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Willpower, Change, and an Elephant

by Stevan Freeborn | Follow on Twitter

if they have enough discipline, desire, and knowledge then nothing can get in the way of their goal but they’re missing something…

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I‘m reminded of a story where an elephant traveling along a path is being “guided” by a rider.

The rider is a symbol for a person’s conscious and/or rationale mind, the part of us that understands why eating McDonald’s seven times a week isn’t in the best interest of our health.

The elephant is a symbol for our unconscious and/or emotional mind, the part of us that would rather eat ice cream for dinner instead of cooking up those chicken breast in the freezer.

The path is an analogy for our own daily environment.

It’s a brilliant metaphor and even better way of imagining the process of change.

Our client’s only address the rider or their conscious minds when trying to change. They understand that the way they’re living is not conducive to longevity and graceful aging (or perhaps getting a booty like Jessica Biel) so they seek out someone to help them devise a plan to better health and coach them through said plan.

They believe that if they have enough discipline, desire, and knowledge then nothing can get in the way of their goal.

This may be true for some, but most of the time addressing and relying only on the power of their conscious mind to be the propeller of change ends in disappointment.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised to see this happen. Research shows that this part of our psyche, the part that makes decision and regulates our behavior, is a limited resource.

Research has also shown that we don’t have different wells of self control for different areas of our life. Every choice we make throughout the day drains a bit of our self control, whether that be choosing what to eat for dinner or what pair of jeans to wear. Although the choices see to be unrelated and even somewhat benign they both draw from the same resource pool.

All this means is that we must make our clients understand that they can’t rely on their self control and conscious mind to carry the load in the change process. At some point they’ll run out of it and will begin to take the path of least resistance.

To go back to the metaphor described earlier, although your rider is very strong he’s no match for the strength and endurance of the elephant he’s trying to control. At some point the rider’s strength will give out and the elephant will be free to take the path it chooses.

This could be a bad situation for your client who, after a long day at a stressful job making a lot of tough decisions, encounters several tasty restaurant options on their route home.

So if we want our clients to be successful, we must make sure that they’re frugal with their self control and help them get leverage over their elephant.

I’ve found no better way to explain the concept of willpower and its limitedness than how Dan John explains it in his book Never Let Go.

There’s another analogy of a can of shaving gel. Each person is given only a certain amount to use and when the can runs out, it runs out. It doesn’t give you any kind of warning or reminder to restock up. It simply runs out and then you can’t shave until it is replenished.

This parallels willpower perfectly. Once you’ve used up your can of willpower it’s depleted and you’re unable to make the tough decisions when they really matter.

Now that your client gets the idea that they can’t simply will their way through this change, we have to help them identify and direct their elephant.

I do this through a questionnaire process that takes little time and gives you an excellent idea of what your client’s elephant is thinking and how you can make sure the elephant stays on the right path when the rider wears out.

I’ve included a free download of my questionnaire for you below. First, allow me to explain it.

The first question is meant to probe your client’s rider. You want to find out where their rider wants to go. What is your client’s goal?

The follow-up question is to probe your rider for why he or she wants to go here or why they want to accomplish this goal. This is important because you can use this info to appeal to your client’s rider and at times help replenish some of their willpower.

The third question is when you begin to address the client’s elephant. You have to find out what the client perceives to be giving up or losing to achieve their goal. This is you speaking with their elephant. This answer shows you where the elephant will want to take your client once the rider is tired and no longer in control.

Now that you’ve established both what your client’s rider wants and what their elephant is seeking, you can find out what directions you need to give the elephant to ensure that no matter how tired the rider is, your client can still make progress towards their goal.

Chip and Dan Health refer to this process as shaping the path.

You want to find out what behaviors or actions are going to get in the way of them achieving their goal. These trouble behaviors are the moments when the rider fatigues and the elephant takes over choosing a path all its own.

Then you can subsequently find out where and when these behaviors most commonly occur. This gives you the specific time of day and place where the client’s rider gives up and where the elephant is largely in charge.

With your client’s answers to these questions, you now know what the elephant wants and when and where it needs to be given direction.

This allows us as trainers to provide specific and targeted coaching about the timing of eating and training as well as help our clients understand when they’re most susceptible to making poor decisions that negatively affect their change progress.

Let me end with a quick example of this kind of targeted coaching.

Imagine a client that has difficulty resisting restaurants on their way home after a long day at work and tough training session at the gym. I used this questionnaire on her after a long talk about her frustrations with doing so well with her diet all day long until the drive home from the gym, when she typically self destructed the diet by pulling through a drive to pick up dinner.

What the questionnaire allowed me to see was that my client’s rider regularly wore out and turned control over to her elephant in the time between leaving the gym and sitting down to relax before bed each night.

This allowed me to give my client three targeted pieces of advice that would help provide her elephant direction while her rider was replenishing.

  • I asked her to start drinking a protein shake on her way home from the gym as a way to hopefully distract and/or satisfy her elephant’s want to eat salty and sugary foods.
  • I asked her to find any choices or decisions that she made during the day either related to work or her personal life that she could either outsource or get rid of.
  • I made sure to remind her why she was training with me at the end of every training session before she left the gym.

And guess what? After implementing just one of the three suggested strategies the after-gym drive through saga ended!

Maybe you won’t use this system will every client, but it’s another tool that we can put in our superhero trainer tool box and have on hand when the right time presents itself.

Click here to download your Elephant Identification and Direction Questionnaire

About the Author
Stevan Freeborn

Stevan Freeborn ACSM-CPT is a trainer from Joplin, MO. He trains clients both in person and online. When he isn’t, he enjoys picking up heavy things, crushing trail mix, and being a coffee snob. He would love it if you would connect with him on Facebook or Twitter and spend a few minutes getting inside his head at Freeborn Training systems.