Skip to content
Join Life Time
Switch- changing when things are hard

Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He received his PhD in psychology from Stanford. Dan Heath is a columnist for Fast Company magazine. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School. The Heaths’ first best-selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, was selected as one of the best 100 business books of all time. 

This is a story to help you change things. Maybe you want to help your brother beat his gambling addiction. Maybe you need your team at work to act more frugally because of market conditions. Maybe you wish more of your neighbors would bike to work.

Usually these topics are treated separately — there is “self-help” advice for individuals, and “change management” advice for executives and “change the world” advice for activists. That’s a shame, because all change efforts have something in common: For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently. Your brother has to avoid the casino; your employees have to start booking coach fares. Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people — including yourself — to start behaving in a new away?

We know what you’re thinking — people resist change. But the facts are not quite that simple. Babies are born every day to parents who, inexplicably, welcome the change. Think about the sheer magnitude of that lifestyle adjustment! Most people would never willingly agree to start working for a new “boss” who woke them up twice a night, screaming, to demand they perform trivial administrative duties. Yet, new parents don’t resist this massive change, they volunteer for it.

In our lives, we embrace lots of big changes — not only babies, but marriages and new homes and new technologies and new job duties. Meanwhile, other behaviors are maddeningly intractable. Smokers keep smoking, and fat people grow fatter, and your husband can’t ever seem to get his dirty shirts into a hamper.

So there are hard changes and easy changes. What distinguishes one from the other? That’s what we set out to explore in our new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. What we found is that most successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of the change to do three mysterious-sounding things at once: Direct the Rider; motivate the Elephant; and shape the Path.

We’ll explain the philosophy behind these metaphors in just a moment. For right now, just think about the Rider as the rational mind, the Elephant as the emotional self, and the Path as the environment by which the behavior of both the Rider and Elephant is influenced.

One Brain, Two Minds

You probably already recognize that our rational and emotional impulses don’t always agree. But if you want to understand how vastly different and disconnected these two aspects of our personalities can be, consider the Clocky, an alarm clock invented by an MIT graduate student, Gauri Nanda.

This is no ordinary alarm clock — it has wheels. You set it at night, and in the morning when the alarm goes off, it rolls off your nightstand and scurries around the room, forcing you to chase it down.

Picture the scene: You’re crawling around the bedroom in your underwear, stalking and cursing a runaway clock.

Clocky reveals a lot about human psychology. What it shows, fundamentally, is that we are schizophrenic. Part of us — our rational side — wants to get up at 5:45 a.m., allowing ourselves plenty of time for a quick jog before we leave for the office. The other part of us — the emotional side — wakes up in the darkness of the early morning, snoozing inside a warm cocoon of sheets and blankets, and wants nothing in the world so much as a few more minutes of sleep.

If, like us, your emotional side tends to win these internal debates, then you might be a potential Clocky customer. The beauty of the device is that it allows your rational side to outsmart your emotional side. It is simply impossible to stay cuddled up under the covers when a rogue alarm clock is rolling around your room.

Let’s be blunt here: Clocky is not a product for a sane, logical species. But it is an invention that perfectly reflects one straightforward fact: The human brain is not of one mind.

The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s the emotional side. It is the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

There is an inherent tension between these two systems, and understanding that tension can help you become more successful at enlisting them both in helping you make the changes you want to make.

The Rider, the Elephant and the Path

The tension between the rational and emotional selves is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt argues that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the 6-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

Most of us are all too familiar with the situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.

The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being fit). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. Such change attempts get scuttled when the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment. But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and the Rider has crippling weaknesses.

Emotion is the Elephant’s turf — love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm — that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening feeling when you need to stand up for yourself — that’s the Elephant.

And even more important if you’re contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning the wheels.

The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. Chances are, you know people with Rider problems: your friend, who can agonize for 20 minutes about what to eat for dinner; your colleague, who can brainstorm about new ideas for hours but can’t ever seem to make a decision. The Rider also wears out easily: Exerting self-control and focusing intently on what “should” happen next can leave the Rider worn out and helpless to carry through with his plans.

If you want to change things, you must appeal to both these elements of the human self. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the passion and the sustained energy.

One remaining key to changing behavior is shaping your situation. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path.” When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant. If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen — even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.

Here are three dramatic examples of people who directed the Rider, motivated the Elephant, and shaped the Path to make big, lasting, real change.

Example No. 1: Direct the Rider

In 2004, Donald Berwick, a doctor and the CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), analyzed patient care with the kinds of analytical tools used to assess the quality of cars coming off a production line. He discovered that the “defect” rate in healthcare was as high as one in 10. This was shockingly high — many other industries had managed to achieve performance levels of one error in 1,000 cases (and often far better). Berwick knew that this high medical defect rate meant that tens of thousands of patients were dying every year unnecessarily.

Berwick figured that hospitals could benefit from the same kinds of rigorous process improvements that had worked in other industries. So, in December 2004, when he spoke to a large convention of hospital administrators, he said, “Here is what I think we should do. I think we should save 100,000 lives. And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006 — 18 months from today. Some is not a number. Soon is not a time. Here’s the number: 100,000. Here’s the time: June 14, 2006, at 9 a.m.”

