Need to stick at it? 3 techniques that help you follow through


If you have ever tried to make a change, like eat more healthily, but failed to make it last, you are not alone.

And one of the hardest things is when you want to help an individual or your team to make a positive change. The truth is, making some changes to our habits is often much harder than most of us expect.

In 12 years as a coach and trainer I’ve been fascinated by any ideas that can help you do something differently and better. And one of the key tools that my team of coaches and I use is the concept in the excellent book Switch, by the Heath Brothers.

The authors use a metaphor that shines a light on the relationship between our Emotion, our Rational Mind and our Environment. Apparently all three of these frequently sabotage our well-meaning efforts to stick to a positive change. The metaphor is of an Elephant, being guided by a Rider, along a Path.

The Elephant (emotion) is much more powerful than the tiny Rider (rational thought) that is supposedly guiding it, which is why you may sometimes decide to choose the salad but somehow find yourself reaching for the cake instead. When your emotional brain and your rational brain are in conflict, the emotional one tends to win.

The Path that the elephant and rider are travelling along represents your environment. This can make a huge difference to the chances that the change will last. Eating more healthily becomes easier if your kitchen is stocked with lots of delicious fruit and vegetables and no cake at all.

How this metaphor can help

1 Emotion – Motivate the Elephant

The biggest reason why most people fail to follow through is that we haven’t helped them focus on their reasons for the change, or indeed helped them believe this change is even possible. For example, one participant on the Major Gifts Mastery Programme last year, who works for an NHS hospital charity, recently wanted members of a volunteer fundraising committee to come up with names of well-connected people who might be interested in the charity’s work. Up to this point, most had not suggested any names at all.

So this time before asking, she told them about one member of the committee who had recently managed to set up an informal coffee meeting with a famous philanthropist.  Now that they could see what was possible two thirds of the committee came up with an average of five names each to invite to the next event. So using what Robert Cialdini would call ‘social proof’ to set the frame before making

2 Rational Brain – Simplify for the Rider.

Another reason we might not take action is we get overwhelmed by the number of options. So one effective coaching move is to reduce the number of choices people face. A valuable thing for a leader or coach to do is to simplify the goal, or help people break it down into small clear steps.

One fundraising leader I coached, the head of high value giving at an animal charity, made huge progress when he realised his team were not sufficiently clear how important it was to get meetings with major donors (as opposed to spending lots of time on internally focused tasks and sending emails etc). There are many techniques to help solve this in the Bright Spot Members Club. Once he realised this he came up with all sorts of ideas to help them.

For instance, he started to informally meet them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to offer help, and he found an intern who does lots of the admin tasks that had been sapping their time. His colleagues appreciated his support and this also showed in their results. For example, he told me that the new way of working led to a gift of £200,000.

3 The Environment – Make The Path Easier to Follow.

Because our will power and attention span have their limits, it makes a massive difference if you make the desirable behaviours more automatic. For example, when  Amazon reduced the number of clicks needed to make a purchase, their sales increased hugely, and when cars were fitted with an alarm to stop you leaving your lights on, this was incredibly effective but the car owners did not need to find increased motivation and will power. The path was shaped to increase success.

One client who attended the Corporate Mastery Programme, Rose, had found it difficult to persuade her trustees to suggest contacts they had in important companies. So we simplified things for the rider by choosing Rose’s Dream 10 Partners. We also made the path easier to follow by including these 10 companies in Rose’s monthly report to the trustees.

(Ally, one past attendee on the Programme puts up A4 posters showing the logos of the 10 dream partner companies and gives these sheets out at trustee meetings, with a bold headline – ‘Do you know anyone at any of these companies?’)

When you shape the environment like this, we have found that people turn out to be far more helpful and better connected than they had appeared. For example, lots of Rose’s trustees responded to her monthly requests – within the first two months she had been offered introductions to 8 out of the 10 dream companies on the list.

If you’re struggling to make a change, see if these three ways of looking at the problem can help:

  • Motivate the elephant. What ideas do you have that would help your colleague connect to their own reasons for doing this. And help them believe this change is possible through examples of others doing this thing and getting desirable results.
  • Simplify for the rider. Make far clearer the one or two simple things the person should focus more energy on. How could you break big goals down into smaller steps?
  • Shape the path. What could you do to reduce the need for will-power by shaping the environment? How could you deliberately promote a culture that supports the better fundraising behaviours?

 To learn about dozens more strategies like the ones Rose and Emma used, check out the Bright Spot Members Club. 78 fundraisers have joined the club in the first 16 days – find out why…