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  • Writer's pictureDerrick W. Spell, MD FACP

Motivating Your Inner Elephant

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Let’s continue our discussion on the human psyche utilizing the rider and the elephant. In their book Switch, the Heath Brothers describe three actions to motivate the elephant and engage the emotional side of your brain. (Remember, the elephant needs to feel safe heading in the direction the rider is taking him.) One useful method to provoke your inner pachyderm is to find the feeling. Organizational change expert John Kotter outlines the stages of change and his first recommendation is to establish a sense of urgency. Simply knowing the cold facts about obesity and weight loss is not enough to spark change. You must make an emotional connection to your well-being; to convince yourself that you have no choice but to transform and move forward. The National Weight Control Registry can teach us something valuable for this step also. Research of their database reveals that those who reported a medical triggering event prior to their weight loss not only had better initial weight loss, but also better long-term maintenance of weight loss. Rather than waiting for an insult to your health, you can create your own weight loss crisis. Your only viable option to avoid the impending catastrophe is to create that necessary sense of urgency and proceed with your weight loss plan.

Other experts agree that developing a sense of urgency helps to facilitate change. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama describes a useful method to generate a sense of urgency. He recommends reminding yourself of your own impermanence or mortality. He feels that awareness of our own future death coupled with the “appreciation of the enormous potential of our human existence” serves to provide a sense of urgency that we should “use every precious moment” of our lives to change for the better. He also believes that it is extremely effective “to be constantly aware of the destructive effects” of the negative behavior. Repeated reminders of the damaging impacts of your weight will assist the development of your new and improved behaviors.

The next recommended action to motivate the elephant is to shrink the change, or break it down until it no longer scares the elephant. This measure is essential for successful weight loss, especially at the beginning. One way to lessen change is to think of goals within your immediate reach or “small wins.” Former NFL coach Bill Parcells was a master of this technique. He felt that “even small successes can be extremely powerful in helping people believe in themselves.” He also understood that “when you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get into their heads that they can succeed.” There are endless ways to harness this momentum and apply the power of step-by-step progression. I found it useful to follow the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra and literally take it “one day at a time.” My daily goals included successful self-monitoring and recording of weight. Additional daily objectives were successful eating and food journaling for the day. Keep in mind that the elephant has no difficulty surmounting small goals. These small goals lead to small triumphs, which help the elephant feel less afraid and unwilling. The entire time the change is shrinking, the elephant is growing more confident and motivated. Small triumphs may also prompt other positive behaviors and snowball into additional accomplishments.

The final suggestion to motivate the elephant is to grow your people. The concept behind this action is to instill a certain belief system known as the growth mindset. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck explains that our abilities are like muscles and they can be strengthened with practice. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that no matter what kind of person you are, you can choose to change substantially. These individuals acknowledge that they may struggle at times, but will gradually improve and ultimately succeed in the end. To lose weight successfully, it is imperative that you possess a growth mindset. You must learn to be “unflaggingly optimistic” and maintain complete confidence in your ability to transform and lose weight. You should also expect that despite minor setbacks that may occur along the way, the overall mission will not fail. There will be days that you overeat or days that your weight goes up a smidgeon, but you can learn from your mistakes and continue to move forward. Those with a growth mindset are also disappointed by failures, but they don’t allow failures to define them. They understand that true self-confidence is the courage to embrace change and a reflection of the eagerness to grow and develop.

With our next discussion, we will continue our education on change and learn how to shape the path to success!

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