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3 Simple Hacks to Steer Your Elephantine Mind Towards Perfect Productivity

The elephant is the part of us reluctant to accept change. The rider is our rational self. Here's how to be more productive by helping them work together.
by Caitlin Schiller | Jun 14 2016

Change is difficult. Breaking bad habits and sticking to new ones is also a challenge. This is because your brain is in a daily struggle between its rational side and its impulsive side. There is a particularly helpful way to view this duality, and it’s fittingly gray and wrinkly like your own cerebral matter.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath draw up a new metaphor of mind: that of elephant and rider. The elephant is the obstinate, irrational part of us reluctant to accept change while the rider represents our rational selves that can guide us in the right direction. The book offers three shortcuts for moving your elephant forward on a path toward your goals. Try using them to get more productive today.

1. Give your inner rider clear directions

Choice is overwhelming to our minds, so simplify your options by giving your inner rider clear directions. A group of health researchers in West Virginia experimented by substituting vague advice like “eat healthier,” with direct advice like, “Next time you’re buying milk, buy 1% instead of whole.” The advice was so easy to follow that the market share of low-fat milk doubled, dramatically lowering people’s fat consumption. The clear directive made the change easy because it eliminated loopholes, set clear expectations, and degree of goal attainment (either you buy low fat milk next time you’re at the store or don’t) was very clear. In your day-to-day, you might try something with a crystal-clear goal and expectations like, “Before lunchtime today, write for twenty minutes without stopping.”

2. Climb that mountain in small steps

For the elephant, a massive change looks like an unscalable mountain. As a result, the elephant freezes. Rather than attempting to force it forward in strides, take small steps. What this looks like in practical terms is choosing meaningful milestones that yield small wins. Finance expert Dave Ramsey, mentioned in Switch, uses just this approach to help people out of debt, advising them to pay off their smallest debts first. It’s more motivating to eliminate small debts entirely than to reduce a larger debt by a fraction. So, if getting rid of your household clutter is your next thing to tackle, you might try breaking it down into rooms and smaller units, like. “Clean out the bedroom closet by Monday.”

3. Use the herding instinct to your advantage

At heart, humans are pack animals, so when faced with difficult choices or ambiguous situations, we follow examples set by others. This is why TV shows have laugh tracks and why bartenders seed their tip jars at an evening’s start. Use the human herding instinct by showing yourself that you’re on the right track—and everybody else is, too. If you want to write 100 pages of your novel over the course of the next month, you might arrange to attend a writer’s meetup that puts you in a room with a bunch of similarly toiling scriveners, once a week. By seeing others be productive and meet their similar goals, you can trick your mind into getting literary, too.

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