Enhancing capacity and ability to change

Man with pointing finger gesture riding on walking elephant, isolated on white.

One definition of personal leadership, is the ability to lead your self authentically; by implementing behaviours that achieve what matters most to you.

Personal leadership involves practicing behaviours that support your desired outcomes until they become habitual. It also involves changing beliefs and behaviours that do not support your desired outcomes.

You can support this process in a number of ways. One of which includes providing data and technology driven insights, that enable you to identify and track the behaviours that provide the greatest impact to your desired outcomes. These insights provide a “seeing is believing” effect and an objective measurement of on-going progress.

Another way you can support your behaviour change is by better understanding your brain. This enables you to have more clarity on what influences your behaviour. We are not always as rational as we like to think we are 😉

Understanding your brain

As we tend to learn best through metaphors. In my work I use a metaphor called the Rider and the Elephant, coined by Jonathan Haidt, NYU, to provide a simplified, yet powerful way to enable people to understand how their brain functions.

I use this metaphor to help people understand their behaviour and the behaviour of others; so that they are more able to change behaviour and implement their desired behaviour.

Introducing the Rider

Brain system known as: Conscious, Controlled, Executive, Deliberate.

Introducing the Elephant

Brain system known as: Non-conscious, Automatic.

Awareness and Management of how we and others feel and act

Becoming familiar with the Rider and Elephant and how we can optimise their functioning, helps us to ensure they are collaborating to support us, in our desired outcomes. This familiarity also helps develop our self-awareness (awareness of how we feel and how this impacts us and others); our social-awareness (our empathy) and our ability to manage our emotions and behaviour.

Optimising the Rider and the Elephant's functioning

It is quite easy and simple to optimise the functioning of both the Rider and Elephant, through enough sleep, rest, fuel and movement (see below). This is essential for enhancing the capacity to change.

What really matters is building a system of functioning in which we regularly implement these behaviours with the least amount of conscious effort (think building habits). This is where data and technology, can provide us with an objective understanding of what the real impacts of the behaviours are on our own body; building intrinsic motivation to implement them. We can also use technology to nudge the behaviours and to track on-going progress of the impact of the behaviours.

Always on, work hard, never stop? Is this really a formula for high performance?

The brain is an immensely complex organ. But it is certainly not a machine that can work optimally at high speeds for long periods of time. 

For example, the Rider (see above) who handles most of our executive functions at work (solving problems, making decisions, controlling our impulses) is one of the most energy hungry parts of our brain and tires easily.

Scientific experiments show us that the different parts of our brain compete for its limited resources. You can imaging the Rider and the Elephant on a see-saw, when one is up, the other is down.

The Rider has a limited, common resource for making decisions, planning and exerting self-control. For example using effort on self-control will limit the resources we have left for solving problems. 

So what can we easily do to help our Rider maintain optimal capacity and performance?

1. Sleep

Adopt a good sleep routine and aim for 7-8 hours.

Amongst the many tips on sleep, these are some of the easiest to implement:

  • Cut out electrical devices (especially those with screens) an hour before bed
  • Keep the bedroom as dark as possible
  • Keep the bedroom as cool as possible (ideally around 16-18 C)
  • Cut caffeinated drinks and food by 14:00 or earlier depending on your sensitivity

When you need to be at your best, a good nights sleep is the number one choice for your performance! There are certainly times in our lives when it is not so easy to get all the sleep we need, but when you have the choice and you need to perform, a good nights rest should be your first port of call.

A regular lack of sleep has a significant impact on our healthresponse to stress and performance. Sleep deprivation results in a reduction of blood supply to the Rider and more activation of the Elephant’s threat response. This leaves us in a reactive, emergency state whilst having lowered executive functions. You can think of the Elephant as our emotional accelerator and the Rider as the emotional brake.

Even moderate sleep loss decreases the Rider’s ability to focus and solve problems

Tempted to pull that all nighter? You would be much better off getting a good nights rest as the Rider’s alertness and cognitive abilities will be significantly reduced, ending in inhibited memory, problem solving, decision making and self-control. 

For an excellent book that details the importance of sleep, we recommend Matthew Walker’s book called Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams.

You can also watch Matthew discuss some of these points here.

2. Rest

Take a 10-30 minute break every 90-120 minutes.

Examples of an effective break include:

  • Take a nap
  • Meditate
  • Breathing exercises
  • Take a walk outside

Our bodies follow ultradian rhythms which range from about 90-120 minutes. This rhythm functions night and day and results in periods of more then less alertness. Working beyond this period of time decreases the limited capacity of the Rider and therefore reduces our executive functions (solving problems, making decisions, planning, self control, etc). 

The more we follow these natural rhythms, the more effective and efficient we become.

3. Fuel

Eat a balanced meal or snack every three to four hours during the day.

By keeping some key items close to hand you can always recharge the brain:

  • Handful of nuts (e.g. almonds/walnuts/macadamias) and a piece of fruit (e.g. apple or banana)
  • Avocado and some berries
  • Vegetable Crudities (e.g. cucumber, carrot, celery, fennel) and a yogurt or nuts
  • Yoghurt or Kefir and some berries
  • Green Vegetable Smoothie

Daniel Kahneman, in his popular book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘ famously demonstrated that even Judges’ decisions have been found to be impacted by a lower supply of blood sugar to the brain. 

Don’t leave the Elephant, unregulated in the driving seat, refuel!

4. Movement

Move every day, especially before work.

There are many ways to do this, here are some examples:

  • Moderate aerobic exercise like walking or cycling for 20-30 minutes (this can be split up in shorter sessions)
  • A short intense session: Martin Gibala’s research has shown that as little as three sessions of 20 seconds at maximal or near maximal effort, effectively and efficiently boosts health and fitness
  • Don’t forget your strength, mobility and flexibility: If you are short of time, you could try the 7 minute workout app which combines strength, mobility and flexibility with cardiovascular fitness in one short workout
  • At work, simply take a longer route to get a drink or go to the toilet; take the stairs to the top floor then back down to the floor you need; take walk and talk meetings, etc

Movement improves circulation of oxygenated and glucose containing blood to the brain, plus it increases the release of neurotransmitters which help increase alertness and enjoyment. This provides the Rider with the fuel required to boost executive functions.

Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert goes as far as to say that the brain evolved, not to think or feel, but to control movement. 


By increasing your understanding of how your brain works using a simple metaphor, you become more aware of how your brain influences your behaviour. 

You also become more aware of how your physical capacity impacts the functioning of your brain and how you can enhance your capacity and ability to change.

Enabling people to implement such behaviour change is what we do.

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