reins all you want in an attempt to get the elephant to go left – but if the elephant, for whatever reason, wants to go right, guess what, you’re going to go right.
The rider in this example represents the parts of your brain that handle intellectual activities related to your behavior. The elephant represents the parts of your brain that handle instinctive activities related to your behavior. In the absence of a specific strategy to create an intellectual-based outcome, the instinctive mind easily wins.
Lets translate this into a real world example. One of the more common issues I often deal with in my executive coaching practice is helping people get more organized.
Let’s use pieces of paper that you receive on a typical day as an example; papers that trigger demands on your time and energy. Say you read a piece of paper and decide you must follow up on it. I relate this event to a common kitchen event such as taking a fork, glass or dish out of the dishwasher and placing it in its storage place until you need it again. Because you have a pre-designed place to store things, it is easier to form the habit of putting things away in your kitchen and maintaining reasonable order.
Based on this same principle, to get started I ask people to set up a group of hanging files in their office labeled “1” to “31.” Similar to the kitchen example, if you read the piece of incoming paper on the fifth of the month and decide to take action on it the next day, you would simply drop it in the file labeled ‘6.’ The alternative is to allow clutter to quickly build up in your office.
There is no magic to the hanging files other than they facilitate the repetition of behavior that prevents the build up of clutter and helps you keep things in order.
Now back to the rider and the elephant. Explaining the use of the files to prevent the build up of clutter is, in effect, working on the rider. Getting people to repeat the desired behavior over and over and over is the equivalent of working on the elephant.
If you are like most people, I suspect your rider is already well informed. What are you doing to get the elephant to change?
Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.