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Book Review: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Anyone who has ever been on a diet, or worked in a large organization, or even dealt with their family during the holiday season knows how difficult change can be. Whether it’s finding the will not to rip open that bag of Oreos or trying to stop yourself from getting into the same old argument with your mother, we all know old habits die hard. When change is hard, when it feels improbable or even impossible, the overwhelming desire to throw up your hands and call it a day is difficult to fight. But, as the Heath brothers explain, what seems impossible may just be a problem of clarity, motivation, or environment. When change is needed, there is a way to make it happen. Dan and Chip make no promises, but they do make change–any change, big or small–a little bit more manageable through their latest book, Switch.

Maybe the change you’ve got in mind isn’t as easy as flipping on a light switch, but this book, which reads partly as a how-to guide and partly as an anthology of stories about change-makers, is definitely a fun read, if nothing else. Those of you with inner geeks will enjoy the wealth of psychology studies sprinkled about the chapters, and anyone who wants to break down their silo will benefit from the interdisciplinary narratives about public health, business, education, homemaking, customer service, management, and dieting. Most of all, the book takes a positive tone, talking about successes, victories, and wins, which any change-maker knows are the main ways to help a weary spirit keep going. The narratives prove to be interesting in and of themselves, written almost as riddles or puzzles, encouraging the reader to guess the resulting path to change. The change factors often prove to be surprising, much simpler than one would guess. And, of course, that’s the whole point Dan and Chip try to drive home: change isn’t as difficult as one would think.

How do you make change bite-sized? You break it into manageable pieces. The book is divided into three sections, using an analogy borrowed from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt boils down the human ability to change habits into an analogy about an elephant and its rider. The rider is our rational mind and the elephant is our emotional mind. The rational mind would love to go on a diet and lose a few pounds, but the elephant really wants that delicious Oreo. The rational mind may understand the importance of a huge change that needs to happen at work, but the elephant likes its mundane and painless routine. Without the will of the elephant, the tiny rider can’t force the elephant to change its ways. And no matter what the elephant may want, without the clear direction of the rider, the elephant may end up going around in circles.

Dan and Chip Heath emphasize the importance of appealing to both the rational mind and the emotional mind. Added to that, they explain how the path, the process of change, needs to be as frictionless as possible, because self-control is a limited resource, and the easier the path to change, the easier the change itself. Dan and Chip Heath break it down, summarizing that in order to create change, you must do three things:

  1. Direct the Rider (Reach the rational side)

  2. Follow the Bright Spots: Investigate what’s working and clone it.

  3. Script the Critical Moves: Don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors.

  4. Point to the Destination: Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it.

  5. Motivate the Elephant (Reach the emotional side)

  6. Find the Feeling: Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something.

  7. Shrink the Change: Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant.

  8. Grow your People: Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset.

  9. Shape the Path

  10. Tweak the Environment: When the situation changes, the behavior changes. So change the situation.

  11. Build Habits: When behavior is habitual, it’s ‘free’ — it doesn’t tax the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits.

  12. Rally the Herd: Behavior is contagious. Help it spread.

Sometimes it may be that the push to change only requires a few of these suggestions. Other times, however, it may require all of them.  Through the case studies cited throughout Switch, the Heath brothers demonstrate that they understand fully that each situation is unique.  But once you figure out the issue that is stalling the change, using one of these techniques provides a clear-cut way to sort out the confusion that usually surrounds any transformation. 

Whatever the case, after reading this book, I knew that in order to make my diet better, I would need more direction, more motivation, and an easier path.  No matter how much I understood that I needed to eat healthier, my sweet tooth thwarted me time and time again.  So I directed my rider (sit ups every day, no sweets, and no carbs after 2 pm), motivated my elephant (put pictures of my hot, skinnier self a couple years ago on my bathroom mirror where I’d have to look at them daily), and shaped my path (packed my lunch with no sweets and got rid of all the sweetened drinks in my home). 

As someone who works at a nonprofit as a community organizer, I know that there will be many more applications for the lessons learned from this book.  Though sometimes change is not clear cut, this book provides direction and motivation. Now it’s up to us to shape our paths to change.

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