Spruced Up Spaces Ann Arbor

Summary of the book SWITCH

Posted at July 7, 2016

My clients hire me to help them get organized – to clear clutter, to bring order to their spaces and lives. It might seem, then, that some supervised sorting and purging and re-arranging is all they want from me. The truth is that most of my clients – some consciously, others less so – contact me seeking support that goes beyond tidying up. They seek change at a deeper level. They want not only to dig out from behind the backlog but to change the game so they won’t end up there again. This is the part of my work I love the most: helping people to develop themselves so they can become capable, confident organizers of their own lives for the long haul. In other words, I love helping people change their behaviors so they can achieve meaningful, lasting success.

Along these lines, I do a fair bit of reading to develop myself so that I can better serve my clients. I recently finished reading the book SWITCH: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath (Broadway Books, 2010).  I want to share a summary of this book because it contains an important, upbeat message and strategies that are directly relevant to my clients’ goal pursuit. I found this book to be well written, engaging, highly relevant, and filled with actionable information.


SWITCH cover

Written for both the individual and organizational audience, SWITCH takes a close look at our human struggle with behavior change. We all have good intentions to make changes in our lives. But all too often we get derailed and return to our old routines – we fall back into the comfortable, familiar patterns of the status quo. This can be vexing because it feels that we are two-faced: we want very much to change and yet we resist change, in effect working at odds with ourselves. It’s as if our hearts and our heads can’t quite get in sync with one another. In this book the Heath brothers help us understand why this happens. More importantly, they provide us with a framework for pursuing successful change efforts. Most importantly, they help us see that successful change efforts share a common pattern: if we can learn to understand and embrace this pattern, they argue, our own change efforts will be achieved far more easily and reliably.

Structure of the Book

The book is structured in three sections corresponding to the three elements of a successful change effort. These three elements are the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path. The Rider and Elephant are an analogy first used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Project. The Heath brothers have added the Path into the mix and they argue that successful change efforts can only happen when the Rider, Elephant and the Path are aligned. Throughout the book the Heath brothers provide numerous, engaging examples of successful change stories – ranging from fortune 500 companies to hotel maids, hospitals to school teachers – each one demonstrating the transferability and broad applicability of this change model. On a personal level, I especially enjoyed the story he provides of a professional organizer who helps clients “shrink the change,” and the mention he gives to “solutions focused therapy” which – to my way of thinking – sounds an awful lot like the coaching I now do with my clients.

elephant rider path

The Rider corresponds to our rational mind. This is the part of us that thinks and plans and analyzes. The Rider is the problem-solver in us, the one who looks ahead, deliberates, makes decisions, and provides direction. During normal times, the Rider mostly operates on auto-pilot. But during times of change the Rider is faced with many choices. The great weakness of our Rider is that he tends to over-analyze things. He gets so wrapped up in considering all the details and possibilities that he experiences analysis paralysis – he spins his wheels and gets stuck, tiring himself out rendering himself unable to move forward.  Our Rider is also wired to focus on problems. This focus on the negative can mire him, overcomplicating his thinking and blinding him from seeing simple solutions. And our Rider has a limited reserve of strength and self-control. When his change efforts are challenged his strength reserve dwindles quickly and, once exhausted, our Rider easily falls back into his old routines.

The Elephant corresponds to our emotional mind. This is the part of us that is instinctive, feels pain and pleasure, and seeks gratification. Our Elephant provides us with motivation and give us essential energy. The trouble with our Elephant is that he tends to wear rose-colored glasses, thinking everything is dandy. This is not helpful for change efforts as it prevents us from having a realistic sense of what’s going on and thus how to go about making change. Our Elephant is also very reluctant to move because he hates uncertainty and ambiguity – he’s much happier remaining in his familiar comfort zone – so getting him moving can be very difficult. And, our Elephant yearns for instant gratification, so when the going gets tough he gives up quickly if he’s not seeing a reward.

