Feeding the Elephant: How to Maintain Your Motivation to Give

05/13/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

2015-05-13-1431550469-9141065-elephants002.jpg Photo by Scott D. Weaver,

For more than 18 years, the entrepreneur Justin Hall-Tipping has kept a photograph of a little girl in his wallet. The photograph, clipped from a newspaper, was taken during a severe drought in Sudan. The little girl was dying of thirst.

During his TED Talk in July 2011, in which he described his company's efforts to develop nanotechnology that can produce electricity and drinking water at low cost and at large scale, Hall-Tipping pulled out the photograph. He said that whenever people tell him that he's working on ideas that are too difficult and impractical to implement, he thinks of the photograph in his wallet and mutters to himself, "Try saying that to her."

Hall-Tipping was feeding his elephant.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, to describe the emotional and rational components of our minds. The elephant represents the emotional, intuitive self: it's big, powerful and stubborn. The tiny rider atop the elephant represents the rational self, coaxing and guiding the elephant toward our goals. Together, the elephant and the rider govern our behavior.

When you find yourself losing motivation, it usually means your elephant has gone hungry: it's time to reinspire yourself and refresh your commitment. Maintaining motivation is a common challenge among those of us who have decided to give a portion of our income to charities. We are bombarded daily by advertising, sales and discount offers, peer pressure and other temptations to spend money we would otherwise give to those who need it most. Over time, our commitment may begin to waver, even if we've budgeted for giving or have established an automatic monthly donation plan.

How can you feed your elephant? Here are a few ideas:

Go back to the well

Whenever I find myself giving in to temptation too frequently, I revisit the original sources that led me to my commitment. In the case of giving, that means re-reading The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer, or his new book The Most Good You Can Do. Or I'll go back to watch the excellent video The Life You Can Save, in Three Minutes, which lays out the arguments for giving. I've watched it many times, but it never fails to reinspire me.

Create visual reminders

Like Justin Hall-Tipping, you can carry or post visual reminders of your commitment to help maintain your motivation. One of the charities I support sends me a calendar each year of the people who are being helped through its activities. I keep that calendar on the wall next to my computer. Since much of my shopping happens online, I've gotten into the habit of looking at the current month's photo in the calendar before I decide whether to click the "buy" button on a nice-to-have-but-not-essential purchase.

Reset your triggers

Many of our habits are tied to triggers­, which are events that kick off an automatic urge to perform a habit. For example, receiving an email from your favorite brand or store may cause you to open the email, click through to the website and place an order for something that's on sale. What if you changed the trigger, along the lines of my example above, so that whenever you're about to click the "buy" button, you look at your visual reminder and weigh the opportunities in your mind. "I could buy this cool new shirt, or I could give the same amount of money to a highly effective charity like the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). Which would be the better outcome?" The $35 I would have spent on a shirt would protect 21 Africans from malaria for three years if I gave it to AMF instead.

Think about triggers that may lead you toward impulse spending, and try to find ways to make those triggers cause different behaviors.

Chart your progress

It may be a cliche, but it's true: nothing succeeds like success. Like many people, as I've grown older I've found it harder to maintain my ideal weight. During periods when I'm trying to lose pounds, I've noticed that I'm a lot more motivated if I'm on a downward trend. If my weight is stuck in a stable pattern or trending upward, the wind goes out of my sails. Similarly, with giving, I find I can stay motivated by charting my progress and watching the growing impact of my giving over time. Some charities have calculated the cost of saving a life or avoiding a debilitating illness through your donations. If you give to those charities, you can chart your progress in lives saved or the number of people you've helped. You can track your giving in monetary terms, but I find that tracking the estimated on-the-ground impact of my giving is much more motivating. Make a bar chart to track your annual giving, replacing the bars with icons of people or create an actual or virtual wall of photos, each picture representing a hypothetical life you've saved through your giving. One periodic glance at that wall may be enough to keep you motivated and to increase your giving over time.

How do you feed your elephant? Post your approaches and ideas in the comments.