Tools for elephant riders: RAFT and AFTER (working draft with unintegrated sections of previous drafts)

Below is a very rough draft of an essay I started about 15 years ago, picked up again about four years ago (then forgot about again). The essay provides context on how we came up with RAFT, how we used it then, and how the concept has evolved for me over the years.

RAFT: a tool kit for elephant riders

Psychological research suggests it is useful to think of the self as comprising two parallel systems: an automated self that acts without much thought and a conscious self that thinks about the implications of our actions. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathon Haidt compared the automated self to an elephant driven largely by instinct and habit and the conscious self to a rider that keeps the elephant on track. Our actions emerge through the interplay of the rider and the elephant. 

Intuitively, it would seem that the best way to exert self-control would be to make sure the rider keeps a tight rein on the elephant, but it isn’t that simple. The rider works a bit like a robust quality assurance system that monitors multiple factors simultaneously. This is energy intensive work, and the rider gets tired quickly, so it needs to take lots breaks to recuperate. When the rider nods off, the elephant steps back in and takes control of our actions to keep us moving along. This can be frustrating since the elephant does not always take us to where we wanted to go to. Moreover, even when the rider manages to bend the elephant to our will, we often discover that we don’t get the results we were hoping for. The evolutionary purpose of the elephant is to react and act smoothly and effortlessly in real time based on past experience. Using the rider to constantly guide the elephant in real time compromises the elephant’s ability to fulfill this function. There are actually times when elephant knows best, but even when it doesn’t know best, it doesn’t respond well to constant micro-management. 

This is not to say the rider has no influence on the elephant. While the rider is not great at forcing the elephant to take specific actions, it is quite good at analyzing the actions of the elephant, finding patterns and creating meaningful stories that serve as pre-programmed guidance for future elephant actions. Elephants learn to act with magical grace when they are guided by riders that know what they can and cannot – and therefore should not try to – control.

As the neuro-science underlying the rider/elephant mechanism has become clear, researchers have started to experiment with techniques to enable people to take advantage of this mechanism on two levels: self-management and group leadership.

Riders as “choice architects”

In the realm of group leadership, the concept of behavioral nudging has received a lot of attention. In Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein explore several well-established patterns of bias (elephant behavior) that often lead to predictably bad decisions. They suggest that policy makers can use what they call “choice architecture” to drive people’s elephants choose paths that the choice architects consider to be wise.  In this sort of scenario, the “choice architects” are like riders sending out wise messages that nudge the elephants of a target population, e.g. the citizens of UK to make better choices. 

Based on the nudge concept, Richard Halpern and the Behavioral Insights Team, an organization with offices in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, have advised policy makers on how to build and promote policies that either “whisper” the right choice to the elephant or awaken the rider from its slumber so it can intervene to ensure the elephant stays on track.  According to Halpern, several of the behavioral nudging policy experiments have resulted in large changes in citizen and consumer behavior.  Some of these nudges have even induced citizens to make choices saving billions of pounds. For example, the Behavioral Insights Team found that they could significantly increase the percentage of UK citizens who paid their taxes on time simply by distributing a message informing the general populace that nine out of 10 people pay their taxes on time. Evidently, our elephants are very amenable to  nudges based on the behavior of our peers.

Nudging corporate elephants toward a brighter future

The rider/elephant metaphor has also gotten significant attention in management circles. After reading Jonathon Haidt’s book, Dan and Chip Heath developed an organizational nudging approach based on the rider/elephant metaphor. In their guidebook for organizational change Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers integrate the rider/elephant metaphor with several other lines of research and organizational practice such as positive deviance, social network dynamics, growth mindset, positive inquiry and the placebo effect to create a roadmap that strategically-oriented riders can use to drive the elephants that get stuff done in their organizations.

Helping elephants make better choices in the heat of the moment

Behavioral psychologist Sabrina Cohen-Hatton – who also serves as Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services – introduced a question-based variation on nudging to improve decision-making by firefighters in the field. She introduced a “decision-control process” in which field commanders ask themselves questions to help them make better, faster decisions in the heat of the moment: “Why am I doing this? What’s my goal? How does this link up with what I’m trying to achieve? What do I expect to happen? How does the benefit justify the risk?”  Cohen-Hatton’s decision control process illustrates how leaders can use nudge techniques be more effective guides not for themselves but also for all those folks they lead.

