A review of ‘Switch’ – by Chip and Dan Heath

This is a summary and review of ‘Switch: how to change things when change is hard’ the new book and New York Times number one bestseller by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of the excellent ‘Made to Stick’. But first let’s get to the good stuff – how do you change things?

They start with three fundamental principles about human behaviour. 

The first idea is that self-control is a finite resource. Most of us beat ourselves up about our lack of ability to deal with distractions, not have the third brownie, get through a pile of tricky admin, work out every day, watch less Two and Half Men, and so on. 

Yet many studies (apparently) have shown that if you are forced to resist temptation on a task then your perseverance on the following task will be greatly reduced. If this is true (and doesn’t it instinctively feel like it is?) then the implications are enormous. If you are forcing yourself to do a job that you don’t like then you might well find yourself putting on weight. 

If you are consciously telling yourself how good you are by not checking your e-mails when you hear the beep, then you are not only being distracted, but you are burning up your precious will-power. 

The solution then is to remove choice from your environment, eliminate distractions, automate where possible and create habits. Those yummy biscuits in the pantry are creating havoc in your life just because they are there. 

This resonates very strongly – I’m often asked at presentations – “Wasn’t it hard to get up every day and keep trekking towards the pole?” Well, it wasn’t easy but when you don’t have any other choices it doesn’t seem quite so bad. It is much harder now to wake up at 5:30 a.m. get out of bed and go to the gym. Choices are evil. 

The second, and related, idea is that ‘what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem’. If you serve popcorn to people in bigger buckets then they eat more – in fact 53% more. And they do it quite unconsciously. To stop this you could provide healthy eating campaigns, and put warning signs on the outside of the bucket, or you could just serve smaller portions. 

If people are driving off the road going round a particular corner you could put on a TV campaign, you could put signs up, or you could straighten the corner. Sometimes it’s just easier to change the situation than to change behaviour. 

The third principle you’ve all heard before- there are two independent psychological processes that drive behaviour. The Heath’s version of the traditional conscious vs unconscious or emotional vs irrational distinction is ‘the Rider’ (the conscious/rational part) vs ‘the Elephant’ (the subconscious/emotional bit). The Elephant is interested in quick payoffs, so when change efforts fail it’s often because of the Elephant. 

If you’ve ever decided to lose weight and found a piece of cake in your hand and don’t know how it got there, it’s the Elephant. The trick then is to make sure that the Elephant is engaged and moving the way that you want it to. The Rider on the other hand, has the ability to think long-term but it has its own issues. Navel gazing, and over analysis can lead to wheel spinning. Lack of clarity about the direction to take, argue the Heaths, can often be confused with resistance to change. 

The answer here then is to ensure that the Rider is given very clear directions. So these three fundamentals lead to the three main prongs for creating change. 

1. Direct the Rider 

Find the bright spots – use techniques like ‘appreciative enquiry’ to find out what is going right, clone it and build on it Script the critical moves – simplify the actions required down to a very practicable and actionable level.‘Two drinks max’ is more effective than ‘Don’t drink and drive’ Point to the destination – create and share a vision of where you are headed, as change is easier when the people know where they are going and why it’s worth it 

2. Motivate the Elephant 

Find the feeling – a change message needs to tap into emotion to be effective. This is cleverly exploited in the ‘Jenny Craig moment’ ads. Shrink the change – chunk the required change down into small bits Grow your people – change the way people view themselves 

3. Shape the path 

Tweak your environment. Remove or amend those things that are creating friction between the current and desired behaviour. Think Amazon’s one click ordering process. 

Build habits – when something becomes a habit it stops being a choice [Shouldn’t this be under the Elephant wrangling? Never mind] 

Rally the herd – behaviour is contagious so help it spread [agreed, but how?] 

Dan Heath used to be a researcher writing case studies at Harvard Business School and it shows – there are very many case studies in this book, which would, if you’ve read my blog post about crap advice, raise a warning sign. But because they are so appealing, intuitive and on point, they are very effective. The chapters are also peppered with worked examples intended to encourage the reader to start applying information that has just been learn’t. This works well, and had me scribbling in the margins. In fact I’ve never written in a book so much. 

This book isn’t perfect, sometimes the structure is a little confusing, sometimes it feels that the stream of tips is turning into a laundry list. Yet you are very likely to come away from reading this book with more tools, and at the very least some entertaining anecdotes (did you know that obesity is contagious?) If you are in the change business this book is highly recommended.


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Kevin Biggar

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