The Path corresponds to our environment. This is the stage on which life plays out, made up of the people and physical landscape that surround us. Our thoughts and actions are inseparable from and deeply influenced by our environment. The trouble with change efforts is that the Path is filled with booby-traps and sink-holes that will trip you up if you’re not paying attention.

The Rider, the Elephant and the Path each require three things for successful change efforts. SWITCH explores these nine essential structures in detail. I have summarized them here and provided an example of my own creation to help illustrate each point.

Direct The Rider

1. Find the Bright Spots

The Rider, with his over-analytical, problem-focused thinking, needs to be reminded of the positive so that he doesn’t get stuck. Successful change efforts thus involve searching for bright spots – identifying what’s already working well in a change effort – and asking, “how can we do more of this?” Bright spots are like little gold mines – they prove a person is already capable of change. When bright spots are found they must be evaluated, learned from, and emulated. At their core bright spots feed the Rider’s need for direction by showing him where to go and how to act.

Example: Jane has a real sweet-tooth which has caused her to become overweight. Her goal is to lose weight by reducing her intake of sweet, unhealthy foods. Two weeks ago she resolved to try and stop eating her nightly dessert. She’s not eaten dessert for 11 of the last 14 nights. This is a bright spot. What’s made this change possible for her?  How can this be emulated?

2. Script the Critical Moves

In any change effort you cannot assume that the moves are obvious. They are new and unfamiliar and, even though they may seem rational, the Rider needs you to provide crystal-clear guidance. He needs you to script his moves. If you can do this for him, so that he’s 100% clear on what he’s supposed to do, his resistance will fade and his new behavior will come more easily – gradually becoming habitual with time. Not every single move can be scripted because the journey ahead is full of unknowns that can only be handled “on the fly” as they present themselves – but certain critical moves than can be readily anticipated are the ones to focus on scripting.

Example: Jane knows that every time she’s in the grocery store she gravitates to aisle #8 where the cookies and candies are shelved. Since she knows this about herself – and also knows that there’s never anything else she needs from this aisle – Jane decides to totally eliminate this aisle from her shopping experience altogether – she commits to going directly from aisle #7 to aisle #9.

3. Point to the Destination

The Rider needs you to point to a destination so that he knows exactly where he’s headed. He needs to be certain of his goal, confident of the parameters, unambiguous in what he’s trying to achieve.  Without this clarity he will spin his wheels and get stuck. With a clear, black-and-white destination set before him, the Rider can now dig into his problem-solving strengths to find ways of getting there.

Example: “Losing weight” isn’t a clear destination. Jane needs to know – how much? by when? She needs less ambiguity – clearer parameters. So she gets specific and points to a very clear destination: “I will lose 15 pounds by my birthday on September 7th.”

Motivate The Elephant

Big changes never happen by speaking solely to a person’s rational, logical side. Big changes happen by speaking to people’s feelings. To really accomplish this, a person must see the problem or the solution in a way that influences emotions, not just thoughts. Evidence shows that our positive emotions are our strongest motivator, so the most successful change efforts tend to appeal to our positive emotions even above our negative emotions.

1. Find the Feeling

Getting a huge, heavy, status-quo inclined, ambiguity-averse elephant off its duff to move toward change can be quite difficult. So all successful change efforts must begin by enticing the Elephant – and that is achieved by helping him tap into a FEELING. The Heath brothers explain that most people think change efforts happen in this sequence: Analyze—Think—Change, when in fact they happen in this order: See—Feel—Change. They explain that when change efforts fail we often chalk it up to a “lack of understanding” when in fact understanding is rarely the problem. Having a piece of knowledge, even a very compelling piece of knowledge, is rarely powerful enough to inspire change on its own. The Heath brothers argue that the knowledge must be accompanied by seeing and feeling the impact (or possible future impact) of that knowledge, first hand.