What got your elephant here won’t get your elephant there

Marshall Goldsmith has integrated behavioral nudges with his voluminous work on coaching and self-leadership. According to Goldsmith: “We forget our intentions. We become tired, even depleted, and allow our discipline to drain down like water in a leaky bucket.” In Triggers:  Creating Behavior That Lasts-Becoming the Person You Want to Be, Goldsmith suggests that we can optimize our riders’ ability to create focus for our elephants through the use and re-use of  six “engaging questions.” The questions are: 

– Did I do my best to set clear goals today? 

– Did I do my best to make progress towards my goals today? 

– Did I do my best to find meaning today? 

– Did I do my best to be happy today? 

– Did I do my best to build positive relationships today? 

– Did I do my best to be engaged today?”

Nudging and muscle memory

For athletes and others who are expected to perform on command, the science behind nudges confirms something that we have been experimenting with for many years.  Many of us have experimented with using image training, neuro-linguistic programming or similar “cuing” techniques to summon our best when it matters most. When I first encountered the rider/elephant metaphor, it immediately resonated for me, and I have not been surprised at all that nudging produces positive results for both individuals and groups. Though I didn’t have a vocabulary for it yet, I noticed an apparent divide between “will” and “way” many years ago. 

My first experiences with communication gaps between the elephant and rider came through sports.  As a young tennis player, I often felt like a victim of what I might now refer to as elephant mischief. My elephant often got hijacked or distracted just as I was about to hit a serve or backhand in a match. Since my rider couldn’t coerce the elephant to do exactly what I wanted it to do, I had to live with whatever results the elephant could produce with its own racket, and you can believe me when I say it often felt like the racket wasn’t in my hand. 

Sometimes the results were terrible or even tragic. It is hard not to be disappointed when your elephant delivers 15-20 double faults in a single match, maybe even four in one service game.  Still, I found it even more confusing that the elephant sometimes produced an action and result that my rider couldn’t have intended much less orchestrated. After an abysmal serving day, the next day my elephant sometimes produced magic, hitting 20-30 unreturnable serves with different spins and angles. I didn’t know what caused my serve to swing back and forth between invincibility and incompetence, so I couldn’t consistently produce the former and this drove me crazy. 

Nudging and organizations

Later in life, I noticed a similar pattern in other areas of life. When I was a graduate student writing on my thesis, some days the prose flowed effortlessly onto the page for hours at a time, but at other times I had trouble regaining my train of thought or even forcing myself to sit down and write. In my early years as a consultant and facilitator, I saw a similar pattern of inconsistency. On some days, I was able to connect with a group and guide them through exactly the learning experience I had in mind, but on other days I found it very difficult to be “present” enough to myself or the client to do much more than follow the steps in my notes.  The common element in these examples my frustration with my seeming lack of agency. I found I could not “will” myself to do things that would lead to success, but I also found that I sometimes seemed to do exactly the right things by accident.

I poked around for clues about what might be the missing pieces between will and way, but I also had to make a living and not many companies were calling for a solution to this problem, so for many years most of my consulting projects focused on topics that clients could readily recognize and match up to organizational needs – stuff like executive and organization alignment, teambuilding and various forms of skill development. All the while, though, my personal experience with rider/elephant challenges made me wonder if this wasn’t a more common and fundamental issue.  I wondered if there might not be other professionals whose struggle to manage themselves compromised their ability to do their jobs and contribute more fully to their organizations.

An environment that welcomed experimentation

Around 15 years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to collaborate on a large number of initiatives in which we tried to close the gap between the rider and elephant. We were working with a client that was trying to improve employee engagement. As we looked for ways to support this client, we discovered a significant body of research in fields such as performance psychology, engagement and wellness that seemed to offer clues. These projects pre-dated books like Triggers or The Happiness Hypothesis, but there was already an emerging literature on mind-body interactions, self-management and wellness that offered clues about where to start. By the mid-2000s, energy management and similar peak performance schemes were becoming a hot topic. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz did a great job of integrating this research in The Power of Full Engagement and schools like the University of Michigan rolled out their own programs to help people find their own formula for peak performance. We also found that Herbert Benson had established connections between the relaxation response and the placebo effect as well as to a peak performance formula he called the breakout principle.

There was clearly a lot of research out there to work with. We took particular interest in Loehr and Schwartz’s idea that engagement and performance were supported by one’s ability to manage four kinds of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When your supply of one of these energies becomes depleted it compromises your ability to engage and perform. Conversely, when you maintain or increase your supply of these energies, this leads to greater engagement and performance.

From energy to action

We were very excited to see that so much research had been done on the connections between performance, engagement and wellness. Still, while the research was there, we found that it was not always easy to use it or even remember it when we really needed it and we suspected this would be the case for our client as well. We wondered if there was a way to quickly equip people with tools and techniques that would enable them to maintain and muster the energy needed for engagement and performance. 

