Aligning the Elephant and Rider

Have you ever found yourself saying "Why can't I do what I set my mind to?" This phenomenon, known as "akrasia," can be caused by a misalignment between your Elephant (your emotional, intuitive, and often unconscious self) and your Rider (your reflective, analytical, and strategic self).

Think of the Elephant and Rider as two parts of a team. The Elephant has its own intelligence and desires, but isn't great at communicating them. The Elephant can be short-sighted and prone to getting stuck without the Rider's broader perspective. In contrast, the cerebral Rider relies on the Elephant to get anywhere, and can be dangerously insensitive to the needs of emotion and the body.

A goal that is likely to be achieved is one that appeals to both the Elephant and the Rider. If the Rider wants a goal but the Elephant doesn't find it appealing, the Elephant will lack the motivation to pursue it, leading to "akrasia." On the other hand, if the Elephant wants a goal but the Rider doesn't agree, it may feel like a compulsion or self-destructive behavior.

To set effective goals, consider the following guidelines:

Understand the Elephant

Elephants tend to want the same things: survival, social connection, self-esteem, mastery, pleasure, meaning, growth, and power. Authentically frame your goal in terms of these basic drives to make it more appealing to the Elephant.

Involve Others

Around half of the common Elephant drives involve social connection, so consider how you can make your goal more social. If it's already social (e.g. "Learn salsa dancing"), then emphasize that. If it's not (e.g. "Write a novel"), then schedule regular updates with friends or a cohort to discuss your progress.

Make It Robust

Make your goal robust to disruptions and distractions. The Premortem or Murphyjutsu technique can be helpful for this. It can also be helpful to remain aware of new priorities that might derail your focus. Remember that each new goal or obligation takes up more of your finite resources of time and motivation.

Repot Early On

Consider repotting your goal before you start. The Goal Repotting exercise can help you reshape your goal into a form that is more appealing to the Elephant. If you're not excited to start working on your goal, it's a bad sign for your chances of success.


Once you have a goal that resonates with both the Elephant and the Rider, break it down into a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) and keep the breakdown handy for reference. You can also use tools like Beeminder or other software trackers to help you stay focused and clear on your intentions.

Identify Missing Motivations

Refer to the Motivation Equation as a tool to understand why your motivation may be lacking. Remember not to take it too seriously, but use it to identify the potential missing elements in your motivation.

Motivation=ExpectancyValueImpulsivenessDelay Motivation = \frac{Expectancy * Value}{Impulsiveness * Delay}

Adjust Continuously

Finally, remember that the Elephant and Rider are always at work and in dialogue with each other. Pay attention to the dynamic between them and try to find a balance that works for you. By aligning your goals with the desires of both the Elephant and the Rider, you can increase your chances of achieving your goals. As you begin the journey, remain open to the possibility that you haven't quite found the right formulation of your goal yet. Adjusting or repotting your goals over time is natural and normal.

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