Switch: A Practical Guide to Creating Effective, Long-Term Change

For many people, the new year represents opportunities for both professional and personal growth. January 1 ushers in new strategies for organizations where fiscal and calendar years coincide. And who hasn’t made at least one New Year’s resolution at some point in their lives?

Whether implementing a new inventory management system or resolving to hit the gym three times a week, change is hard. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, examines the fundamental reasons behind human inertia and offers a three-step system for overcoming these innate tendencies. Even though the book was first published in 2010, its challenges and solutions remain relevant. In fact, the accelerated rate of change in today’s dynamic world makes the message timelier than ever.

Hard Changes, Easy Fixes

Switch opens by describing an experiment in which researchers gave moviegoers a soft drink and a bucket of popcorn. Some people received medium buckets, while others received large tubs, but everyone received more popcorn than one individual could eat. The popcorn, however, was terrible; it was nearly a week old. Despite the abysmal quality of the popcorn, variations of the experiment all yielded the same results: the moviegoers with larger buckets consumed 53% more than those with smaller containers.

Someone viewing the experiment data—minus information on bucket sizes—would likely conclude that some people have healthy snacking habits, while others are gluttons. A public health expert analyzing the same information would probably respond by educating the overeaters on the dangers of excessive popcorn consumption. Yet, the experiment reveals a simple, but effective solution: if you want people to eat less popcorn, shrink the container.

The popcorn experiment illustrates a key premise of the book. Too often, we turn “easy change problems” like reducing the size of a popcorn bucket into a “hard change problem” like changing the way that people think. In the words of the authors, “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.”

The Rider and the Elephant

The authors make the case that all change ultimately comes down to behavioral change. At some point, change requires someone to act differently. Successful behavior modification requires reconciling two independent systems in the human brain: the rational system and the emotional system.

Switch uses the metaphor introduced by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who compares the rational system to a rider atop a massive elephant, the emotional system. The rider has the information to make decisions that serve our best interests, such as going to the gym and eating more fruits and vegetables. But that massive elephant is driven by instinct and our desire for instant gratification, preferring short-term pleasures like chocolate cake to the long-term goal of a smaller waist. The rider can impose her will on the elephant for only so long before that temperamental creature finally gets its way.

The outsized influence of the emotional system explains why so many New Year’s resolutions are abandoned in January and most organizational transformations fail. When we want to effect change—whether at a personal, organizational or social level—we typically appeal to the rational rider. We collect data, create charts and presentations, and build an air-tight case for the new behavior. But ignoring the elephant ensures that the status quo will prevail.

To show the power of emotional appeal, Switch relates the experience of a manager who wanted to save his manufacturing firm $1 billion over five years. Instead of analyzing cost centers across the organization and presenting his findings in a mind-numbing PowerPoint deck, he focused on one example of inefficiency: work gloves. He asked an intern to identify the different types of gloves used throughout the company, as well as their costs. The intern then collected samples of each glove—424 total—and attached its price tag. The manager piled all the gloves in the center of a conference-room table for inspection by the leadership team. This unconventional exhibit inspired a visceral reaction in the executives, who were shocked both by the total number of gloves purchased and by the vast pricing discrepancy that resulted from letting each factory negotiate its own rates.

Create Clarity (or Direct the Rider)

Bringing the elephant on board is critical to long-term behavioral change, but motivation alone won’t do the job. The elephant needs clear direction—something that can create issues for the rational rider, who often suffers from “analysis paralysis.” Without a specific destination in mind, the rider tends to lead the elephant in circles.

Consider the noble goal of “working smarter, not harder.” A dozen people can interpret this aspiration in at least a dozen different ways. One person may turn to email batching, checking for messages only twice a day. Someone else may experiment with creating standing appointments for important projects, scheduling sacred time when he won’t be available for meetings or other activities. Yet another individual may elect to start the work day early, to knock out key tasks before business hours start. While any of these practices could improve personal and professional productivity, most people adopt these prospective habits simply because they worked for this superstar CEO or that business guru.

