If you are like me, chances are you would have a new year’s resolution. Or more precisely 3-4 of them.

And when you describe them to others, you would have a grin on your face. The kind that suggests to others that while you are talking about these resolutions, you really don’t believe in your gut that you would stick to them beyond a first couple of days.

Why does this happen?


I recently read a couple of books that point to the answer. And the answer is as relevant to students of music as it is to anyone else who wants to make a personal change – of any nature really.

The book is aptly called Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The book actually borrows concepts and theories from another book I read recently – called Happiness Hypothesis.

Both these books go on to explain a very simple but powerful model for human behavior. Here’s the summary –

Because of the evolution of human brain, all of us have a split personality.

There is original part of our brain that is genetically tuned for “Fight-or-Flight” instincts of survival. This is the commonality we share with all animals. Because “Fight-or-Flight” decisions cannot be mulled over (imagine a tiger attacking a person who carefully tries to weigh pros and cons of the fight or flight options), this part of our brain is genetically designed to be impulsive and make quick decisio

ns rather than necessarily very informed ones.

Then there is the new brain or neocortex. These are the frontal lobes in our brain that most animals do not have. In other words, this part of the brain is a distinctive character of humans. This part, over the years, has evolved to think and make rational informed decisions.

These books argue is that the split personality of human mind is comparable to elephant and rider. Elephant is the impulsive mind and the rider is the rational mind. Rider makes informed decisions and tries to guide the elephant.

Rider by its virtue thinks longer term. He says, Prasad – if you lose a few pounds in the new year, it will be good for your health (and perhaps it will make you look better as well).

But the elephant has other ideas. The elephant follows rider’s commands for first couple of days. Then one fine evening, the elephant “feels” like watching television rather than exercise. Or the elephant “feels” like eating that entire bar of chocolate.

Rider loses control on the elephant and both go off the path. Remember, elephant is much bigger than the rider.

What’s more, both rider and elephant have past memory. They know that this has been the behavior before – last year and the year before. And this is the reason for the grin. Even though the rider knows that whatever resolution you are making is perfectly good and rational one, both rider and elephant know that you (they) are going to give up on it in two days.

So are new year’s resolutions a hopeless exercise? Apparently not. The Switch book actually has a framework that helps you target the rider, the elephant and the path they are traveling on.



So if I were to make a new year’s resolution to lose a few pounds, I would –

Direct the rider by –

  • Following bright spots – e.g. even though I did not exactly follow the original script, last year I did lose 10 lb. instead of 20. What worked there?
  • Scripting the critical moves – e.g. the original treadmill running did not work, but playing tennis did.

Motivate the elephant by

  • Finding the feeling – e.g. isn’t it enjoyable when you hit that tennis ball hard? (as opposed to play tennis to lose weight)
  • Shrinking the change – e.g. let me play tennis for 15 minutes rather than for 90 minutes every morning at 6 am

Shape the path by

  • Tweaking the environment – e.g. keep tennis racket and shoes in the car so that you can play anytime you feel like
  • Building habits – they say doing something regularly for 21 days forms a habit

All this is so relevant for practicing music. How often do we say we want to practice long hours and early in the morning And then sleep through the morning and feel guilty for the rest of the day. Just think how this model can be applied to practicing music regularly.

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