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Motivation: It’s All About Your Elephant

During times of crisis and uncertainty, it’s normal for motivation to decline. It makes sense. It’s hard to be stressed and motivated at the same time. It’s hard to be fearful and motivated at the same time.

But there is a way to continue to make progress in these unusual times, motivated or not.

The idea of motivating the elephant comes from the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. They present the idea that each person has a rider and an elephant. Our rider is our mental, thinking side, and its job is to direct the elephant. The elephant is our emotional side. I’m sure everyone has experienced the power and force of their elephant going berserk in times of heightened emotion. I know I have.

With the pandemic spreading across the globe, our elephants have the power to derail all the hard-won progress we made before COVID-19. However, there are ways we can motivate, and maybe even tame our elephants.

One great strategy for doing this is shrinking the change or action you’re trying to achieve.

For example – maybe you’re having a hard time getting motivated to workout. Your elephant just isn’t down for a thirty minute workout because it’s worried about the health of family members or finances or having enough groceries to survive a two week lock-down…

The solution? Commit to a mere 5 minutes of exercise. If even that feels like too much on a particularly challenging day, commit to getting up and doing twenty squats.

This has been a huge help for me in creating consistent habits.

I struggled to maintain a regular yoga practice in the past because I was trying to do 20+ minute yoga videos every day. Now, I aim for a minimum of ten minutes. Sometimes I do more, but the most important part is keeping the habit loop going.
I also struggled to meditate regularly in the past. My rider’s ambitions were more than my elephant was willing to do in the beginning. I was shooting for ten minutes every day. I realized that it would be better to do five – or even three – minutes of meditation daily than doing ten minutes a few times a week. This is another habit I’ve been able to improve, and I’ve been able to meditate for longer more often.
Another big one for me was writing. I had lofty ambitions of writing over a thousand words every day at one point. Then I was introduced to 4thewords, an online writing game where you aim to write a daily word count of 444 words. That felt way more doable for my elephant. Some days, that’s all I do. But often, I do more.

The reason this works so well is that the hardest part is getting started. Once you get that over with by telling your elephant that you only have to do the thing for a short span of time, it’s easier to keep going.

How To Motivate Your Elephant:

Think about what changes you’d like to make or what habits you’d like to build consistently that have been challenging to this point.
Ask yourself how you could shrink the change down to the smallest possible size. For example, if you want to walk daily, commit to a five minute walk. If you want to meditate daily, commit to sitting and focusing on your breathing for two minutes.
Prioritize consistency over the perfect version of the habit. See how many days you can keep the habit going. It can be helpful to mark an ‘X’ on your calendar for each day you complete the action. Aim to never skip twice.
Celebrate each and every time you take the action or build the habit, regardless of how small the action. Elephants are driven by emotion. When we celebrate and feel awesome about our achievements, then our elephants are driven to take more action and we make even more progress.

I like to think about progress as being similar to levels in a video game. You don’t go from level one to level sixty-eight. You go from level one to level two. Focus on one small action and one level at a time and eventually, your elephant and your rider will get where you want them to go together.


By: Kayla Van Egdom
Fitness & Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach
Certified Mind Body Eating Coach