Why making change is hard

I started a Bible reading plan on New Year’s Day. I’m already three days behind.

Without airing too much dirty laundry, I also resolved to drawer my “worn, but clean” clothes rather than draping them over the bath tub wall. That lasted about a week. A draped pile has already begun to grow.

I can count on ten cracked knuckles the things I wanted to change in 2013 that I’m still doing today.

Why is change so difficult? Why are even the easy changes hard?

I ponder these questions every year about this time as sworn-off habits re-germinate. Willpower for amenities gets redirected to simply getting food on the table. Luxuries like a 45-minute morning workout give way to just getting to work fully dressed.

In a book called The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the two players involved in human attempts for change.

The first player is our rational side, the side that determines you need to stop eating ice cream every night at 9:30. Haidt says this side is like an elephant rider: smart and forward-looking but hardly capable of controlling the beast beneath him if it wants something bad enough.

The second player is our emotional side, the side that needs a hit of nicotine to relax. This side is like the elephant: powerful but thinking more about his next bag of peanuts than health or retirement.

The logical rider can see past instant gratification to long-term benefits, but he can’t provide the energy to accomplish much meaningful work. The energy must come from the elephant of emotion (a.k.a. passion).

If the two players disagree, the rider can coerce the elephant with some yanks on the reins (i.e., willpower) but only for a while. It takes something more to keep him focused over the long haul.

The rider must recognize and admit there’s an issue. As British writer G.K. Chesterton said, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”

The rider must train the elephant by controlling the stimuli presented to the animal. “Distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills,” Haidt writes.

He continues, “Once you understand the power of stimulus control, you can use it to your advantage by changing the stimuli in your environment and avoiding undesirable ones.”

In his book Wild Goose Chase, Mark Batterson offers this helpful formula for change: “Change of place plus change of pace equals change of perspective.”

What if I disrobed next to my chest of drawers rather than the bath tub? (Change of place)

Regarding change of pace, Haidt recognizes the role of fatigue in failures of self-control: “Like a tired muscle, [the rational rider] wears down and caves in, but [the emotional elephant] runs automatically, effortlessly, and endlessly.”

How could I change my place, pace and perspective on that bedtime bowl of ice cream? Perhaps by kicking back in my bedroom with a good novel and a tasty cup of decaf rather than poring over household bills on the kitchen table.

Of course, I could also remember that ice cream in the freezer is like a turtle on a fence post. It didn’t get there on its own.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info.

2 Responses to “Why making change is hard”


  1. 1 Susan Allen January 18, 2014 at 13:07

    You are hilarious!

    Susan (Susie) Allen

    Texas Heritage Bank

    1208 S. Main

    Boerne, Texas 78006

    830-815-1043 (metro)

    830-249-3955

    830-249-3988 (fax)

    Offices in Cross Plains, Boerne and Leon Springs to serve you!!!

  2. 2 jessestroup January 18, 2014 at 15:12

    Kevin,  I loved it, love it, and love you!  Thanks for that good piece.  You made me laugh and self-reflect.   The following are two passages I am ruminating on that brush up against the will power you are addressing.  Titus 2:12 and 2 Peter 1:3. Your Dad treated me royally to lunch with Dr. and Mrs. Bob Whitaker and their son Ozie – all were attending the International Health Care Seminar at the Marriot South DFW on Friday.  Don is an outstanding man who I really admire and respect.  I will try to send you a picture that Ozie took of us.  Show it to our grands. Jesse   Jesse R. Stroup Director of Spiritual Care Lifeline Chaplaincy 511 N. Akard suite 202 Dallas, TX 75201 jessestrouplive@yahoo.com


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