It’s two weeks in since you’ve made your New Year’s resolution(s), and the temptations to break your promises are starting to get the best of you. You begin telling yourself things like, “Well it’s only one piece of cake” or, “I’ll just exercise on the weekend when I’m not so tired after work”, and slowly but surely you’re falling into the same patterns as last year.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, NOT THIS YEAR! When you start to hear those tiny voices in your head, you’re catering to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the “elephant”, or part of your brain whose response is automatic, emotional, and irrational. This is the part that thrives off of short-term satisfaction (like eating the whole chocolate bar at once). The other part of your brain is the “rider”, or the “rider of the elephant” if you will, whose response is controlled, analytical, and rational. This is the part that thrives off of calculating one’s actions (like contemplating how much sugar or dairy is in that chocolate bar before eating it).
The idea is that because the elephant is much larger and dominant, the rider often has a hard time steering it in one’s desired direction. So the “rider” may conclude that it’s better to have only a small piece of the chocolate while at the same time the elephant is stepping on the rider shouting; “Eat it all!” This makes it incredibly hard to change our behaviors when we want to. So how do we make the switch? How do we get the rider and elephant to work together?
Jonathan Haidt gives us three simple steps to begin changing our behavior which we will apply here to our New Year’s Resolution(s):
The first is giving direction to the rider, or knowledge of how to get to your destination. Whether it’s losing weight, getting that promotion, or making new friends, you’ve got to have the right tools. This means doing your research to conclude which tools fit best to your personal goals, having support, setting intermittent goals for yourself, all which will aid in sticking to a long term plan. Important to note that the plan should be one you wrote/typed out! Not just planned in your head.
The second is motivating the elephant, or tapping into your emotional side. This means reward yourself (but don’t splurge) when you achieve your intermittent goals! Go out with your friends or buy yourself a little something special, something meaningful. When we achieve intermittent goals, or small wins, we trigger positive emotions and are thus motivating the elephant to continue in this fashion! Acknowledge the importance of small wins by celebrating them aligns the elephant with its rider.
Last but not least is shaping the path, or allowing the rider and the elephant to progress. This means doing your best to remove or avoid any roadblocks. In other words, to shorten the distance to achieving your resolution(s), you have to remove the unnecessary and stick to your plan. As with the food example, remove any temptations from your kitchen, or if greater productivity you are after this year, set some distinct, predetermined allowed time to be on a ‘social media break’. So get rid of those distractions & stick to your schedule!
Yes, this is all much easier said than done, but now that you’re aware of the psychology behind it and given some tools to help you, you’re many steps closer to achieving your New Year’s Resolution(s)!