This is Your Elephant on GTD. Any Questions?

Date: Monday, August 04, 2008 by GTD Times Staff

A Community Contribution by Michael Gorsline

As you know, in implementing GTD a fair number of people are going to fall off the wagon before they experience the sustained payoffs of effortless productivity. What separates those who fizzle out from those who go the distance? From a cognitive science perspective, the answer is pretty straight forward. The people who succeed, whether or not they are aware they’re doing it, tap into the power of honoring how the mind actually functions.

I’ve heard David Allen use an insightful phrase about a specific GTD technique. I’m not sure if he’s used it to reference GTD as a whole (let me know in the comments if you know). But I certainly think it applies: “…it is both easier, and more difficult than you would expect.” A combination of ancient wisdom and modern experimental psychology gives us a fascinating view into why GTD is paradoxically both easier and more difficult than you’d expect. And it involves elephants and their riders. It can be challenging to entertain at first, but once you get the hang of it, it can help you implement GTD. It can also do the same with any other worthwhile set of skills that takes sustained effort to learn.

The Elephant and Rider

If you’ve ever resolved to do something, and really meant it, and then found yourself not following through despite your best intentions, you’re already familiar with how this works. We have a tendency to think of our mind as if it is a unified whole. But as Jonathan Haidt points out in his extraordinary book “The Happiness Hypothesis” , the ancients were ahead of their time in realizing that the mind is not unitary at all. And cognitive and social psychology have experimentally confirmed this early wisdom. Rather than unitary our minds are much more like a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious part of our mind, and he is quite small compared to the huge animal he rides; just as the conscious part of our mind is dwarfed the the majority of our mind that operates outside of conscious awareness.

Now this is an exceedingly rich metaphor that can be mined for a wide array of insights. For our purposes in this article though, the rider may be able to coax the elephant if he’s got some rudimentary elephant training skills. But he’s in for a surprise if he believes that he can control the elephant’s every move. The giant beast he rides has a “mind of its own”, and when its desires conflict with those of the rider, the rider is wise to keep in mind that the elephant can go where it pleases. Power struggles with the elephant are laughable. The only way to have influence over the animal so the rider and elephant can work smoothly together is through training. How does all this elephant and rider image shed light on why some of us are able to hang in with GTD until the more substantial benefits start to roll in? Those who persevere are superior elephant trainers.

Elephant Training 101: Three Skills

Let’s look at an example. Say you’ve decided that you’re going to practice the GTD idea of ubiquitous capture. The part of your mind that resolved to capture all of your important ideas and next action items is the rider, the conscious part of your mind. And that part of your mind really might have had “its mind made up” to follow through. Perhaps you followed all of the GTD suggestions to use capture tools that are practical, reliable and enjoyable to use. And you were all set, or so it seemed. But if you forgot, or weren’t aware that most of the mind is in fact the elephant, and not the part of the mind that made the decision; before long you found yourself surprised by your actions taking a different path than your original intentions. After a week or two the elephant headed off to do something else it wanted, and your notepad languished, sitting blank-paged in your bag.

If you grasp that your mind is mostly elephant, the next question then is how do you go about training an elephant to practice GTD (doesn’t that last part sound like the set-up for a joke, the punchline of which is “very carefully”?), ubiquitous capture for our example? You’re going to need to practice three skills: 1) use repetition, 2) identify triggers for elephant wandering, and 3) watch out for the rider’s quirk.

Before we tackle these skills, a reminder is in order. You are both the rider and the elephant. It is very easy though to lapse into thinking you are just the conscious mind, just the rider. You are both. A clue that you have slipped back into mistaking your conscious mind for the whole deal is that now familiar resolving to do something you know is of value to you, and then finding yourself doing something else you didn’t intend. This clue should become a flashing red hazard light if you find yourself surprised that this could happen. You’re failing to acknowledge the elephant in your head.

