The Heath brothers did it again. Earlier I reviewed their book Made To Stick dealing with how to create memorable messages. It stuck with me, becoming one of my favorites because the Heaths have the ability to condense their massive research into easy-to-remember principles. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard they’ve aimed their same approach at change. Specifically, how do we change things in our lives? Almost all of us have tried to change something in our lives. Losing weight. Getting into better shape. Not procrastinating. But many of us even if we change we often slip back into our former habits. Why? Is there a way we can follow to increase the stickiness of change? The Heath brothers say there is.
The Heaths observe: “All change efforts have something in common: For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently. … successful changes share a common pattern.”
Before getting into the details of this common pattern Chip and Dan first tackle the nature of the key element of change: our brains. They rely on the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis (reviewed here). Haidt’s research lead him to conclude that the emotional side of our brain is like an Elephant while our rational side is similar to a Rider who tries to rein in the elephant and seems to be the leader. However the Rider’s ability to control the elephant is tenuous because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. The roots of our emotional mechanism are deep in our ancestry while the rational part of our brain evolved only recently in terms of our total history.
This approach treads into largely uncharted territory for Objectivists. The elephant side of our nature gets very little billing in the Objectivist literature. We hear precious little about the second half of the definition of man as a rational animal. In fact our rational side is supposed to be able to dictate all of our behavior and totally control the subconscious and the brain’s subsystems.
I’ll admit that there is a potential weakness in Haidt’s research methods as well as others who come to similar conclusions. Objectivists could argue that the people being studied have accepted their moral premises by unthinking osmosis and therefore allow their Elephant to rule the Rider. However even if the Objectivists are right the fact remains that our rational cortex represents a thin, recently added layer on a brain with many other mechanisms rooted deeply in the dark earth of our animal ancestry. At the very least these facts should lead us to conclude that maintaining our objectivity represents a far stronger challenge than Objectivists acknowledge.
The Heaths go on to say the Elephant often wants a quick payoff with minimal effort while the Rider plans for the future. “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.” This ties into their advice later in the book.
The Heaths’ reach three conclusions about trying to switch using sheer will power and self-control.
- “Self-control is an exhaustible resource.” Meaning, our Elephant can wear out our limited supply of self-control.
- “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” When we give up we might write it off as being just lazy when we’re really wearing ourselves out.
- “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” If we don’t have a clearly defined and visualized end point we won’t know our ultimate goal.
These conclusions lead to their framework for change.
- “Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.”
- “Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. … So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side – get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.”
- “Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. … When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.”
For each of these parts of the framework Switch lays out advice on how to accomplish them. For instance, in directing the rider we can find the bright spots to help our motivation, script the critical moves to clearly define key steps and point to the destination. To motivate the elephant we find the feeling associated with our goals, find ways to shrink the change to make them less daunting and, for managers and leaders, help your people grow. (This ties into having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.) To shape the path we can tweak our environment, build habits and rally the herd.
Once we follow the path laid out by the Heaths they tell us how the “keep the switch going.” They point out that we use a positive approach instead of punishment, citing the results of animal trainers who “set a behavioral destination and then use ‘approximations,’ meaning that they reward each tiny step toward the destination. … We need to be looking for bright spots – however tiny! – and rewarding them.”
Ultimately Switch shows that there is a lot more to changing than sheer will power and repeating positive affirmations. Change requires a variety of tools and techniques that help the Rider chart a course and keep the Elephant reasonably in line.
Bottom line: I highly recommend Switch. Following it advice will help make change easier when change is hard.