Following the speech, IHI proposed six very specific interventions to save lives. Two months after Berwick’s speech, more than a thousand hospitals had enrolled. Once a hospital enrolled, the IHI team helped its staff embrace the new interventions.

Eighteen months later, hospitals that enrolled in the 100,000 Lives Campaign had collectively prevented an estimated 122,300 avoidable deaths and, as importantly, had begun to institutionalize new standards of care that continue to save lives and improve health outcomes every day.

Berwick succeeded because he directed the Riders in his audience with clear, specific, tangible goals and a concrete time line. Also, he stayed laser-focused on specific procedural interventions and did not exhaust the Riders with endless behavioral change. Berwick and the IHI team also helped the Riders embrace change by providing specific instructions and support to hospitals as they adopted the new protocol. The Riders in Berwick’s audience had enough direction and support to reach their destination.

Example No. 2: Motivate the Elephant

In 2007, two Harvard University researchers, Alia Crum and Ellen Langer, published a study of hotel maids and their exercise habits. A hotel maid cleans, on average, 15 rooms a day, and each room takes 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Take a moment and imagine an hour in the life of one of these maids — walking, bending, pushing, lifting, carrying, scrubbing and dusting. What they are doing, in short, is exercising.

But the maids didn’t seem to recognize what they were doing as exercise. At the beginning of the study, 67 percent of them reported that they didn’t get any exercise at all.

Crum and Langer were curious about what would happen if the maids were told that they were exercise superstars. One group of maids got the good news: They received a document describing the benefits of exercise, and they were told that their daily work was sufficient to get those benefits. Meanwhile, maids in another group weren’t told that their work was a good form of exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers checked in with the maids and were astounded to find that the maids who’d been told that they were good exercisers had lost an average of 1.8 pounds. That’s almost half a pound a week, which is a pretty substantial rate of loss. The other maids hadn’t lost any weight.

Many possible explanations have been offered for why the maids lost weight — the placebo effect, or perhaps the news triggered some mind-body connection that jump-started their metabolism — but the most likely explanation is that hearing the news that they really were exercisers was tremendously motivating. I’m not a sloth — I’m an exerciser!

Think about how you would feel in their shoes. What if a scientist came to you and said that, unbeknownst to you, your job was an aerobic wonderland? With every click of the mouse, you burn eight calories! Every time you check fantasy-football stats, you run a mile! Wouldn’t you feel a rush of satisfaction? Hey, look how good I’m doing!

And here’s the main thing — it almost certainly would change the way you behave from that moment forward. Once you realized that exercise could come from little things, maybe you’d be on the lookout for ways to get a smidgen more active.

Similarly, the maids, getting a jolt of enthusiasm from the good news, might have started scrubbing the showers a little more energetically than previously. Maybe they started making multiple trips back to their carts as they changed linens. Maybe they took the stairs rather than the elevator to lunch.

The maids succeeded in losing weight because the news that they already were exercising motivated the Elephant to exercise just that little bit more. Then, when they exerted that extra bit of effort, they found themselves, in four short weeks, closer to the goal line than they ever imagined. And, in a positive upward spiral, that sense of progress — I lost a substantial yet sustainable amount of weight in just a month! — further motivated the Elephant because the Elephant in us is easily demoralized. It needs reassurance, even for the very first step of the journey.

Example No. 3: Shape the Path

One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a theater in Chicago to watch the Mel Gibson action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand.

There was something unusual about the popcorn they received. It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Some of them got their popcorn in a medium-size bucket and others got a large bucket — the sort of huge tub that looks like it might once have been an above-ground swimming pool. Every person got a bucket, so there would be no need to share. The researchers responsible for the study were interested in a simple question: Would the people with the bigger buckets eat more?

Both buckets were so big that none of the moviegoers could finish his or her individual portions. So the actual research question was a bit more specific: Would somebody with an inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply?

The sneaky researchers weighed the buckets before and after the movie, so they were able to measure precisely how much popcorn each person ate. The results were stunning: People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size. That’s the equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand dips into the bucket.

The study’s author, Brian Wansink, PhD, runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and he described the results in his book Mindless Eating. “We’ve run other popcorn studies, and the results were always the same,” he writes. “It didn’t matter if our moviegoers were in Pennsylvania, Illinois or Iowa, and it didn’t matter what kind of movie was showing; all our popcorn studies led to the same conclusion. People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

The researchers succeeded in getting moviegoers to eat less popcorn simply by giving them a smaller bucket — they shaped the Path by reducing the size of the container

The lesson here is that big changes can happen, and with the right strategy, you can help make them happen with a minimum of struggle. Donald Berwick and his team catalyzed a change that saved 100,000 lives by giving specific goals and deadlines. The maids, motivated by the news that they really were exercisers, lost weight. The moviegoers with a different environment — the smaller buckets — ate smaller portions of popcorn.