Example: Jane knows that cutting sweets out of her diet will help her lose weight. She’s read several books and watched videos that helped her to really understand the science of calories and the way carbohydrates impact the body. Despite this knowledge, Jane gives in to temptation and has dessert. However, the game can change drastically when Jane motivates herself by tapping into a meaningful, positive emotion – “Over the past two weeks I’ve felt really great about myself when I’ve been able to say “no” to dessert. It makes me feel that I’m taking care of body, in control of my mind, and directing my future!” It’s these emotions, not the books and videos, that are going to feed and energize and sustain Jane through her change effort.

2. Shrink the Change

People are easily overwhelmed when they face the prospect of a big, new task. It can loom large – full of unknowns and scary obstacles. So once you’ve gotten the Elephant off its duff by “finding the feeling” you’ve got to help the Elephant keep moving forward in the face of this daunting landscape. The Heath brothers explain that to stay motivated – to stay moving – it’s essential that Elephant sense that meaningful progress is being made and that he’s closer to the finish line that he thought. If the task feels too big or pieces are missing or progress is not apparent, the Elephant will quit and sit back down.  Keeping the Elephant moving is thus accomplished by shrinking the change – breaking it into smaller pieces that feel manageable, making the Elephant feel “big” relative to the challenge. The most effective way to accomplish this is to lower the bar for the Elephant so that he can’t help but score a victory. By engineering success for the Elephant – by bringing the goal within reach – we give him hope, which is what the Heath brothers call “Elephant food” – we help the Elephant realize, “Hey, I just had a success!?  Wow. Maybe I can do it again!?” Small successes accomplished one day at a time breed confidence, inspire hope, and keep the Elephant moving forward. They also lead to more small successes, and over time these small successes snowball into big successes. Key to the Elephant’s continued sense of motivation is the sense that his successes are visible (real, tangible, meaningful) – so stopping along the journey at every success point to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate is essential.

Example: Losing 15 pounds sounds pretty daunting to Jane. That’s a lot of weight to lose between now and September 7th, especially given her poor track record with dieting and weight loss. How will she ever accomplish it? Jane decides to shrink the change. September 7th is three months away. That means she needs to lose roughly 5 pounds per month for the next three months. Or, looked at another way, Jane needs to lose 1.25 pounds per week for the next 12 weeks.  When she considers her goal in those terms Jane feels a sense of relief and optimism – “Oh, 1.25 pounds a week? I think maybe I can do that. That doesn’t seem as hard, especially since I just lost 2 pounds last week.”

3. Grow the Person

Shrinking the change is one way to keep the Elephant motivated and moving forward. Another way to achieve this result is to grow the person – to build people up so they develop the strength to act. The Heath brothers explain that building people up, in the context of a change effort, is fundamentally about helping people get clear and tap into their identity: “Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?” They explain, “Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity likely doomed to failure…So the question is: How can you make your change effort a matter of identity…?” They also demonstrate that identities are not fixed – over time as life evolves we take on and shed various identities. This is key to a change effort because it means that a person is capable of seeing themselves in a new way – relating with a new identity and wanting to act accordingly. The Heath brothers also help us understand that any change effort is going to experience some “failures” along the way. And the Elephant despises failure; failure quickly and easily demoralizes him. To prevent the Elephant from falling into this failure hole, the Heath brothers argue that we must create an expectation of failure from the outset of any change effort. They point to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. (Her excellent book which I highly recommend is MINDSET: The New Psychology of Success.) Dweck’s research argues that there is no such thing as failure – that every “failure” is simply a learning opportunity, and that those people who are able to see “failure” events in those terms (people with growth mindsets – people who believe that “abilities are like muscles-they can be built up with practice”) are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, learn from the experience, and keep moving forward – all the more informed – in the wake of a “failure”. This idea of anticipating setbacks, knowing that a project may feel like a failure partway though, is key to successful change efforts. The Heath brothers explain: “That’s the paradox of the growth mindset. Although it seems to draw attention to failure, and in fact encourages us to seek out failure, it is unflaggingly optimistic…(it) is a buffer against defeatism. It reframes failure as a natural part of the change process. And that’s critical, because people will persevere only if they perceive falling down as learning rather than failing.”