A more effective approach is to identify the target destination and to develop a concrete plan for reaching it. For instance, someone who wants to create new career opportunities by establishing herself as a thought leader may decide to launch a blog that forms the basis of a book. She sets a daily writing goal of one hour. Because she has a full-time job and two school-age children, she’ll need to carve that hour from parts of her schedule already occupied by social and family obligations. She comes up with two criteria for assessing the value of current and prospective commitments.

  • Outsource when possible. Grocery shopping takes two hours each week. By using a grocery-delivery or meal-kit service, she can reclaim some of that time for writing.
  • Focus on the priority. She decides to evaluate every optional activity in terms of whether it advances—or hinders—her blogging goal.She enjoys her book club, but reading romances and thrillers won’t enhance her expertise. Plus, taking a hiatus will free more than ten hours each month.

Setting such guidelines simplifies the daily decision-making process, which wears down the rider’s finite supply of focus and self-control. Our aspiring blogger has created clarity in the form of two rules that will free her time now—and protect it in the future.

Harness Desire (or Motivate the Elephant)

With a clear goal and action plan in hand, the next step is to entice the elephant to take the journey. Knowing what to do and why to do it usually isn’t enough to make change stick. People need to connect emotionally with the desired results, like the outraged executives who saw the glove exhibit. More than mere change, magic happens when people operate from a strong sense of purpose, a passion that arises from fulfilling their core “why.”

In the example of the budding blogger, she wants to improve the professional lives of millennials by sharing best practices on how to maximize one’s impact and flexibility in any organization—even within a traditional corporate setting. She plans to offer guidance on identifying potentially receptive employers, as well as actionable tips for shaping one’s role, drawing from her own experience and that of her friends and colleagues. Her inspiration comes not from the desire for personal fame, but from a calling to fill a need.

But motivation alone may not be enough to keep the elephant going. The emotional elephant is easily spooked, especially when the rider wants to take it into unfamiliar territory. For this reason, the authors recommend shrinking the change. Lowering the bar allows the elephant to score easy wins, giving it the confidence to push further.

Even seasoned writers are daunted by facing a blank page. Instead of starting at one hour each day, the blogger aims for five minutes. Such a low goal may sound silly, but it’s so easy to manage that even a recalcitrant elephant will likely acquiesce. Often, the hardest part of any change is simply getting started. Once the change is in motion, most people figure they might as well stick with it for a little while longer, and five minutes turns into fifteen or twenty. Only requiring five minutes per day—at least, at the beginning—offers a non-threatening way to create a habit based on the desired change.

Make Things Easy (or Shape the Path)

Speaking of habits, developing these automated tasks is one of the best ways to ingrain change. People are “creatures of habit” because routines decrease the mental load required to function. Learning new skills and behaviors demands focused attention—something we possess in limited quantities. With repetition, these actions shift into auto-pilot, which appeals to the elephant’s desire to take the easiest route and frees the rider for other matters.

One way to encourage positive habit-building is to set “action triggers.” Returning to the aspiring blogger, she brews a pot of herbal tea each night after her children go to bed. She decides to make this her trigger: after she pours her tea, she will sit down to write. Incorporating the desired behavior into her evening routine removes decision-making and self-control from the equation. She doesn’t stop to evaluate her motivation each night; she simply follows the path.

Modifying the environment is another way to engineer successful change. Altering the situation often alters the behavior. For instance, the blogger’s previous routine involved watching television in the family room as she drank her tea; moving into the dining room with a laptop cues her brain to follow the new writing routine. Removing temptation is another effective way to change the environment—deleting social media and gaming apps from one’s phone, for example, or storing the television in the basement (although other household members may object).

Anything we can do to make change easier—whether setting out gym clothes the night before or reducing the steps to file an expense report—will increase our chances of long-term success. Tweaking the situation so that the desired behavior becomes the default decreases our dependence on the rider’s self-control and the elephant’s mindset. As shown in the popcorn experiment, such adjustments can transform a challenging “people problem” into a manageable “situation solution.”

About Mistina Picciano

As Managing Editor of OD Innovator, Mistina Picciano combines her passions for communication and peak performance. She researches and writes about leading practices to help individuals and organizations realize their greatest potential.

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