In Switch, brothers Dan and Chip Heath have done it again; they’ve taken a complex and grossly over  complicated issue and made it easy to understand and (better still) simple to integrate into your daily life.  In Made to Stick, they tackled “The stickiness factor” – how to make your messages memorable and impactful.  In Switch, they’re simplifying and making actionable the nature of change; why some things are hard to change… and what to do about it.

Here’s the analogy for understanding change and how we process it:  Picture an elephant.  There’s an elephant rider on top who is guiding the elephant down a rocky path.  Got the image in your head?  Good, hang onto it.  The elephant rider is your rational mind – the part of you that understands the need for a certain change or behaviour. (This is the part that works out how much time you need for the workout, shower and breakfast tomorrow morning and sets the alarm clock accordingly)  The elephant is the emotional mind; the part that hits the snooze thirteen times, bypassing the workout and breakfast, forcing you into a 30 second shower and a mad dash out the door to make your first meeting.

As Dan and Chip say – we’re all schizophrenic.  How else could you explain such a wild deviation from a rationally laid plan?  As Dan and Chip Heath explain brilliantly, we need a combination of three things to make change possible.  1) We need rational, analytical knowledge to appease the rider (he/she needs to know where we’re going, and why),  2) We need visceral, emotion-drawing motivation  to encourage the elephant (it needs to be enticed to go a certain direction), and 3) We need an action plan as to how we’re going to accomplish said change (we need a path that we’re capable of travelling).

Perhaps what makes Switch such a great read (and one definitely having on hand for times of change) is that it explains – in one simple image – why so many attempts at change fail.  Rationally, we may understand why we need to change, but knowledge alone isn’t enough.  Long term, we can’t rely on will power alone to overcome established habits.  Willpower is the rider yanking on the reins of the elephant.  Sure, it may work for a bit, but eventually the rider gets exhausted.  If you’re not emotionally motivated – if you haven’t tapped into an emotional reason for wanting to change – knowledge alone will seldom ever be enough.  Let’s talk about that exhaustion…


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Change: The Path

"Change is hard because people wear themselves out.  And that's the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion."
- Switch, page 12

Think of willpower like a muscle.  You lift a certain amount of weight the first time, but after a few repetitions, you’re physically unable to continue.  Most of us don’t think of will power in the same way, but it’s true.  Have you ever noticed how tired you are during times of complex or extended change?  Physically tired.  From change.  It’s because your rider is working overtime, trying to steer a skittish, uncertain elephant in a new direction.  Your rider gets worn out when dealing with prolonged periods of newness.  Luckily, there are things you can do to make the process easier on the rider and the elephant.  Simply, articulately and with a great sense of humour, the Heaths’ outline many of those tactics.  We’ve chosen a couple for you:

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Action Triggers

"...action triggers can have a profound power to motivate people to do the things they know they need to do."
- Switch, page 210

“Action triggers” are planning specific times and places for change.  “After I read the sports section of the newspaper, I’m going to work out for 30 minutes”, would be an example of an action trigger.  Even simple planning like this will greatly increase your likelihood of change.  We’ve all had days that disappeared; days where we were “planning” to complete some task.  What the Heaths’ highlight in Switch is that the likelihood of completing said task increases the more specifically you plan the timing and location.  We’ve discussed visualization in past articles – I believe Action Triggers are really micro-visualizations.  What task have you been putting off?  Can you plan a specific time and place for its execution?  Take two minutes at the end of this paragraph and create an action item for it.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

It's not a people problem...

"Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder."
- Switch, page 183

If you want to bypass the whole “rational/emotional-wrestling-match” element of accomplishing change (and sometimes you can), try focusing on the environment.  Dan and Chip write about one manager for Nike who dramatically improved her relationships with her direct reports by moving her computer monitor.  Amazing, but true.  It turns out that her monitor was directly between her and the person sitting across the desk from her.  Being a busy person, she found it more “productive” to check (and often respond to) emails while speaking with her staff.  By tweaking the seating arrangement and moving her monitor out of view, her staff felt more appreciated and the working relationships reached new heights.  Sometimes it’s the little things that can make all the difference.

The little story above raised an interesting point – often the “big problems” are solved with small and simple solutions.  The Heaths’ explore this phenomenon in significant detail in Switch and find it to be true time and time again; there is an inverse relationship between the size of the problem and size of the solution.  I’m calling it “Heaths’ Law”, and it’s worth keeping in mind the next time you reach for a complex and time consuming solution to a problem.  There’s often a simpler way to fix it, and there’s a good bet it has to do with providing knowledge, motivation or a small tweak to environment.

My only complaint about the brothers Heath is that they don’t write enough books.  Their style(s) is effective, engaging and highly entertaining.  While humour has definitely meandered its way into mainstream business books in the last 5 to 10 years, Dan and Chip lead the way with their wit and clever asides.  While Switch is a tremendous accomplishment in its own right, it’s also a second solid step in what (I hope) will be a long and illustrious career for both these gentlemen.  Entertaining and actionable, Switch and Made to Stick are about as good as it gets.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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