While we liked the concept of energies, we had some trouble figuring out how to use them. As a first step, we considered how these four energies might be described in terms of concrete behavioral inputs and impacts. What were talking about when we referred to each energy and what could we do to have an impact on it? 

Physical energy seemed pretty obvious. Physical energy emerges from the state of your body, including your brain which consumes proportionally more energy than other areas of the body. When you take good care of your body, your supply of physical energy increases and this has a positive impact on the performance of your brain. The state of your body and your supply of physical energy are affected by what you consume (food, water, etc.), the quality and quantity of your sleep, and what you do with your body (e.g. exercise, breathing, sitting in front of a computer, etc.). This was straightforward, and we found a wealth of data on how to promote physical wellness with a particular eye toward brain health, which presumably would be essential to improving focus. Since physical wellness is something that has to be sustained over time, we referred to the behaviors that sustain physical wellness as routines. Loehr and Schwartz referred to these routines as rituals, but we were aiming for labeling that was mundane since we felt that would make it easier for people to accept them as part of their daily lives. That took care of physical energy, but it left us with the three others.

Converting energy into behavior and impact

Your supply of physical energy affects and interacts with the other three energies, but the other three energies are not driven exclusively by the mechanisms of physical energy. The primary empirical evidence for these energies is subjective experience, and this made it difficult for most people to do anything about them. Somehow, though, it seemed likely that they were indeed somehow important, so this was where we felt we needed to come up with a new way to help people manage them. We needed to lower the barrier to entry so that people could experience them subjectively for themselves and find ways to build them up. The rider/elephant metaphor had not yet come into common use, but what we were looking for was ways to increase the influence of the rider without undermining the magic of the elephant. The rider increases physical energy by guiding the elephant toward better physical habits. We wanted to create a similar mechanism by which our riders could increase the other three energies as well. 

Following the model we used with physical energy, we reframed the other three energies as “states” which presumably could be impacted through concrete behavior.  The following introduces our definitions of each state and the categories of thinking behavior that could be used to change those states:

In our experience of mental energy, what stood out for us was the human ability to create, maintain and change focus. From a practical perspective, you become more mentally productive when you are able to focus on things that help you achieve a goal. That goal might be the completion of a repetitive task, the solving of a problem or the creation of something new. In each case, a different kind of focus would be required, so we decided that the key behavior was to cue a perspective that would enable the brain to see what it needed to see to achieve the immediate goal. Based on this repositioning we decided that within our model managing mental energy was about managing what you focus on and how you maintain that focus.  We refer to behavior for the purpose of management of focus as “frames” or “framing.” 

In our experience of emotional energy, what stood out for us was the overlap of emotions with all the other energies. While we intuitively understood emotional states such as happy, sad, etc., we found it difficult to tease out where the emotion began and where the other forms of subjective experience ended. By the same token, we had experienced states of being with an emotional component that were obviously conducive to engagement and performance. Sometimes all it took was a slight change in “affective state” to heighten engagement thereby raising productivity and performance, and when these shifts into a high-performance state happened, they were often quite sudden and global in nature as though the world itself had changed around us. Based on this experience, we decided to broaden our consideration of emotional energy to affective states including emotions as well as feelings that are not strictly speaking emotional. In behavioral terms, the goal would be to cue affective shifts leading to the emergence of what might be referred to as a “high performance state.” We refer to behavior for the purpose of managing these “affective states” as “triggers” or “triggering.”

In our experience of spiritual energy, what stood out for us was the importance of maintaining a sense of a higher purpose that guides your immediate actions. This purpose should be aligned with interim goals and even tasks, but it is not limited to or by them. You might say that purpose is “the why behind the why” or the “why behind the what.” performance you are focused on today has some relationship to a greater sense of purpose or meaning. If that relationship is strong and positive, your sense of spiritual energy increases.  We refer techniques for the management of sense of purpose as “anchors” or “anchoring.”

Figuring that a quick-and-dirty solution might be better than no solution at all we came up with a simple formula that we and our clients could go back to over and over again when we needed to cue the mental and physical “states” that corresponded with high performance. 

Based on reading and personal experience, we concluded that what we and our clients needed was an easy formula that we could use to “reset” ourselves mentally and physically on a regular basis.  At the time, we called that formula RAFT. 

We chose RAFT because it carried connotations of a life raft. Many of our clients reported to us that they sometimes felt that they were literally drowning in work, and a few told us that using RAFT helped them stay afloat. 

