In Which the Rider Wins Over the Elephant (A Story About Using Logic to Power Through Procrastination)

by: Shannon McNay

As creatives, contractors, or entrepreneurs, there are many things we’re required to handle that have nothing to do with our areas of expertise. Invoicing, balancing a business budget, marketing your skills, networking for more clients…just to name a few. These are simply the cost of doing business, whether we like it or not.

So when it comes time to handle these tasks, we become emotionally blocked. If you’re not sure what that looks like, here’s a hint: procrastination.

Anytime you put off a task, mark an email as unread, or ignore an item on your to-do list, you’re being guided by your emotions. We only procrastinate on the things we’re not sure how to handle. Logically we know we can probably figure it out, but emotionally we don’t know where to start. So we stick our heads in the sand.

Marketing experts Dan and Chip Heath talk about this in their book, Switch. In Switch, they liken emotions to an elephant and logic to a rider. While it would appear that the rider is in control (the rider is, after all, sitting on top of the elephant and holding the reins), the elephant can knock the rider off the perch anytime he wants. None of the rider’s plans matter if the elephant overpowers him.

We think our logical side is calling the shots, but our emotional side has the final sign off. And the emotional side has no interest in the logical side’s reasoning.

The question is, how can we take the control back from our emotions and accomplish the things we need to do?

Give the logical side the tools it needs to win the emotional side over.

Emotional blocking is a shut-down process. It happens when something overwhelms us so much that we can only find relief if our brains turn off or turn away from the pressure point. But if logic can feed emotion some breadcrumbs of familiarity and comfort, then emotion won’t get so overwhelmed in the first place.

Let’s say the elephant is walking down an unknown path. He feels a sense of unease, a loss of control, and he may even fear danger. What does the elephant want to do right at that moment? Run.

Now let’s say the rider understands why the elephant feels that way and convinces the elephant that the new path is safe. Perhaps for the first day the rider leads the elephant using a familiar path. Or the rider guides the elephant by way of other elephants this one knows and trusts. The elephant will feel safety in numbers and trust in his community, allowing him to go further and further towards, and eventually down, the new path.

Each step that proves to be okay in the end becomes burned in the elephant’s memory. Suddenly the new path seems like a familiar way to go. The elephant feels comfortable. The rider gets to go where he needs to go. Everyone’s happy.

Feeding Our Emotions Breadcrumbs So Logic Can Break Through

When you’re facing emotional blocks or procrastination in your work, think about ways to make the source more approachable. A few ways that always work for me are:

  • Talking to other people like me who’ve figured out how to do the task
  • Finding tools to help
  • Documenting the processes I try and fail so, if I find one that works, I can create a template to follow the next time

The idea here is to avoid trying to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of creatives, contractors, and entrepreneurs who’ve faced the same exact emotional blocks and found ways to get through them. Talk to them, read their blog posts, experiment with the tools they’ve used to help. Chances are you’ll find someone whose personality matches yours and end up with processes you can utilize yourself.

When you find a process that works, take note. That’s the path you’ll want to follow every time, because now that it’s been proven to work for you, you won’t be blocked the next time you have to do the task. It also helps to note why that particular process worked for you. Chances are there are patterns that will help you replicate your success in other areas.

And remember, you cannot overpower the elephant. If your emotional side is knocking your logical side off its perch, work with the emotional side and not against it. Calm the elephant down. Make him feel comfortable. And soon the elephant and rider will be happily walking the same path again.

Image Credit: Christian Haugen

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