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You win by playing the game. However, knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get going; to keep on getting going, day after day, year after year. Habit will carry you after a while, but what about enjoyment? Let’s assume this matters. Research shows if you’re having fun doing something, you are way more likely to keep doing it, and that if you’re not enjoying something, the chances of you keeping doing it are slim. So how do we preserve the good feels you had when you started, in this new context? Well, first a short story to help understand how your brain makes decisions.
The Elephant and The Rider
This is a story and metaphor that we find aptly describes our internal processes. We’ll just be descriptive rather than tell the whole story, which you can read here. Our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is the 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. Who’s really in charge?
You are probably familiar with situations in which your Elephant overpowers your Rider. If you’ve ever slept in, skipped the gym, skipped school, ate a bunch of junk food, procrastinated and missed a deadline, tried to quit smoking and failed, gotten angry and said something you regretted, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, etc. Often times, the more the Rider tries to exert control — tugging on the reins — the more angrily the Elephant flexes its muscles and rebels.
Step 1 for you beginning to make better decisions and is just acknowledging that this is true: our emotions are more powerful than our rational thoughts!
Long term commitments often get derailed because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the same path long enough to reach the destination. The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment. However, to make progress toward a goal requires the energy and drive of the Elephant, it is just that much stronger. But this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. Left to their own devices, the Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things, and the Elephant tends to wander aimlessly (to the next shiny object), or off a cliff. An aimless Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move in harmony, big things are possible.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: “How can I get my Elephant and Rider moving together?”
This requires you to take a step back and out of the Rider’s saddle periodically, and become the Mediator for yourself instead. Or hire a Coach to help you do the same ;). Your new job is to make sure that the Rider’s objectives can align with the Elephant’s needs; in short that you’re not fighting against yourself and your own tendencies. This doesn’t mean you always do what feels good either (doh!). You are instead laying a clear path of breadcrumbs that satisfy your Elephant’s desire for short-term reward, while consistently moving both closer toward the destination (which may change). This is the basis of the Bright Spots approach to Goal Setting we use. Your long-term goals are awesome, but you’re going to need something smaller to get you to jump out of bed tomorrow morning. Something that will make you feel good.
The great news is that this feel-good thing can be almost anything, and can change with time and the seasons of life. For example, working out to a new playlist that you like, and vibing with it while you work. A favorite cup of coffee (not a naughty treat) after your workout is done. Running to a vista point to watch the sunset. Agreeing to wear matching headbands or socks with a workout buddy tomorrow. Signing up for an upcoming event with friends. Most people find human connection-based feelings emotionally satisfying, and it can serve two functions: giving the Elephant the shot of joy it needs, and holding your Rider accountable. The more often you can tie your success to sharing in an experience with others, the better.
The not so good news is that you’re going to have to learn to think in a different way. We must learn to seek satisfaction in some small part of the process, rather than in focusing exclusively on the long-term objective. Look for beauty in the minutiae of movement, and in the pauses between. We can also learn a lot by acknowledging our mental strengths and weaknesses — without judgement — and identifying the things about our personalities we can change, and which ones we cannot. This is the work of a lifetime. But it is possible, and you can make a big difference in your own life and in those around you (and therefore, the world) by daring to try. One domino falls, and then the next. Go knock over the first one today, and find a simple pleasure in doing it.