Lead Him Back

The first training skill is to use repetition. You simply coax the elephant back to the habit you want to instill. In our example it would be just acknowledging that you dropped off with your intention, and simply starting again with writing things down. You might find yourself getting angry at the elephant. But that won’t help you or the elephant. The elephant isn’t likely to be persuaded by your anger. And further, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to get angry at an elephant for doing what elephants naturally do. Just lead the elephant back. And begin the practice of writing things down again. You can also remind yourself that it is in the nature of elephants to wander off. Just lead it back. This leading back again has a very Buddhist feel to it. And I’m thinking it is no coincidence that the elephant and rider metaphor likely has its roots in India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

Note the Distraction or Trigger

It is also important to briefly note why the elephant actually wandered off. What was happening when the elephant started off in the wrong direction? In practice, take a look at what pulled you off course. Was it that you were rushed, and didn’t feel like you had time to write down the item in question? Was it that simply stopped carrying your note cards?  Did you choose a tool that is too cumbersome to use efficiently? Maybe you’re trying to use your iPhone and the keyboard just doesn’t lend itself to on the go entry the way that some 3 x 5  cards and a pen might. Stay on the lookout for stimuli that you know has distracted your elephant. It is also helpful to know something about the peculiarity of elephant riders.

Keep an Eye on Mr. Confabulator

As if elephant training weren’t challenging enough, here is a peculiar trait of elephant riders you’ll need to know about, as it’s universal. When the elephant engages in behavior the rider doesn’t recognize, or doesn’t understand, the rider has a weird compulsion for making excuses for the elephant. He’ll simply make up reasons for what he noticed the elephant doing. The rider is really just an inveterate story teller, and when he doesn’t know why the elephant behaved in a certain way, rather than admit he doesn’t know, he will just make up a story on the fly. This bizarre phenomenon in our metaphor has a very real neurological counterpart.

Back to our GTD example, the rider might out of thin air come up with the explanation , “Well I stopped writing because this ubiquitous capture stuff just isn’t practical,” or “ I wonder if ubiquitous capture is really necessary anyway. I can do GTD by just writing stuff down a couple times a day. That should be enough.” When the rider makes up these reasons, you will often find yourself actually believing that this is the real reason that things went awry. But if you’re on the lookout, you can spot the rider spinning tales. He does it so automatically, he is barely aware he does it, and sometimes doesn’t know at all.


Implementing GTD is both easier and more difficult than you might expect. GTD is easier than you would expect because the techniques are straight forward. They’re called advanced common sense for a reason. No GTD technique is in itself is all that daunting or difficult once you give it a try.

It is in sustaining the practice of GTD where the elephant will begin to wander. You might recognize this from other areas in your life than with GTD. If you’ve resolved to finally start playing your guitar, begin meditating consistently, or you decided that you’re going to get those workouts in regularly, you have already witnessed all of this. When the elephant wanders off we just need to guide him back. We also need to watch for patterns so we know ahead of time what is apt to trigger the elephant’s old habits. And finally we need keep in mind that the rider is apt to compulsively make excuses for any elephant behavior that puzzles him.

This whole metaphor described at length by John Haidt sheds light on why we want to do things that make sense, and then don’t do them. If you check it against your own experiences, I think you’ll find that both the ancients and the cognitive and social psychologists are onto something essential about how our minds work. Given the not always graceful dance of rider and animal, it isn’t surprising that we run into trouble now and again. But knowing that this interaction exists, and experimenting with the three training skills can put the elephant and rider into harmony. And that harmony leads to that sense of calm-effectiveness that David Allen suggests is in store for us when we stick with the practice of GTD.

17 Responses to “This is Your Elephant on GTD. Any Questions?”

  1. Dean says:

    Nice … very nice. Exceptionally useful and on point for not only GTD but other things in life.

  2. Abe Crystal says:

    Nice article–I agree that understanding the difference between conscious/deliberative thought (the rider) and nonconscious/automatic thought (the elephant) is crucial to personal development.

