“Often it isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the little pebble in your shoe.”  Muhammad Ali

Obstacles come in many forms. Sometimes addictive substances can make it hard to limit our consumption of a particular product. Other times a warm bed and the snooze button can be very appealing. Whichever form they take, it is important to know what these obstacles are and identify ways to overcome them.

When we think of things to do or places to visit, some common obstacles can include time, money, and location. Also, a lack of direction or motivation can hinder our progress. As the brain has a rational side and an emotional side, overcoming an obstacle requires inspiration for both. Our rational brain needs precise instruction and justification. Our emotional brain needs desire and motivation. A useful analogy involves imagining our emotional side as an elephant and our rational side as a rider guiding the elephant. The rider can successfully navigate for short periods of time against the will of the elephant but, ultimately, the elephant will go wherever it wants to; more often than not to places and feelings it knows. The challenge then lies in motivating the elephant to avoid short-term pitfalls, and preventing the rider from over analysing an obstacle.

A real world example could be trying to eat healthier food without knowing where to start. With a goal like this, our emotional side is motivated but our rational side can get lost in the choices. As such, decision paralysis can set in and we are more likely to go back to foods we know. Whatever the challenge, finding a specific motivation and plan of action can greatly improve our chances of success.

Furthermore, overcoming any obstacle will require a certain amount of willpower. Although it is easy to use the word ‘lazy’ if we fail or give up, research has shown that willpower is an exhaustible resource[1]. Indeed if we use it up on more trivial tasks during a given day, we are far more likely to fall back in to old habits when faced with an obstacle. As such, prioritising the important decisions and challenges we face can help maximise our ability to effect change.

As Molière once said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it”; although we should not expect the Hollywood style montage to accompany our travails!



[1] Baumeister, 1998. Willpower Experiment