The Elephant & Weight Loss

This is the ultimate story behind my recommendation of changing only one thing at a time as you pursue weight loss (or anything else for that matter…).

It’s by far the best analogy I’ve heard as an explanation of how your mind works on the most basic of levels, though horse-riding works as well.

Basic Mind Science


Alright so some of you may know this, it’s kind of psychology 101, but some of you may not so we’re going to discuss it anyway and if you want to give me grief about it, do so in the comments section below.

In psychology it is generally acknowledged that you have 2 parts to the brain.

1) The Conscious Brain

  • Is one track, can only focus on one thing at a time, has a limited processing ability (2,000 bits of information per second)
  • Is responsible for the somatic nervous system, among other things
  • Is voluntary, controls conscious actions and things not under involuntary or unconscious control
  • Sets goals, creates judgements, makes decisions, likes to see results and ‘try new things’
  • Short-term memory (the experiencing self)
  • Is time-bound, thinks of things in the past and the future
  • In the Elephant analogy, is the rider on top of the elephant

2) The Unconscious Brain

As you can see from the basic brain science, focusing your conscious mind on one thing at a time is crucial in finding success with weight loss.

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The Elephant Analogy

When it comes to weight loss, your conscious mind is the driver or rider of the elephant and your subconscious mind is the elephant.

Sure you’re in control, most of the time, but sometimes you feel like your mind has a mind of it’s own. That’s the elephant.

For instance, you (the rider) really want to change how you eat or exercise, but there is just this unexplainable urge (the elephant) that holds you back from achieving it.

Truth be told, it’s really hard to lead the elephant along at path of change, it likes the familiar path, the easy road, stuff that it’s done before and knows it can handle.

Push too many paths (changing a lot of things at once) and you’ll spook the elephant, and it will always resort back to the familiar path.

If the elephant has come to really dig beers after work, watching T.V. five hours a day, crappy take-out food, and a slew of bad habits that contributed to your weight gain in the first place, then this is the easy path for it to continue to follow.

As we know, the rider can actually only focus on one thing at a time.

It’s an evolutionary thing actually, things like the fight or flight response, our stretch reflex, or our heart rate are designed to over-rule our ‘conscious brain,’ in order to keep us alive.

If we had to consciously think about all these different processes going on in the body at one time, we would surely die.

It’s information overload, so the elephant takes the drivers seat.

How to Control the Elephant

Since we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time, the moment we divert our attention from kids, to work and the stresses of modern life, it’s hard to keep the elephant on the weight loss path.

He (or she…) is kind of easily distracted, so the elephant will keep turning down a different path effortlessly, unless you’re constantly on him, steering him down the right path in the direction you want.

That is, until he becomes familiar with the path you’re trying to walk down, which should be your objective by focusing on singular patterns of behavior, rather than a dozen different things you want to change.

In the process of change, you must continually reinforce a path (skill, habit, behavior) and ingrain it in the sub-conscious mind so that it becomes familiar and you can get back to worrying about your kids, your income and your job.

The Secret of Long-Term Weight Maintenance

The sub-conscious, can focus on a bunch of different things at one time, you can’t.

The moment you try to do a million different conscious things, or change several things about yourself at once, now you’re constantly fighting with the elephant in every direction and ultimately, getting no where.

The elephant won’t know which path to take without a clear objective, or focus, that you consciously need to impose on it, steering it in the direction you want.

This will eventually become something that the elephant does instinctually on it’s own and requires very little guidance from you.

That’s the secret.

Right now you may have to conscious think about planning your meals on a weekly basis, keeping your pantry clean of junk food, eating slowly, practicing hara hachi bu, eating five servings of veggies a day, exercising three to six times a week, eating lean protein with most meals, and so on and so forth.

Eventually though, if you’re consistent enough in your behavior, the sub-conscious will take over, and make it a heck of a lot easier to maintain.

You’ll wonder how you ever got by before…


11 thoughts on “The Elephant & Weight Loss”

  1. This is awesome. It brings me comfort to know that I’m not crazy in feeling that “something,” some part of my psyche, is resisting change in terms of nutritional habits. Knowing how our unconscious mind works in layman’s terms gives me hope that I can change, with diligent repetition, day in and day out. Thank you so much for this!

  2. Yep, most of weight loss is psychological. It’s mostly a matter of consciously learning skills, habits and behaviors, until they become unconsciously delivered and thus really easy to execute on and maintain long term. Your welcome, and again, thanks for your comment Michelle. I would have replied sooner but have been travelling the last 3 weeks.

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