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Day 10 – Saddle Up Your Elephant

Dearest Dryuarians:

By far one of the best business books I’ve read is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip & Dan Heath.  I’ve used its techniques numerous times to facilitate change at work.  For Dryuary, I’m going to apply it to abstaining from alcohol.

The Heaths utilize an analogy: you are a Rider perched on an Elephant and proceeding along a Path. The Rider analyzes and plans. The Elephant feels. The Path is the environment.  The Rider can direct the Elephant, but only for so long, especially on a difficult Path.  To accomplish change, one must direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path.

Using this construct, we learn three surprising things about change:

  1. People problems are often situation problems. The environment has an outsized influence on Rider and Elephant.  People eating off large plates eat more than those using small plates.  The same is true for alcohol.  Large glasses of wine encourage more wine.  Pitchers encourage more beer.
  2. Laziness is often Rider exhaustion. Self-control is an exhaustible resource.  It is easier to make one life change at a time for this reason.  If you try at once to stop drinking, diet, begin exercising, and learn to code, you leave little time to recharge your motivation.
  3. Resistance to change is often a lack of clarity.  Riders need clear, non-negotiable directions. “Drink less” is vague; “drink nothing in January” is actionable.  Institute manageable daily, weekly, and monthly goals.

So how do you direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path?

Direct the Rider

  • Find the bright spots.  Figure out what is already working about those situations in which you don’t drink, or don’t drink to excess, and clone it.  Don’t drink around your best friend? More best friend dates, stat!  Don’t drink with Thai food? Tom som soup sounds delicious right now.  Don’t drink when you go to bed early?  8pm bedtime it is.
  • Script the critical moves.  Don’t think too much about glorious, big-picture changes. (I’m never going to drink again.  Really.  I mean it this time.) Instead, think in terms of small, specific behavior changes.  What non-alcoholic substitutes will you buy and drink?  If you feel the urge to drink after work, will you do something fun like meet Charlie at the bowling alley, organize photos, call Esmerelda, or bake cupcakes?  Plan delay tactics.  Plan substitution behaviors.
  • Point to the destination.  Change is easier when you know what the destination is and why you’re headed there.  Make your goals visible!  Put a sign into your phone /on your mirror /in your car with your version of “At the end of January, I will have 31 days of abstinence behind me.  As a result, I will be healthier and have an extra $310 to spend“

Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the (positive) feeling.  Feel the self gratitude.  Focus on the clear-headedness.  Immerse in the pride in having abstained.  Compliment yourself when completing little steps.  Encourage these feelings further by journaling, discussing with friends, or communicating on the Dryuary forum.
  • Shrink the change.  Break the change into pieces that won’t spook the Elephant.  Don’t plan to never drink again. (Gahhhhhhhh! Elephant rampage!) Right now you’re engaged in 30 days of abstinence.  During these 30 days, plan each individual day.  Sometimes you need to take it one hour at a time.
  • Grow.  Build a sense of identity. (“I am not someone who abuses alcohol.  I may have in the past, but I am not now.  I am a healthy person who takes great care of a wonderful body.”)  Change is possible; our characters and identities are not concrete.

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the environment.  Situations change behavior, so change the situation.  Get the alcohol out of the house.  Don’t pass the bar or liquor store on the way home.  Put the wine glasses in that dusty cabinet above the refrigerator; put tea mugs in their place.  Sit in a different place in the house that you don’t associate with drinking.
  • Build habits.  Habits, once formed, are near effortless.  Get in the habit of keeping water or tea nearby always to stay hydrated.  Replace drinking with a new habit: the gym /the book club /yoga on YouTube /Stardew Valley.
  • Rally the herd.  Behavior is contagious.  Surround yourself with others who are not drinking.

Your Cowgirl Pachyderm on Abstain Alley –


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