Carville: How to ride an elephant, Part III |

Carville: How to ride an elephant, Part III

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

This is the final article on making change in your life as outlined in the wonderful book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” from Chip and Dan Heath. The premise of the book is that we must manage two sides of ourselves when making change in our lives.

These two sides are depicted by the analogy of a rider and an elephant. The rider is rational and logical (save for retirement), the elephant is emotional, passionate and often self-defeating (buy the flat-screen TV — today).
When the rider and the elephant disagree, you’ve got a problem. And although the problem often looks like laziness or lack of self-discipline, it is often exhaustion as the two sides battle each other for control. If you want make a change in your life, then you have to get both sides to work together. In the last article we discussed how to direct the rider. Today, we’ll discuss how to motivate the elephant to work with the rider.

Find the feeling.

Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. John Stegner knew that the company he worked for was spending huge sums of money on wasteful purchasing practices, according to ‘Switch.” But despite his best efforts, he was unable to get his colleagues enthused about changing practices that he estimated were costing the company close to $80 million per year.
Stegner put aside his detailed presentations and excel spreadsheets and looked for a single compelling example of waste. He found one — gloves. Most workers in the company’s factories wore gloves. The gloves were purchased separately by each factory through 424 different suppliers with prices ranging from $3.22 to $17 per for the same style of glove.
Stegner collected one pair of gloves from each supplier and marked it with a price tag. The gloves where then piled on the conference table in the company’s boardroom. The response from the executives was immediate and unanimous, “Really, are you serious? We have to make a change.”
Most people think change happens in following order: analyze-think-change. But knowing wasn’t enough for the executives to make the necessary changes. They needed a pile of gloves to get their “elephants” engaged. They needed a visceral feeling to make change. By using the see-feel-change approach to change, Stegner spoke to both the rider’s need to know and the elephant’s need to feel.

Shrink the change.

Big change spooks the elephant. “Switch” uses the example of Steven Farrar and his wife, Amanda, who had gotten themselves into a financial pickle. Loaded with $60,000 in student-loans, they bought their first house. Over the next three years, they purchased two new cars and accrued an additional $35,000 in credit card debt. Eventually, panic set in. They realized they needed help and turned to financial expert David Ramsey, who had once had his own transformative experience when he filed for bankruptcy at age 26.
One of Ramsey’s most controversial debt fixing techniques is called the “Debt Snowball.” With more than $100,000 of debt, the Farrars started working on the Debt Snowball. Ramsey had them list all of their debts — overdue electric bills to credit cards to student loans — from smallest to biggest. He then instructed them to make the minimum payment on every debt with one exception: After the minimum payments were made, every available dollar would be put toward the first debt (smallest debt) on the list.
Most financial advisors and CPAs would recommend paying down the debt with the highest interest rate first. Not Ramsey.
He realized the problem wasn’t about optimization. It was an elephant problem.
People get into financial trouble by losing control. They begin to feel powerless and you can’t fight powerlessness with math. Paying $187 toward $20,000 in credit card debt will still leave you feeling hopeless. But paying off a $187 utility bill, then crossing it off the list will leave you feeling empowered. If you are avoiding a daunting change, then breakdown and simplify the tasks that will lead to success — shrink the change.

Tweak the environment.

When the situation changes, the behavior changes. So change the situation by tweaking the environment. Grocery stores managers know the more time you spend in their store the more money you will spend, so they put commonly purchased items, like milk, in back of the store. Traffic engineers want people to drive in a predictable orderly fashion, so they paint lines on the road and install signs.
When wanted to make online ordering easier than using the telephone, it tweaked the environment. Amazon’s website designers simply made the desired behavior — spending money on their site — easier. It developed one-click ordering. The elephant generally seeks the easiest path.
Tweak the environment to make the path easier, and you’ll change the behavior.
“Switch” is a wonderful book on the process of change for both individuals and organizations. You can learn more by going to the Heath Brothers website at

Mike Carville is a NASM/RKC certified Fitness Coach and co-owner of South Yuba Club in Nevada City and Grass Valley ( If you have exercise or weight-loss questions or would like to book Mike as a speaker at your next event, then please contact him at

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