The four letters in RAFT stand for 3 cuing techniques supported by one simple discipline:

It is important to note that our use of these terms is idiosyncratic. These are all commonly used terms, but we use them to refer to specific behaviors. 

R stands for Routinizing – The creation of routines is the discipline that enables your driver to use the three cues below to guide the elephant.  There are basically two kinds of that play a key role in the RAFT model. Some routines are continuous and cyclical and the purpose of these routines is to support the development of a sustainable physiology. This category of routines is mostly about setting up a regular exercise, sleep or diet program. Other routines are context-specific, which is to say they are performed just before you are about to enter a situation in which hope to perform well. The latter category of routines usually consist of one or more of the A, F and/or T elements of RAFT.

A stands for Anchoring – Anchoring is the act of connecting with whatever gives you a sense of purpose. Anchoring answers the question “What is the why behind the why?” that should inform whatever I am focusing on today?

F stands for Framing – Framing is the act of selecting a point of view that enables you to effectively pursue whatever goal you are working on. Framing helps you to select what data you will consider and what data you won’t consider as you work toward your goal. Sometimes the act of framing also helps you clarify the goal itself. Framing is often done in the form of questions, but the purpose does not lie in the question itself. The question is just a device to cue a certain way of looking at things.

T stands for Triggering – Triggering is the act cue a specific state of mind and/or body that you have associated with successful execution of an action that supports your pursuit of a goal.

While the descriptions above treat these three kinds of cues as discreet, they usually are not.  Each is a key to a network of associations that already exist for your elephant based on past experience and awakening any one of those associations may also awaken the others.

The elements of RAFT are surprisingly simple in form, but bringing them to life requires the mental discipline of systematically observing yourself in action so you can catch yourself getting things right, then figure out how to cue yourself to get them right again.

Over the years, we came up with a few variations on a formula for triggering or cuing a state that was an antecedent to heightened focus and performance. The examples I share below are personal. My hope is that these examples serve as illustrations for others who are embarking on a journey of rider/elephant training. I would never claim that these exact examples would be as useful to someone else as they were to me. They make sense to me specifically because they emerge directly from my subjective experience.

At the same time, I think the basic typology underlying these formulae makes sense in that it addresses three fundamental and inter-related aspects of our inner worlds that drive performance: sense of purpose, clarity of focus and the “feeling” of engagement. Based on my experience and the experience of others who have experimented with finding the right combination of these factors that shape our inner worlds, I feel confident that it should be possible for most people to engage in cycles of experimentation, reflection and learning to find a personal formula for cuing inner world changes that increase the likelihood of outer world success. You can use these formulae to increase your rider’s influence over what your elephant feels, what your elephant does and how your elephant interacts with other elephants. 


As human beings who sleep, wake up, do stuff, then go back to sleep, we all share a common dilemma: How do we make sure we don’t end the day feeling like it was a day wasted?  This version of the formula is called AFTER. I developed it as a cuing mechanism I use at the start of my day. I use it to clear a path for my elephant and increase the likelihood that some of what my elephant does later in the day will be aligned with something I care about.

A stands for Anchoring – By anchoring I mean remembering what is truly resonant and important to you. In a life full of distractions, unpredictable demands from others and challenges that require persistent effort, it can be easy to get lost along the way or give up on achieving something that it is important for you to achieve. When you start to feel as though you are drifting from task to task rather than moving with intention this is a great time to anchor your actions to the people, things and ideas you care about. Your anchor may be a value. I often come back to the value of “growth” as an anchor that helps me see the meaning in the coming day, even when that day is full of challenges. Your anchor may be a specific person or people whose interest you serve. Considering how my actions for the day will serve the interests of my wife and sons helps me decide which of my actions are higher and lower priority, especially since my career entails a lot of time away from them.

F stands for Framing – By framing, I mean articulating a perspective that gives clarity and shape to the decisions and actions you’ll need to make that day. I sometimes frame my day with a statement that clarifies what I should and should not focus on or do. Before a day of consulting or facilitating I often tell myself “My role today is to listen to people’s stories rather than telling my own,” or “Even if the people I am working with become agitated or distracted, I will remain calm, focused and curious.” Framing can also take the shape of a question that guides my attention to a goal and the path to that goal, such as “What do I want my customer to be thinking and feeling at the end of the meeting?” or “What opportunities will I have to cue a breakthrough in the discussion?” Reflecting on these kinds of framing statements and questions often enables me to be more focused on what is happening within and around me and how to keep things moving toward my desired outcome for the day.

