7 min read

The Elephant The Rider The Path


The reason change is hard is largely due to how people approach it. They try to change too many things at once.

The large lumbering elephant (your unconscious brain) in the room is out of your direct control. It doesn’t set goals, make judgements or decisions and it has no concept of time or self. It also keeps you alive and processes thousands of times more information without your voluntary control.

You can only consciously control the rider (the conscious brain) to try and steer the big lumbering part of your brain along a path. You (the rider) can only try to control so much at one time and must practice consistently to make things automatic for the elephant in a supportive way.

The Elephant Analogy
The path is beneath them…

This is the ultimate story behind my recommendation of changing only one thing at a time as you pursue weight loss (but you should still read it even if your objective is something else…).

Too much change too quickly never ends well.

This is by far the best analogy I’ve heard as an explanation of how your mind works on the most basic of levels, though horse-riding works as well.

Insight into the brain and how your brain monitors change is essential if you ever want to create a physical change.

Basic Mind Science

In psychology, you have 2 “main” parts to the brain:

1) The Conscious Brain

  • Is one track, can only focus on one thing at a time, has a limited processing ability (~2,000 bits of information per second)
  • Is responsible for the somatic nervous system, among other things
  • Is voluntary, controls conscious actions and things not under involuntary or unconscious control
  • Sets goals, creates judgements, makes decisions, likes to see results and ‘try new things’
  • Short-term memory (the experiencing self)
  • Is time-bound, thinks of things in the past and the future
  • In the Elephant analogy, is the rider on top of the elephant

2) The Unconscious Brain

  • Is multi-tasking, can focus on and process many things at one time and has a massive processing ability by comparison to the conscious mind (11 million bits of information per second)
  • It is responsible for the autonomic nervous system, which governs the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls numerous other things like the enteric nervous systemamong other things…
  • Is involuntary, controls many of the bodily functions like breathing, digestion, heart rate, reflexes, fight or flight response
  • Is habitual, behaviour-oriented, and likes the ‘familiar
  • Long-term memory – stores past experiences (the remembering self), attitudes, values and beliefs
  • Is timeless, thinks only in the present
  • In the Elephant analogy, is the elephant

As you can see from the basic brain science, focusing your conscious mind on one thing at a time is crucial in finding success with weight loss.

You simply don’t have the conscious capacity to steer an elephant down multiple paths at one time.

The Elephant Analogy

When it comes to weight loss, your conscious mind is the driver or rider of the elephant and your subconscious mind is the elephant.

Sure you’re in control — most of the time — but sometimes you feel like your mind has a mind of its own, and you’re right. That’s the elephant.

You (the rider) might really want to change how you eat or exercise. But there is just this unexplainable urge (the elephant) that holds you back from achieving it.

The elephant is full of excuses because it likes the current status quo; You’re too tired; You didn’t eat well anyway; You didn’t sleep well; You don’t really know how to do it so you’re wasting your time; You don’t have the time in the first place; And so on and so forth…

It’s really hard to lead the elephant along a path of change. The elephant likes the familiar path, the easy road, stuff that it’s done before and knows it can handle. The elephant keeps trying to nudge you towards the familiar path, the one it’s already on or done.

Your conscious brain spends a lot of its energy just trying to keep that elephant on the new path it wants. The more it has to do that, the more exhaustion it experiences. Similar to ego-depletion.

Push too many paths (changing a lot of things at once) and you’ll spook the elephant. It will always resort back to the familiar path. The familiar path is the path of least resistance.

If the elephant has come to really dig beers after work, watching T.V. five hours a day, crappy take-out food, and a slew of bad habits that contributed to your weight gain in the first place, then this is the easy path for it to continue to follow.

It’s an evolutionary thing. Things like the fight or flight response, our stretch reflex, or our heart rate are designed to overrule our ‘conscious brain,’ in order to keep us alive.

If we had to consciously think about all these different processes going on in the body at one time, we would surely die.

It’s information overload, so the elephant takes the driver’s seat. It is habitual and keeps things automatic.

Push too many paths and you also exhaust your conscious ability to facilitate change beyond what it can usually manage.

In essence, you just tucker yourself out, and by the end of the day you probably give in to the elephant. Inspiration and self-control are exhaustible resources.

As we know, the rider can really only guide the elephant.

That’s why we can slow our heart rates a little with conscious thought — an advantage of meditation for instance. We can slow our breathing a little, but stop breathing and your unconscious mind will eventually force you to.

The conscious mind only has enough bandwidth to truly focus on one thing at a time. The unconscious mind is trying to keep you even-keeled and alive.

I know you’re thinking to yourself, ‘but I’m a good multi-tasker!’ You’re not, even if you’re good relative to other humans.

All human beings don’t multi-task well, we aren’t machines. The more conscious effort and decision making we have to do in a day, the less we want to. The less we’re capable of. The worse decisions we end up making.

The less decision making you have to do in a day, the better your decisions end up being. The less fighting and wrangling with the elephant you have to do in a day, the happier you’ll be.

The more things you can make automatic in the long-run, the fewer decisions you have to make. Then the more the elephant can walk the path you want it to, without too much conscious thought.

How to Control the Elephant

Since we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time, the moment we divert our attention from kids, to work and the stresses of modern life; It’s hard to keep the elephant on the weight loss path.

He (or she…) is kind of easily distracted, so the elephant will keep turning down the familiar path effortlessly. Unless you’re constantly on him, steering him down the right path in the direction you want.

That is until he becomes familiar with the path you’re trying to walk down. This is the objective of behaviour change. Rather than focusing on half a dozen different things you want to change, focus on one pattern of behaviour you want to change instead.

In the process of change, you must continually reinforce your path (skills, habits, behaviours) and ingrain it in the unconscious mind so that it becomes familiar. Then you can get back to worrying about your kids, your income and your job.

If the familiar path is going to the gym every morning, or doing your quick workout at home every morning, that’s what the elephant knows. You no longer have to wrangle with it to get the effect that you want.

If the familiar path is ordering that salad when you’re eating out or cooking lean proteins with most meals, that’s what the elephant knows. You know longer have to wrestle it away from that 1000 kcal burger and fries or pull it away from those ribs or chicken wings.

The more familiar the path to the elephant the less decision making you have to do, the less ego depletion you deal with, the better decisions you make each day.

The Secret of Long-Term Weight Maintenance

The unconscious mind can focus on a bunch of different things at one time, you can’t.

The moment you try to do a million different conscious things or change several things about yourself at once. Now you’re constantly fighting with the elephant in every direction and ultimately, getting nowhere.

You’re also slowly by surely exhausting your mental resources, in a way that results in poorer decision making over the course of a day.

There is a reason few people make bad decisions about food early in the morning. There is a reason people are less likely to skip a morning or early afternoon workout than they are to skip an evening one.

The elephant won’t know which path to take without a clear objective, or focus, that you consciously need to impose on it, steering it in the direction you want. You have to train the elephant on the path.

This reinforced path eventually becomes the default path that the elephant instinctively follows on its own. You’re attempting to get to the point where the elephant requires very little guidance from you.

That’s the secret.

Right now you may have to consciously think about planning your meals on a weekly basis, keeping your pantry clean of junk food, eating slowly, practicing Hara Hachi bu, eating five servings of veggies a day, exercising three to six times a week, eating lean protein with most meals, and so on and so forth.

Eventually though, if you’re consistent enough in practicing a skill, habit or behaviour, the unconscious will take over. The more your unconscious does, the heck of a lot easier it is to maintain.

You’ll wonder how you ever got by before…