The Rider, the Elephant & the Path: How to Change when Change is Hard



In the book “Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard”, Chip and Dan Heath make a point that in most situations, what may look like a people problem, is really a situation problem. To kick the book off they discuss a study involving a group of unsuspecting moviegoers that were given different sized tubs of popcorn and a soda as they entered the theater. The folks were now the participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. Some received regular sized tubs of popcorn; others received extra large tubs. In both cases, the tubs were created to be large enough so that no one person could finish the popcorn during the course of one movie.

What they did next was pretty cool, to remove the taste factor, they let this popcorn sit out for days so by the time the study participants were to eat it, it’d be stale and not so enjoyable. The study aimed to answer the question, would someone with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply of popcorn?

The researchers weighed the buckets of popcorn before and after the movie to see how much popcorn had actually been eaten. The results? People with large buckets at 53% more popcorn than the people with regular sized. The equivalent of 173 more calories!

The author of the study described this as Mindless Eating. The author and his team have conducted several popcorn studies, all of which had similar results. It didn’t matter what state they were in, what movie was playing or how terrible the popcorn was, the results were the same, people eat more when you give them more.

How many times have you eaten out of boredom? You weren’t driven by true hunger or pleasure, but you ate because the food was there and why the hell not?

The Heath brothers go on to explain that what might look like a people problem is often a situation problem. In other words, in order to really change things we need to consider if we’re setting the stage for actual change to occur.

Chip and Dan tell us that we need to deal with change from three perspectives: Rational, Emotional and Situational. Throughout the book they illustrate these perspectives as a rider (rational) leading an elephant (emotional) down a narrow path (situation). If your goal is to change, consider their metaphor like this, first you must direct the rational mind, motivate the emotional mind and shape the path that the rider on the elephant is going down.

How does this relate to fitness? Your rider may want to lose weight but isn’t sure how. Your elephant is tired of the run-around and doesn’t want to give up those cookies. And your path may be littered with a cabinet full of sweets.

When you direct the rational mind (rider), what might look like resistance is often times a lack of clarity. For change to happen, we need to have a good understanding of where we want to go and how to get there. Too many changes, not enough clarity, will confuse your rider and keep you going in circles. Chunking down and making your plan as simple as possible to begin is your best approach. Take the first step to get moving, get motivated and build habits.

  • Stuck on how to approach your nutrition?
    • Action Item #1: Focus on consuming a palm sized whole protein source at each meal.
  • Not sure where to begin in the gym?
    • Action Item #2: Start by just committing to hit the gym once per week. The next week, add an extra day until you’re in the gym 3-4 times per week.

Motivate the emotional mind (elephant); what looks like laziness is often exhaustion. To appeal to your emotional side, create powerful visuals and clear incentives. Set benchmark goals and give yourself rewards. Keeping the carrot in front of you will keep the elephant on course.

  • Does ‘getting fit’ intimidate you?
    • Action Item #1: Set up a reward system for making it to the gym, or for knocking out your home workout. Have you cracked the code to making a delicious high protein smoothie? Treat yourself after your workout so that you’re looking forward to it.
  • Heart just not in it?
    • Action Item#2: Never forget your why. Why do you want to change your behavior and lose weight? Do you want to be able to perform better at work? Play longer and harder with your children? Get your cholesterol down? Whatever your reason is, don’t lose sight of it, don’t ever let go of it.

Shape the path; what looks like a people problem is often a situational problem. Make change easier for yourself! Approach your ‘path’ as your surrounding environment. Look ahead down the road, anticipate roadblocks and pave a different way. By shaping your path you’re setting yourself up for success.

  • Nighttime ice cream sabotaging your progress?
    • Action Item #1: Rid your pantry of those pesky foods that you have a weakness for. I’m all about a flexible approach to your nutrition and fully believe in the 80/20 rule, but you may have a specific food that when eaten creates the desire and need to over consume – identify those foods and remove them from the situation.
  • Does Janet at work bring donuts into the office every Wednesday morning?
    • Action item #2: Plan ahead and make sure you’ve got a delicious breakfast ready to go. Most work environments have kitchens or kitchenettes, bring your oats with a scoop of chocolate protein powder and prepare the meal when you get to work.

Remember: direct the rational mind, motivate the emotional mind and shape the path. Use this template to help yourself create change and develop new habits.


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