The secret weapon to bringing change to your life: Simple Triggers & Routines

Many of us want to change and improve ourselves in little and big ways.  Maybe we want to lose 10 pounds, drink less alcohol, spend more time with family, or just get more out of every day productively. With New Years Resolutions set to be attempted in the next few days, it’s a great time to think about how you’ll bring about the change and not just the results you hope for.

The key to to bringing about any change in your life is developing new routines and simple triggers for those routines. 

To understand why, we need to take a step back and understand will power and motivation via the Elephant and the Rider.

The Elephant and the Rider

In the Happiness Hypothesis, the author uses an analogy of our psyche being a combination of an elephant and a rider. The elephant is impulsive, emotional and can often outmuscle the rider, which is our more thoughtful, logical selves.  The key to this analogy is that a rider can only steer the elephant in a direction it doesn’t want to go for a short period of time. Then the rider becomes exhausted.  This is what happens when after a day of choosing healthy foods, you find yourself attacking the desserts late at night.

So how does anyone bring real change to their life?

If the elephant can eventually exhaust the strength of the rider from trying to steer them in a new, positive direction, then how does anyone successfully create change? The key is routines with simple triggers. The elephant loves routines.

The beauty of this analogy is how neatly it works with actual elephants in the circus. When elephants are young, they’re feisty and are often tied to giant posts to hold them in place. The elephants always fight hard to break free, but never do. Eventually, they give up and get used to it.  When they’re older, the rope that previously tied them to a post can now be simply left on the ground. The older, stronger elephant will not move due to becoming accustomed to the routine.

Your elephant responds to patterns.

If you want to bring about a change in your life, like going to the gym, create a routine around the act of going to the gym. Set out your gym clothes the night before you plan to go to the gym and schedule it like any other meeting on your calendar.  Hide the cookies you struggle to resist and put healthy snacks you like within closer reach.  Think about what the triggers are for habits you want to break and try to replace them with new, positive things you want to do.

A trigger and routine that worked for me

When I was in college, I took a course called “US History 1820-1877” which included the requirement to read a massive, tiny-font 375 page book on the US Senate between 1840 and 1865.  Like any college freshman would do,  I procrastinated so that 2 weeks before my final paper was due on the book, I hadn’t read more than the first 10 pages. This meant I needed to read about 35 pages a night to have time to finish the book and write the paper.

To accomplish this, I set a routine with some simple triggers: each night, after my roommates went to bed, I sat down on the couch in our living room, put on headphones and started listening to the first two Linkin Park albums (please don’t judge). This routine worked perfectly and got me through the book and my paper.

Throughout college, even after I moved on from music like Linkin Park, I still found myself using the album to trigger focus and getting work done. To this day, I still feel heightened focus when listening to the albums and use it from time to time when I have something I really need to get done.

But what if I hate always doing the same thing?

I’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every weekday since I was in high school. Not everyone wants to have that boring a routine. Fear not.

The key is setting up patterns for good behavior even if you vary it. Maybe you decide you’d like to take a fitness class and do cardio on an elliptical on different days. You can use the same trigger of setting out your clothes the night before for both.  If you want some variety in your new healthy diet, you can always mix up the fruit and nuts you get to replace the unhealthy snacks you had before.  Most importantly don’t let fear and excuses get in the way of positive change.

Final tip: Start small

Besides not recognizing the power of routines, the biggest mistake people make is trying to do too much at once. You can’t overhaul your diet, start working out 6 days a week, get up an hour earlier and start making extra time for family all at once.  Not only will your rider get exhausted from all the change he’s trying to coax the elephant to try out, but it will be too much change for the elephant to handle emotionally.

Because the elephant likes routines so much, breaking them can be hard; you can shock your elephant if you change too many things at once. However, if you slowly make changes like perhaps starting with a few modifications to your diet and starting a class at the gym a couple times a week, you’re much more likely to succeed in making those changes. Once you’ve achieved those, you might even have extra energy to motivate you to additional goals which you can then tackle building routines for.

As you set out to bring about change, New Year’s Resolutions or not, remember to focus on creating new routines and triggers to give yourself the best chance at succeeding.

Further Reading

If these subjects are interesting to you and you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to check these books out:

The Happiness Hypothesis will teach you in depth about the Elephant and the Rider concept and the psychology and motivations of humans.

The Power of Full Engagement will teach you how to raise your productivity and have a happier life at work and at home from authors who have trained Fortune 100 CEOs and championship caliber professional athletes.

2 thoughts on “The secret weapon to bringing change to your life: Simple Triggers & Routines

  1. Jason, great article. I’ve read a similar analogy before where instead of the elephant and the rider it said that willpower is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

  2. Michael,

    You’re right, Will Power is a muscle and you can make it stronger. In particular, meditation can help to hone that power quite a bit.

    Think of Will Power as the Rider in the Elephant & The Rider. You can make the Rider stronger, but in the end, he will eventually tire, so you need to manage it.


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