Whether the switch you seek is in your family, in your organization or in society at large, you’ll get there by making three things happen. You’ll direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path.

More Smart Ways to Make Change

Our research turned up an astonishing variety of methods proven effective in helping people successfully create positive change — and for making the most of the key factors at play in most change scenarios. Here are just a few of the tips featured in our book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

  • Find the bright spots. The Rider loves to contemplate and analyze, but his analysis is almost always directed at problems rather than bright spots. (You can probably recall a conversation with a friend who agonized for hours over a particular relationship problem. But can you remember an instance when a friend spent even a few minutes analyzing why something was working so well?) And when the Rider sees problems everywhere, “analysis paralysis” often kicks in. That’s why, to make progress on a change, it helps to point out what is going right in a given process or relationship — and then encourage yourself or your team to replicate those right moves.
  • Shrink the change. A business cliché commands us to “raise the bar.” But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant. You need to lower the bar, or at least break the process of getting over that bar into more-doable baby steps. In other words, you need to shrink the size of the change. Shrinking the change is how the maids succeeded in losing weight. When they found out they were already exercising, the gap in their minds between being a nonexerciser and an exerciser became much smaller, and the step between their normal workday routine and doing just a little bit more became way easier to make. With less distance to travel, the maids were able to make the journey easily. The Elephant needs to believe a change is possible before he’s willing to take a single committed step, and if you can help the Elephant to see he’s already partway there, so much the better.
  • Tweak the environment. The popcorn study is a classic example of how shifting the environment (the size of the bucket) can affect change (how much popcorn the moviegoers ate). Tweaking the environment can also be one of the simplest ways to foster change. Want to eat less? Use smaller plates and bowls. Going to the mall but don’t want to overspend? Take out as much cash as you have budgeted for your shopping trip and leave your credit and debit cards at home. Trying to go to the gym after work? Keep your workout clothes and shoes in the front passenger seat of your car. Determined to eat healthier? Clear the junk out of your cupboards.
  • Rally the herd. Behavior is contagious. This is why laugh tracks are sometimes used in TV shows: When you see or hear someone laughing, you laugh, too. You can use this knowledge to your advantage when you want to make change. Ask your family, friends or coworkers to send you helpful signals. Trying to stop checking your smartphone during dinner? Ask your dinner companions to give you a disapproving glance if you reach for the device. Want to change a policy at your corporate workplace? Find other like-minded workers to go with you when you approach the company policymakers. Going as a group will signal that there is support for this particular change.

3 Surprises About Change

One of the interesting things about change is how many mistaken assumptions we make about how it works — or doesn’t. Here are some surprising insights that can help you identify the real obstacles to change and avoid investing energy in clearing roadblocks that aren’t really there.

Surprise No. 1 — What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.

The Rider, or the rational part of your brain, is tasked with planning, organizing, analyzing and long-term thinking. And to do that job well, the Rider needs clear, specific instructions. Without clear instructions, the Rider’s tendency is to overanalyze, overthink and endlessly spin his wheels. So, the next time you berate yourself for resisting change (say, you commit to eating healthier but still manage to come home from the grocery store with a family-size bag of snack cookies), consider that it’s not resistance but lack of clarity. If your Rider only hears “Eat healthier!” instead of “Eat more dark leafy greens — and here is a convenient way to prepare them,” you’re more unclear than resistant.

Surprise No. 2 — What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

Self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again. This is a crucial realization, because when we talk about self-control, we don’t mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vices (smokes, cookies, alcohol). We’re talking about a broader kind of self-supervision.

Think of the way your mind works when you’re giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf, or learning a new dance. You are careful and deliberate with your words or movements. It feels like there’s a supervisor on duty. That’s self- control, too.

Dozens of studies have demonstrated the exhausting nature of self-supervision. And research shows that we burn up self-control in a wide variety of situations:

  • Managing the impression we’re making on others.
  • Coping with fears.
  • Controlling our spending.
  • And many, many others.

Here’s why this matters for change: 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 your 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. So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out trying.

Surprise No. 3 — What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

W. Edwards Deming, the chief instigator of the Total Quality Management movement that revolutionized manufacturing, told a story about a company that used a variety of flammable products in its production process. Unsurprisingly, fires frequently broke out in its plants. But the president of the company didn’t think he had a situation problem; he thought he had a people problem.

He sent a letter to every one of the company’s 10,500 employees pleading with them to set fewer fires. Ahem. This is a bit like asking gardeners to come home from work less covered in dirt. We are frequently blind to the power of situations.

Stanford psychologist Lee Ross surveyed dozens of studies in psychology and noted that people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. He called this deep-rooted tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in. But many times it is the situation — not the person — that is causing the trouble. Change your situation and you are better equipped to change your behavior.

So, if you want people to change, you can address the “people problem” by providing clear direction (Rider), and by boosting motivation and determination (Elephant). Remember, though, that you can also take steps to make the journey in the desired direction easier. Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter around lots of signs to tell them they’re getting close. Resolve the “situation problem.” This is how you shape the Path.

Thoughts to share?

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


More Like This

Back To Top