    One other area you might explore is how to set up structures and environments that support your desired practice or habit. Choosing the right tools (iPhone vs. 3×5 cards?) is one important aspect. I’d also consider routines, as well as the importance of context (e.g., I may nonconsciously associate a coffee shop with creativity and relaxation, so it becomes a more effective place to brainstorm and plan than my office). Wendy Wood’s research on habits (see has many insights about the importance of routines and contextual cues.

  3. @Dean: Thank you. Very glad to hear it’s useful.

    @Abe Crystal: I like your thought on habits. Our elephants are certainly influenced by our surroundings and associations. I happen to be partial to coffee shops too for similar reasons.

    Nice link regarding the tie in with procedural memory. Thanks for including it.

  4. Danny Bader says:

    Great read, thanks. As a presenter/coach at David Allen I am always on the lookout for stories and metaphors that may allow someone to develop their “self-observer”. Once we can really observe ourselves, it is much easier to groove new mental thought patterns that evolve to physical action(s).

  5. @Danny Bader: Thanks for having a look. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m personally finding this elephant metaphor profoundly powerful on a couple of levels. And I think you’re hitting on a key reason it is powerful, the facilitation of self-observation, seeing some of our processes that are very easy to miss without the assistance of the metaphor. Observing the processes that go on outside of our conscious mind is tricky business. It seems that even just being able to maintain the focus on the fact that some of our processes are unconscious is powerful in itself.

    Anyway, hope it comes in handy.

  6. vivek mehta says:

    I have been trying real hard to make GTD a routine habit for the past 4 months. Your metaphor has been a profound revelation on multiple levels. It will be a huge help in my learning. Thank you so much. I instantly downloaded the audio version of ” happiness hypothesis” and I am enjoying it too. The simple and lucid explanation that you have used to explain how we can “see” ourselves was awesome, I can’t thank you enough!

    – Vivek

  7. @vivek mehta

    Wow Vivek, thanks very much for letting me know that you’re finding the metaphor useful. That means a lot to me.

    I think the metaphor is powerful. I’ve known about the general findings about how our minds work for a long time, but I’ve never been able to hold it in mind for practical purposes quite as well as I have with this elephant & rider image.

    I’m really glad you grabbed the Happiness Hypothesis too. I’m betting you’re going to find all kinds of other very useful insights

  8. Betsy says:

    Nice article, Michael! You’re slowly reeling me in to the GTD practice.

  9. Abhay Parvate says:

    The most striking part for me was:

    “But he‚Äôs in for a surprise if he believes that he can control the elephant‚Äôs every move.”

    This is what David Allen has been calling “too tight a grip”, but the metaphor is a good way of visualizing it!

    In fact apart from some ideas on GTD, this has lead me to a thought in a different direction since one of the things that I do is teach programming related courses: Programming is not just a set of concepts but a practice, which requires a lot of discipline and habits and being watchful. Neither just presenting the concepts, nor “gripping the students too tight” is going to achieve it; it will require the kind of training that has some similarity with the metaphor. Of course there is a level difference: students are neither elephants nor subconscious minds (though acquiring discipline and habits may refer to their subconscious minds)!

    Thanks for a metaphor which is potentially useful in many situations, not just GTD!

  10. @Betsy: Thanks for coming to check it out. I think GTD lends itself to reeling people in, as it did with me, in part because you can use bits of it without having to buy into the whole package at once (or ever). All the pieces I’ve tried out have held up well on their own terms as well as in coordination with the others. I’m really glad you enjoyed the article.

    @Abhay Parvate: I like where you’re taking this with teaching. At minimum you work with your elephant as you are teaching students to work with their respective elephants. And I also think the other level your refer to is absolutely analogous: that as the conscious mind cannot push around the unconscious at will, the teacher can never bully a student into learning, but has to be more subtle and skillful, using coaxing, repetition and luring much like we must do if we want to have more influence with our personal pachyderms.

  11. David Allen says:


    Way cool. You and I could maintain some high-level BS about this until the elephants…er, cows…come home. Let’s set that up.

