Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

4.0 rating

In 100 Words or Less: Most change can be thought of as three different things: (1) directing the Rider (our rational brain needs clarity), (2) motivating the Elephant (our emotional brain must want it) and (3) shaping the Path (making adjustments to the environment which encourage the desired behavior). Switch explains how to pull off all three.

Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing is certain except for death and taxes; to these two, he could’ve added a third to the list.


Of course, some changes are thrust upon us by fate, but we’re left to our own devices in pursuit of many others. It can be hard to identify exactly where we’re going, much less where we start.

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath argue that any difficult change involves three different things at once. (I love this analogy, by the way.)

  1. First, we direct the Rider. Our rational brain is the Rider, perched atop an Elephant. The Rider needs clear direction in order to avoid “analysis paralysis” and move forward with confidence.

    “If you tell people to ‘act healthier,’ think of how many ways they can interpret that — imagine their Riders contemplating the options endlessly. (Do I eat more grains and less meat? Or vice versa? Do I start taking vitamins? Would it be a good trade-off if I exercise more and bribe myself with ice cream? Should I switch to Diet Coke, or is the artificial sweetener worse than the calories?) What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. … If you want people to change, you don’t ask them to ‘act healthier.’ You say, ‘Next time you’re in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, reach for a jug of 1% milk instead of whole milk.'” — Chip and Dan Heath

  2. Then, we motivate the Elephant. The Elephant is our emotional and intuitive brain; for example, the love or compassion we feel for our children inspires us to move mountains. We imagine how good we’ll feel when we hit our goal.

    Unfortunately, even when the Rider knows exactly what must be done, the rational brain’s control over our emotions is precarious. What’s more, our Rider and Elephant often disagree. My Rider is ready to hit the gym at 5:45 AM, but the Elephant ain’t having it. (Willpower is your Rider telling the Elephant to check himself; however, many studies have affirmed that we have a limited supply of willpower.)

    “When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control. And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change. … What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” — Chip and Dan Heath

  3. Finally, we shape the Path. Shaping the Path simply means looking for ways to modify the environment so that, regardless of what’s going on with the Rider or Elephant, change becomes more likely. One simple example: you won’t eat cookies that aren’t in your cabinet (and you won’t have cookies in your cabinet if you skip that aisle in the store).
  4. “In these disparate environments — airplane cockpits and hospitals and IT work groups — the right behaviors did not evolve naturally. Nurses weren’t ‘naturally’ given enough space to work without distraction, and programmers weren’t ‘naturally’ left alone to focus on coding. Instead, leaders had to reshape the Path consciously. With some simple tweaks to the environment, suddenly the right behaviors emerged. It wasn’t the people who changed; it was the situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” — Chip and Dan Heath

Here are my other key takeaways:

  • Avoid “TBU” — True But Useless. Jerry Sternin was tasked with fighting malnutrition in rural Vietnam. There were many entrenched problems he could do nothing about; rampant poverty, dirty water supply, etc. It’s easy to fixate upon wanting to pull levers we have no control over; Jerry had to look past these obvious issues for an answer. Instead, he chose to:
  • Look for the bright spots. Jerry found that in spite of the systemic problems, some children were thriving. He discovered that parents of these children were feeding their child more frequently and with greater supervision. These were things that he could instruct these mothers to share with the rest of their communities. (Besides, mothers of malnourished children were much more likely to follow their neighbor’s lead than to take advice from a foreigner.)

    To pursue bright spots is to ask the question ‘What’s working, and how can we do more of it?’ Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’ — Chip and Dan Heath

    Another example: even in troubled marriages, couples still share some good times together. Alcoholics still enjoy sober moments. These times can provide not only direction for the Rider, but hope and motivation for the Elephant.

    Another example: in a workplace, some people are more successful at a particular task than others. Suppose that one employee always manages to get his timesheets in on time, while others don’t; maybe he can show the “slackers” a better method for getting the timesheets in.

  • “Script the critical moves”. In The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande demonstrates how some of the brightest and most accomplished doctors have found that scripting medical procedures saves lives and reduces costly errors. For a more mundane example, I might decide what I’m going to eat at a restaurant ahead of time, rather than wait until I’m too distracted to make a healthy choice when I’m already seated at the table.
  • “Shrink the change”. Big changes feel overwhelming, for a variety of reasons. I love what James Altucher says: try to be 1% better every day or week. Rather than decide to give up soda for the rest of your life, focus on giving it up today. Spend five minutes meditating now, rather than worry about getting in thirty minutes every day of the week. Small changes have a way of snowballing into big wins.

    One great example: Dave Ramsey advocates paying off your smallest debt first, even if your bigger debts are higher-interest. Of course, rationally, you should pay your highest-interest debts first; why would a “financial guru” tell you to do something which is so plainly wrong? Ramsey knows that you will feel increasingly empowered each and every time you cross one of your debts off the list; therefore, in order to keep the ball rolling, start small.

    “Psychologist Karl Weick, in a paper called ‘Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,’ said, ‘A small win reduces importance (‘this is no big deal’), reduces demands (‘that’s all that needs to be done’), and raises perceived skill levels (‘I can do at least that’).’ All three of these factors will tend to make change easier and more self-sustaining.” — Chip and Dan Heath

  • Develop a growth mindset. Carol Dweck talks about this in Mindset; when we see ourselves as capable of change, when we see failure along the way as an opportunity to learn and improve, we don’t fear it and we are less likely to become discouraged when we do fail. In a way, we should expect to fail; to recognize that when we pursue important, difficult work, that some setbacks are inevitable. We know that when we fall, we’ll get back up on the horse to try again.
  • Recognize that circumstances shape behavior. In life and love, we tend to assume that other people are “just that way.” In the heat of a conflict, I may see my wife as [always] “stubborn” or [always] “insensitive”, when in fact she is not those things in the company of other people (and when I am not angry, it’s easy to see that she is often not that way toward me either). I wrongly attribute her behavior as being “the way she is” rather than merely the “situation she’s in”.

    There are countless examples of people who behave one way in one circumstance and another in a different setting:

    • Maybe a “lazy” employee becomes more focused when he is given an office rather than a distracting open workspace.
    • Maybe a dangerous factory becomes less dangerous when it is re-engineered for safety.
    • Maybe an impatient driver becomes kinder when he learns to leave five minutes earlier.
    • Maybe employees who drone on in meetings become more concise when everyone is expected to stand up for the duration of the meeting.
  • “Rally the herd”. It’s well documented that many undesirable behaviors are “contagious”, for example you are more likely to become obese if you marry someone else who is obese. Conversely, desirable behaviors are also contagious: coffee shop employees “salt” the tip jar to encourage customers to tip, for example. (Fun fact: the concept of a “designated driver” was introduced in the 1980s by a public health professor working with a television writer.) In many instances, we can inspire change by pointing to living examples of it who are already around us.
  • Look for positive reinforcement. There is no single moment in which a child learns to walk or a monkey learns to skateboard. Change takes time and we should look for ways to celebrate the many small steps along the way.

Chip and Dan have a gift for assimilating complex topics and boring research papers and boiling it all down into something which is instructive, actionable and inspiring. If you’re looking to make a change in your life, I loved it and think that you will too.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

Leave a Comment