Example:  Through her book club Jane has met several women who are also part of a hiking club. Over the past year they’ve invited her on several hikes. Jane has gone on the hikes and discovered that she adores hiking – being out in nature, spending time with this vibrant group of women, getting great exercise. Jane is coming to think of herself as “A Hiker.” (Identity!) However, as her weight has gradually increased over the past year Jane has found the hiking more and more challenging; on the last hike she didn’t make it to the mountain’s summit because she was too winded and her knees were hurting (Failure!) Jane thinks to herself, “I really want to be able to continue hiking for many years to come. To do that I need to be healthy and fit. Eating desserts isn’t helping my cause, it’s making me winded and making my knees hurt, so I will cut out dessert. (Growth Mindset!) It’s worth it to me.”

Shape The Path

1. Tweak the Environment

In addition to directing the Rider and motivating the Elephant, the Heath brothers tell us that it’s critical to simultaneously shape the Path. One way of shaping the path – making the journey easier – is to tweak one’s environment. They argue that “environmental tweaks beat self-control every time.” Making small but meaningful environmental adjustments can go a long way, they argue, to disallowing our bad behavior and getting us closer to our goals.

Example: Instead of relying on self-control to say “no” to dessert each night, Jane can tweak her environment by no longer purchasing dessert items at the market. When she opens the freezer at night there will be no ice cream to tempt her, and when she opens the cupboard there will be no cookies. Her environment will now support her goal of weight loss.

2. Build Habits

Building positive habits is another way of shaping the Path, or making the journey easier. The Heath brothers emphasize that new habits must support your goal in a genuinely meaningful way and be relatively easy to embrace. They suggest using action triggers (imagining yourself executing the new habit, including the where/when/how details, so your brain lays the mental groundwork for the new habit). An action trigger helps you to preload a decision – it helps you to decide in advance how you will respond to a given situation when it arises. This is critical for the Rider because it helps to conserve his limited pool of self-control.  The Heath brothers also suggest using a checklist to reinforce your change effort. While rudimentary and anything but glamorous, the humble checklist can be a real game-changer during times of change; it can keep you focused, remind you of important thing, and help you avoid blind spots. (Note – if you’re interested to learn more about building habits – I highly recommend the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which I’ve also reviewed here on my blog.)

Example of Using an Action Trigger: Jane knows that on Fridays her co-worker brings donuts into the office. Jane needs to know what to do when this temptation arises. She needs a plan in place for when she walks into the office kitchen and is faced with the tray of donuts. So Jane envisions the scene and preloads her decision: when she sees the donuts she will say to herself “no thank you, I’m committed to improving my health” and she will take an apple from the bowl of apples instead, and she will remind herself that “an apple is a delicious, healthy treat that will make me feel good.”

3. Rally the Herd

(Since SWITCH is written not only for individuals but also for organizations and their leaders seeking to make organizational culture changes, this final section about Rallying the Herd is focused on organizational behavior change.)

In ambiguous situations our Elephants tend to look to one another for cues about how to behave.  We want to know what’s acceptable, what’s effective. So when we spot someone who seems to have knowledge or expertise we watch and learn from them, in turn modeling our own behavior in some way after theirs. Behavior can thus be “contagious.” So, as the Heath brothers point out, “if you want to change things, you have to pay close attention to social signals, because they can either guarantee a change effort or doom it.”  Cultivating the culture of your herd, then, is essential for any successful organizational change effort – and thus culture is cultivated through the previous eight points we’ve discussed: finding the bright spots, scripting the critical moves, pointing to the destination, finding the feeling, shrinking the change, growing your people, tweaking the environment, and building positive habits.


Loaded with tactical stories than demonstrate the nine “lessons” that comprise this book, SWITCH is a fabulous reminder that “change isn’t an event, it’s a process” and it helps us to see that most successful change efforts follow a replicable pattern: by learning to direct our Riders, motivate our Elephants, and shape our Paths we can all achieve lasting behavioral change.

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