    My absurd reduction of this fertile conversation would be this:

    The smartest people are the ones that realize they have a big, powerful, dumb part of themselves that has a whole lot to do with what they do. They structure their life in a very intelligent way that manages the dumb and powerful part.

    The dumb people think they’re smart all the time.

    Thanks for your contribution to the Times.


  12. Hi David,

    Wow. That’s great that you came across the post, and I’m really glad to hear that you enjoyed it.

    It would be wonderful to set that up. As I’m not sure of an efficient way to reach you, my email is mgorsline(at)enjoyparentingagain(dot)com. Since it’s a long one, another option is to get there via my blog link through my name on this post. My contact info is easy to find there.

    I find btw that those absurd reductions tend to come in handy an awful lot. Nice one there.

    Thank you,


  13. Doug Miller says:

    Hey Michael,

    Great metaphor. For those that are interested in why metaphors are so incredibly powerful in developing ourselves it would be worth checking out Kegan’s work at Harvard around subject object theory. As I understand it, subject object theory says that the phase of development I am in is subject (I am unaware of it) while the previous phase of development is object (I can observe it).

    Thus when I don’t know what I don’t know OR I don’t realize I am the elephant and the rider – I have no objectivity around the situation. Telling me to change feels like trying to change ME (my whole entire being). And this can get really personal really fast!

    The metaphor gives me the ability to step outside of my self (the dynamic) which makes it more objective. Then when you start talking to me about it… it no longer feels to me like we are talking about ME. We are just talking about my behavior – the objective. Or when I start thinking about it, it is no longer lost in the overwhelm of attempting to change the core of my being.

    Since I have learned about this I am amazed at how powerful it is. In my executive and personal coaching work I identify a metaphor that supports a client in seeing their “current way of being” related to the topic we are coaching on. Then we create a metaphor for a “new way of being” related to their topic.

    For example, I have a client that gets lost in all the details and tasks of life. She also ends up spending more time focused on everyone else and doesn’t take care of herself. (Other dynamics play into this as well.) Her current way of being metaphor is the way of the “Janitor.” And her new way of being metaphor is the way of the “Abbot” (like in a seminary or spiritual community). Her new way is all about seeing the bigger picture, balancing self and other, and moving with the flow of what is happening around her.

    Now in the midst of her day she can very quickly SEE (observe) the Janitor driving her behavior. The dynamic is no longer subject. And she can be “informed” by the new way of being metaphor.

    So, after reading the post above many of us will now be able to identify the dynamic of the elephant and the rider. And upon identifying the dynamic gain some ability to influence it (or at least change our reaction/relationship to it).

    Also, it will give others around you the ability to talk about it in much less offensive terms. “Hey Doug, how are you doing up there on that elephant today?”

    Hope this is helpful…

    Be well,
    Doug Miller

  14. CJ says:

    I have nothing insightful to add, just wanted to chime in and offer my thanks to Mr Gorsline. I’m already reasonably knowledgeable about the workings of the conscious and subconscious, but this was still one of the most helpful articles I have ever read — on GTD or anything.

    Thanks to the prior commenters, too, for the link to Wendy Wood and the explanation of subject/object metaphors.



  15. @CJ You made my day there. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know that the article really hit home for you. I’ll be putting that one in my “Encouraging” file. I hope the concept serves you well. I know it has been helpful to me. Thank you, CJ.

    @Doug Miller I do like the way that metaphors allow us to catch glimpses of ourselves, especially non-conscious parts of ourselves, that normally escape our notice; and the way they provide us some psychic distance. What you describe reminds me of Michael White’s concept of “externalization of the problem”. I’m not on board with much of White’s theorizing about how the world works, but as a therapeutic (or the coaching varient) approach that particular concept is certainly powerful, much as you describe. Lots of good points Doug. Thanks.

  16. george says:

    Now I know one of the things to put into the four-fold picture frame destined for my office/study desk…
    I’ve a picture of my daughter riding an elephant when she was three.
    Everyone will think it’s about family, when in reality it’s about curbing my pachyderm. Shhh.

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