Do you know you need to make better nutrition choices, but it just doesn’t seem to happen a lot of the time?
You’re not alone.
For a good 90% of people, there’s a disconnect between their goals, and their day to day behaviour. The reasons for this are as numerous and varied as the people themselves, but broadly speaking it’s a sign of discord between 3 things: what you think, what you feel, and your environment.
One of the best ways to understand this idea is with the now-famous metaphor of the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path.
Picture an elephant wandering through the jungle, guided along a path by a small rider sitting on it’s back.
The rider is the logical, “thinky –brain”. They’re the one who makes decisions, comes up with plans, and puts them into motion. They’re the one who does things like goal-setting and deciding “we should go left” or “we really should eat more vegetables”.
The elephant is the emotional, mostly subconscious, “feely-brain”. The elephant is powerful, and can get an awful lot done, but it’s mostly a creature of habit. It likes to do what it has always done. It likes comfort, and it’s not impressed by facts, statistics and figures. If you tell the elephant that peanuts contain an unusually high amount of lectin which can contribute to hardening of the arteries, it will look blankly at you and think “but they’re really tasty” as it shovels another trunkful into it’s mouth.
Now life is pretty easy if the elephant and the rider both agree on which direction they should walk, and they bumble along, having a fine old time. If the elephant decides to wander off in a different direction, the rider can tug on the reigns and guide the elephant back…but only for a while. You see, the elephant is WAY stronger than the rider, and eventually, it’ll wear the rider down. Ultimately, if the elephant wants to go left, they’re going to end up going left.
This is much the same as if you were to sit down in front of plate of delicious-looking donuts for several hours. You might feel like having a donut, but the logical part of your brain says “we shouldn’t eat donuts”. You can resist for a while. It might take a few minutes, it might take several hours, but eventually you’re going to eat a donut.
(And if you don’t like donuts, re-read that paragraph again with the delicious food of your choice substituted instead)
But what about the third part of the metaphor, the Path? This is your environment. We might have a situation where both the elephant and the rider agree that they would like to go left…but if there’s nothing but tangled, overgrown, evil-looking jungle to the left, and there’s a nice gentle, sunny path with birds chirping happily on the right…they’re eventually going to end up going right.
In our own lives however, we have an advantage that the Elephant and the Rider don’t: we can SHAPE our path. We have the power to change our environments so as to make it much easier for our logical brains and our emotional brains to stay in alignment. We can, for example, get up and walk out of the room, away from the plate of donuts, or pass them down to the other end of the table.
Want to get better sleep, but you keep reading social media late at night in bed? You can change your environment to make this easier by purchasing a dedicated alarm clock, and leaving your phone outside your bedroom.
Keep losing your keys all the time and get mad at yourself for it? Place a bowl by your front door and drop them in there as soon as you come home.
Keep ordering takeaway because there’s no food in the house? Set up a recurring order with a click-and-collect grocery service to pick up your shopping on the way home from work.
You get the idea. Shaping the Path is one of the most powerful tools available to us for changing our behaviour. It’s work that you do once, and then keep reaping recurring rewards from over and over again.
So, coming all the way back to the start, how come you keep making nutritional choices that aren’t really working for you? It’s some combination of not being emotionally on board with healthy eating (the Elephant), not having made a logical decision to eat well (the Rider) or your environment simply not supporting it (the Path).
The cool thing is that we can coax ourselves into better choices and better behaviour just by changing our environment. If we cut a nice little path through the jungle, the Elephant and the Rider will be perfectly happy to walk down it – just like if we fill our fridges with tasty, healthy snacks and leave bowls of fresh fruit sitting out on our kitchen tables, we’re overwhelmingly more likely to eat them.
Conversely, if you create an environment where there are nothing but biscuits and crisps from one end of your kitchen to the other, you’re probably going to end up eating biscuits and crisps.
So what can we do with this information? Think about the last time you ate something you weren’t happy with afterwards. What was going on at the time? What were you thinking logically? What were you feeling? What was your environment like?
Let’s a take guess: you were probably some combination of tired, stressed, unhappy and hungry. There was no delicious, healthy food sitting ready-to-go in front of you and you thought “screw it”.
What if instead, you had come home to a fridge that had a few slices of cucumber and some delicious homemade guacamole to snack on (in case of emergencies), and there was a serving of that awesome beef chili you batch-cooked at the weekend sitting in your freezer ready to defrost? Do you think things would have gone differently?
We’re going to share a few tips for creating a more favourable kitchen environment with you guys in our next blog and if you’re brave enough, we’ve got a little Kitchen Makeover challenge for you to get involved in too.
Stay tuned 🙂