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Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

I just finished reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath from the perspective of a person and parent trying to understand how to motivate myself and my child to action. It was a great complement to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow reviewed last month.  The Heath’s metaphor for what Kahneman called System One and System Two (our rational mind and our emotional mind) was an elephant (the emotional mind) and a rider (the rational mind).  They looked at change and found it is so difficult because our elephants like the comfort of existing routines and don’t cooperate with our riders who insist that change would be good.

Yet it is not a rider and elephant in isolation.  Rather they demonstrate how the path to change, that is the environment or the culture where that change must take place, is a third crucial element.  They tell the story of a returning Vietnam vet, addicted to drugs, yet able to kick the habit slowly, with repeated tries, partly because he moved into an environment that did not tolerate them, a girlfriend impatient with drugs, a supportive family who treated him as though he could rid himself of dependency, and a community that made it difficult to buy and find drugs.

In numerous stories and references to research, the Heath’s illustrated that people (and organizations) who change have three things in common; a clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.

The two lessons I found most compelling were to shrink the change and to develop action triggers. Shrink the change refers to making a task seem more manageable. When I’m asking my son to ‘clean his room’ I find I am talking to myself.  If I make the task more manageable and ask him to spend just 5 minutes picking up anything on his floor and putting it away where it belongs, if I lower the bar, I find that his elephant (the “I don’t want to tackle this huge problem”) cooperates more. The success gives me a chance to praise him, and he finds he is already part way into making his room ‘clean.’

The Heath’s tell the story of a car wash that experimented with incentive programs.  The one incentive card was blank and offered one free car wash for eight stamps.  The other card had two already completed stamps and offered one free car wash for an additional eight stamps.  The costumers who got the card with two stamps already completed were more likely to come often enough to get a free wash.  We find our elephants more motivated to finish a task already begun.

Action triggers are a way of preloading a way you want to act. The Heath’s describe, “People who create action triggers for themselves are far more likely to take action. An action trigger is a mental plan you make about when and where you will do something or what you will do in a certain situation. For example, patients recovering from a hip operation who wrote down when and where they would go for a walk were much more likely to carry through on that decision then patients who just decided they would go for a walk. Don’t just ask people to do something, get them to make a mental plan of when and where they will do it.”

The book was thought provoking on the methods and elements of change.  Many of their ideas can be found in the Grow a Generation Resource, “When Being a Homeroom Parent is Not Enough.”  The handbook walks you through making an action plan to propose a new program (a program you are volunteering to run) in your child’s school. It is a great resource for anyone wishing to help start and coach a robotics competition team, video game design club, science fair competition, or NASA explorers club.

Take a moment to let me know your experiences bringing about change.  What created the tipping point in your efforts?

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  1. I find any information about change interesting. Everyone desires to change or bring about change in some way, either large or small. It can be as simple as you said, how to get a child to accomplish a simple task by framing it in a desirable, attainable way. Many bribe to do this; I am not a fan of that strategy.

    I think what we want to change is often not clear, thus making it hard to have an identifiable goal and as a result, have the motivation to do it. If you know what you want to change, why and what the motivation is, I think you know where to seek support. In other words, don’t tell a friend who is always cynical and doubtful about your new dream business. All you will get is negativity. Seek the support you need and I believe that ties into the motivation and the vision. One of the biggest stimuli to change is being unhappy with previous results or experiences. A lot of getting real analysis has to happen to figure out what you want to change or need to change to get the desired results. I believe it was Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    Behavior is hard to change and I think the goals must be small and specific. Not to be demeaning, but think about training a dog. You have to do the same thing with the same result, never bending, over and over again. What makes human change complex is the fact that we are not dogs and can rationalize, often an impediment to change.

    I have had to make a lot of changes, some because I wanted to, some because I had to for survival and long term benefit. I guess it’s all good, but it is never easy or simple. Deciding or envisioning change is just the tip of the iceberg. Having the clear guidelines you outline really helps.

    Great post, Ellen, and it sound like a useful book.

    1. Thanks Ruth – your words are wise, particularly the reminder about insanity’s definition – too often I find myself trying the same thing over and over, thinking if I just try harder, they’ll work.

      1. You have inspired me to write about change for my next blog post too. Thanks 🙂

  1. […] – Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Her post is here. I have spent countless hours thinking about change: what to change, how to change, or whether to […]

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