The ant on the elephant

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I’m fascinated by how the mind works. One scientific study found that the rational, conscious part of our brain uses about 2,000 neurons every second. That sounds like a lot, but it turns out the subconscious part of our brain uses 4 billion neurons per second. In other words, our subconscious mind uses about 2 million times more neurons per second than our rational, conscious mind does. It’s clear most of us are heavily influenced by the instinctive side of the brain. That’s where our habits and biases are formed for better or worse.

Think back to the most stressful days of tax season. How much of your time was spent carefully and rationally contemplating how to get all that work done? Not much, right? By contrast, how much of your time was spent in auto-pilot mode, relying on longstanding habits, processes and procedures to get to the April 15 finish line? I bet you spent most of that high-stress time on auto-pilot.

There’s a famous children’s fable called “The Ant and the Elephant.” There are numerous variations of this tale, but the common thread is that over time, a tiny ant in the jungle learns how to take control of the enormous elephant that’s been bullying all the other animals. The ant eventually gets the elephant to go in any direction the ant desires.

Think of the ant as the rational part of your brain and the elephant as the instinctive side of your brain. If you’re an ant, you’re small and low to the ground, so it’s easy to change direction quickly. But when you’re a massive elephant, plodding along impulsively, it’s a lot harder to change your direction on a dime. The same goes for humans, including accounting and financial professionals.

So many of the things that we do — the way we work and the way we interact with clients — are longstanding habits completely ingrained in our subconscious minds. Ten or 20 years ago, those practices and behaviors may have been the best way to do things, but so much has changed since then. Even things we were doing two or three years ago may no longer be relevant today. One of the toughest things about personal and professional growth is continually asking ourselves, “Is this the direction that my elephant still needs to be walking? “

Vincent Poscente, an author, motivational speaker and former ski racer wrote a book called The Ant and the Elephant: Leadership for the Self. “A good leader,” he wrote, “may recognize that he indulges elephant-like habits that keep him shy of his goal — but a great leader does something about it. He confronts the behaviors and routines that keep his subconscious stuck and he works to refashion deep-seated beliefs, attitudes and truths so they support his conscious efforts.”

Building better habits

Changing the direction of your “inner elephant” is difficult. It takes a lot of work and is like breaking a bad habit. You really have to dig in and ask yourself, “Why am I doing certain things this way?” It could be the way you communicate with clients, the tools you are using, the way your office space is configured, the way you run meetings or the way you hire and fire staff.

Obviously not all habits fall into the same category. Some are good habits that you should maintain, some habits need to be better developed, and some habits are simply counterproductive and need to be fixed.

For instance, procrastination is a bad habit that both you and your clients can improve. Ask yourself, “Why are my hours so heavy in April and October?” Can you set up a policy to extend tax filings unless otherwise requested? Is it really not possible to spread out the work more evenly after extensions are filed? Do you really need to be under crunch time in October? You had six months to do this work after filing extensions. You complain that clients are procrastinating, but you don’t start reaching out to clients until September. Sound familiar?

Being abrupt or condescending with clients during tax season is a bad habit that many of us need to break. Don’t make clients feel inferior because they don’t know the Tax Code as well as you do. Don’t talk down to the female spouse when a couple comes to your office. In some couples, the female spouse is the breadwinner and/or more financially savvy than the husband.

There are also errors of omission (things you’re not doing but should be doing). For instance, it could be neglecting to reach out to clients when it’s not tax season. This kind of neglect prevents you from being an integral part of the client’s financial life and causes you to miss out on higher-margin advice opportunities, thus keeping you stuck in the role of “tax preparer” rather than personal CFO.

In order to get better, you have to ask yourself why you’re always doing things a certain way. If the answer is, “That’s the way we have always done it in the past,” chances are you’re just sitting on top of the elephant, letting the elephant take you wherever it wants to go. You should be the driver, not the elephant (your old habits).

We all have habits that we would like to change, but breaking habits is hard to do. You’re going to have to get uncomfortable and be honest with yourself as you’re trying to move an elephant. There are two powerful things you can do to set yourself up for success:
1. Start with small incremental changes.
2. Find an accountability partner to keep you on track (preferably someone from outside your firm).

Taking small steps in the right direction

Commit to making small, incremental changes rather than Big Hairy Audacious Goals. For instance, after starting a fitness regimen, you could tell your inner voice, ”I’m going to try to walk a mile every day.” That’s a lot more realistic than proclaiming, “I’m going to finish a marathon in two months!” After all, isn’t it a lot easier to move the elephant from north to northeast than to turn it 180 degrees all at once?

When it comes to sticking to your commitments, it can be helpful to have an accountability partner. You could start with a trusted colleague at your firm to keep you on track. Just remember that someone from within your “herd” will likely have many of the same habits and biases that you have.

Teaming with an accountability partner from outside your firm will get you a fresh, unbiased perspective. The ideas are likely to be better and less biased and the feedback is likely to be less threatening since there’s no turf to defend, no social dynamics involved and no compensation committee weighing in.

How do you find a trusted accountability partner from outside your firm? Consider joining a professional networking group or a forum. The entrepreneur’s organization to which I belong has an eight-person accountability group. Each month, we share our goals and commitments with each other and we’re brutal about holding each other accountable. You can’t make excuses when you’ve made a commitment to people you respect that you’re going to make a change — and stick to it.

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