There’s a battle in your mind, and if you don’t get everyone on the same page, you’ll lose the war.

If not now, when?

Change is hard. From diets to purchasing behaviours, if you don’t engage both sides of the brain, then you’re facing a losing battle.

I want to change, I know I need to, but I keep saying I’ll start tomorrow. What’s wrong with me? Apparently nothing. Changing behaviour is hard, yet not impossible.

When setting goals it’s easy to say “I’ll start tomorrow”. Allowing this escape path, provides us plenty of time to think about why we shouldn’t start. When you understand how your brain makes decisions, it’s easier to approach goals in ways to set yourself up for success.

How we make decisions

Your brain thinks in rational and emotional arguments. My favourite analogy for this is from the change management book Switch. The authors Chip and Dan Heath describe our decision making process as an elephant and a rider. The logical rider can steer the elephant as long as it’s a direction it wants to go. When the sides disagree, the larger elephant, or emotional reasoning, is likely to get it’s own way.

The rider is in charge of planning and analytical thinking. The rider can get stuck over-thinking decisions. Without clarity and direction, the rider is powerless over the large elephant.

The elephant is in charge of our emotions, our gut responses. For good reason, we’re wired to prioritise the elephant over the rider. This has kept us safe from predators for thousands of years, but it can backfire when we try change our own behaviour.

Understanding how we make decisions is critical for marketing, sales, design and nearly every aspect of business. It’s also important for understanding how you make decisions personally. This knowledge can help you stick with decisions, even if when your emotional elephant brain doesn’t agree at first.

When you force the logical part of your brain to suppress and ignore the emotional side you’re exerting willpower. Willpower and discipline are often considered personality traits but they’re actually an exerted energy for our rational mind to control our emotional one. This energy is exhausting, continuing to force yourself to suppress your emotional desires wears you down. Eventually the elephant will get its way.

The way to successful change behaviours is to win over both the elephant and the rider.

Consider starting a new diet. You try to control your impulses and restrict yourself from foods you consider “bad”. After a while you start to resent the diet and crave those foods. Most people eventually succumb to this temptation. It’s not because they’re weak or ill disciplined, they’re exhausted. They need to get their whole brain into the challenge of weight loss for the best chance of success.

Studies have shown students who have to resist eating cookies before attempting a difficult task, show less willpower than those who didn’t. They gave up easier than other students because they’d used up their willpower resisting the cookies already. Our ability to master our emotions is limited.

For myself, big decisions require rational thought processes. I make pros and cons lists and get feedback from others. If I don’t get my emotional brain on side, I’m simple tugging on the reins of an elephant, and exhausting my willpower reserves.

I’ve mentioned before, one way I get my emotional side onboard is positive peer pressure. I let others know what I want to achieve in the hopes this will motivate me further. The fear of letting others down is a strong emotional motivator for me. This approach has helped me succeed in personal goals from starting a meetup group through to running a half-marathon.

However, not all goals are suited to positive peer pressure. Some goals require you alone to put in the hard yards. But in all cases starting your goal today, rather than putting it for tomorrow, is your best case of success. Tomorrow is just an euphemism for never.

How to start today

Direct your rider

Your emotional brain has the tendency to over-analyze and struggle to make decisions without clarity. You can help direct your rational brain in the right way by focusing on:

  • Small wins — understand the repeatable actions you should you keep doing
  • The promised land—what the ideal outcome of success is
  • Plan your attack — create actionable goals and document your intended approach

To win over the rider, and get your rational brain heading in the right direction, write down these things to make them real. This exercise should only take a few minutes, so there’s no reason not to do it today!

This is the part I have no problems with, my bigger struggle is my stubborn elephant…

Motivate the elephant

How often have you seen a well constructed plan filled with rational facts and figures fail to achieve change in a workplace. A great example are workplace paper reduction policies which rely on figures and stats of cost reduction. The rational arguments aren’t persuasive enough to convince us to change.

  • Create a sense of urgency — is there a deadline or event your goal can be tied to which makes it important you start today?
  • Make it smaller — instead of trying to lose 20 kgs, focus on losing 1kg to start with. Breaking down goals into manageable chunks makes the process less daunting and scary.
  • Expect failure — your emotional brain takes failure hard and small slip-ups can lead to completely giving up. Don’t be too hard on yourself but be aware in any large change there will be ups and downs. The importance part is getting going again when you fall off track.

The emotional side of our brain is more likely to get overwhelmed by big changes. I know this myself. I’ve been researching diet changes to help overcome my migraines and hayfever. I’ve decided to try Paleo. I’ve read books and blogs. My rational brain is convinced. But it’s been weeks and I haven’t started.

Why? I haven’t got my emotions onside.

My emotional brain has won the fight so far. It’s demanded it’s too hard to make a huge change while travelling. It’s just an excuse though! Faced with the prospect of cutting out potatoes, bread, alcohol, processed sugars and all packaged foods, my elephant has gone into flight mode!

My new plan of attack is to slowly remove the non-Paleo things over the next few weeks and see how I go, keeping a track of results to help keep both sides of my brain on track.

To start your goal today, think about how you will get your emotional side onboard with the change. Be aware of the things that will trip you up on the way and be equipped for facing them. Again write these down to make them real.

There’s one last change management principle that can help you achieve personal goals; shaping the path. These are environmental changes to increase your chances of success. You can make it easier to achieve your goals by:

  • Removing obstacles and escape paths — for me, not buying non-Paleo foods is the obvious first step, but given we’re eating out a lot, I’m wary of other obstacles to be watchful for, such as free bread at restaurants (darn it’s so good though!)
  • Create good habits — little routines can make a big difference, if you’re trying to quit smoking, you might want to replace the habit of standing outside at morning tea with going for a quick walk around the block.
  • Get supporters onboard — this is the trick I usually employ with positive peer pressure, change is easier when you’re not alone. Can you share your goal with someone else and work on it together? Sorry hubby but you’re getting roped into this Paleo thing too!

Why does this matter?

Self-reflection is a powerful tool in achieving personal goals. Be honest and aware of why you’re delaying until tomorrow and how you’re going to overcome this. Without understanding how your brain responds to change, it’s easy to stumble before you reach your finishing line. Understanding how change management relates to personal goals also helps you see why changing behaviours in the workplace or our customers is also difficult without engaging emotional and rational arguments.

Switch by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath is an excellent introduction to change management, it’s only $9.24 on Kindle so give it a read.


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