T stands for Triggering – While framing is about cuing your attention and thinking, triggering is about cuing mental and physical states that are conducive to success. When I was a competitive tennis player, I happened upon a novel way of getting myself ready to serve. Through many years of practice, I had developed the ability to hit several different serves with different speeds, spins and angles. I had also learned through many years of experience that it was very difficult to consciously control the physical techniques involved in producing these different serves. These serves seemed to just happen automatically under certain mental and physical conditions.  What I needed was a way to trigger those conditions so that these serves would happen more often.  Through experimentation and repetition, I eventually discovered a combination of physical and mental routines that increased the likelihood of great serves.  The first was a fairly common discovery. I needed to relax and let go of as much physical tension as possible so that I could create more whip.  Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath triggered this. Next, I needed to create intentionality around what kind of serve I was going to hit.  Through a process of trial and error with imagery, a mental routine emerged that enabled me to have confidence that I could produce the right serve at the right time. I found that if I waited for a moment with my eyes closed an arrow would emerge in my mind.  The vector of the arrow corresponded roughly with the spin and vector of the serve.  Rather than trying to physically control these factors, I just waited calmly for an arrow to appear.  Then, I hit the serve that I had mentally associated with that arrow. Taking a deep breath, closing my eyes and waiting for the arrow to appear increased my sense of calm and it also led to better service selection. This set of physical and mental routines triggered successful serving for me.

In my work as a consultant, I also use triggering techniques to prepare myself mentally and physically to take the right actions during the day ready for the day. As I did when serving, I use deep breathing to cue a relatively relaxed physical state that is easier to maintain throughout the day helping me to stay calm and focused on the people I am with and what we are trying to achieve. I also often create a mental roadmap as a triggering device that is somewhat analogous to the arrows I used to trigger the right kind of serve.  When I start the day by creating a roadmap, I don’t have to worry much about forcing the day toward the desired destination. When I encounter certain milestones during a conversation or routine, that milestone reminds me of what comes next so that I can step back for a moment and sense where to go next in order to move things in toward the desired destination.

You can use different triggers to induce different physical and mental states depending on the situation and goal. For example, during graduate school I did a lot of the research and writing for my thesis in a specific coffee shop. At some point, I realized that sitting in that coffee shop made it easier for me to focus. I had spent so much time reading and writing there that I had come to associate coffee shops in general but that chain in particular with reading and writing. As a mobile professional, this is a pretty handy association (and a pretty solid business strategy for a coffee chain as well). Wherever I go in the world when I feel a need to sit and focus, I can usually find one of this chain’s shops or a similar shop where I find it easy to sit down and get something done.

This is part intention and part discovery

Each of us has some natural candidates for ideas, people or images that we can use as anchors. The sensible place to start when searching for an anchor is your real life. Your elephant can serve as a guide. Where does your mind naturally drift to when you are alone?  Who do you think about? What dreams or goals come back to you out-of-the-blue even when you haven’t taken action on them in a while. Paradoxically, while your anchors may be consistent over many years or even decades, you don’t always “feel” their importance. This is where your rider can help you to remember through conscious repetition. When you think you have identified your anchors, create a routine to come back to them as a part of a morning or mid-day routine. Taking the time to remember your anchors may distract you momentarily from the task at hand, but returning to the task after you have remembered your anchors can help you engage on what you need to get done. Your anchors provide an answer to the question: “Why am I doing this?”  When you have an answer to the WHY question, it is easier to focus on finding the right frame of reference on WHAT you need to do and HOW you want to do it.

For information on applications of the Nudge concept, see:

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness is a book written by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, first published in 2008.

From Freakonomics Radio, How to Save $32 Million in One Hour (Ep. 397) interview with Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services (and author of “The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter”)


For information on Goldsmith’s Triggers concept, see:

“So the decision-control process is essentially a rapid mental check where commanders ask themselves: Why am I doing this? What’s my goal? How does this link up with what I’m trying to achieve? And they then ask themselves: What do I expect to happen? And then finally: How does the benefit justify the risk? When commanders were using this process, we measured the latency between the time it took to make a decision and action it, and there was no increase. So it didn’t slow down decision-making. So that was really good. But what we also found was it increased their levels of situational awareness quite significantly.” -Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services (and author of “The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter”) explaining an application of “behavioral nudges” to help firefighters make better field decisions.

For more information on more comprehensive programs in self-management for peak performance, see Jim Loehr’s books: 

The Power of Full Engagement

Stress for Success

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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