Change is difficult. It doesn’t matter whether it involves rolling out a new corporate initiative in a large company or trying to eat healthier for a New Year’s resolution. It’s not that the change itself is complicated. Oftentimes, it’s very simple. What’s hard is breaking out of habitual behavior.
There’s a scientific reason for that, as it turns out. As well-known business authors and academics Chip and Dan Heath point out in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by (Broadway Books, 2010), making conscious judgments about what to do and how to do it requires using a mental resource — the part of your brain that makes executive decisions — that is very easily depleted.
Let’s say you’ve been smoking for 20 years and want to quit. The main problem is not the fact that you enjoy smoking or the addictive properties of nicotine, according to the Heath brothers, although those could play a role. The issue is that every “touch point” you have with cigarettes is ingrained in your consciousness so that you can do it automatically and practically without effort. You pick up a pack when you go to the drugstore or supermarket. You carry it around in your pocket. You take periodic breaks from working to smoke. You light one up after meals. And all of this is done without your brain actively telling you to do it.
Conversely, giving all of that up requires the kind of mental fortitude and focus you might associate with solving quadratic equations. You may stay strong in your resistance to smoking for a few days, but there’s a very good chance you’ll backslide at some point. And it’s not because you’re weak or a bad person, a common sentiment among people who beat themselves up for falling short of goals. It’s because human beings are wired to be creatures of habit. Being completely cognizant of what you’re doing, or thinking deeply and creatively about something new, is the equivalent of running an automobile engine at high RPMs. It’s fine for quick acceleration, but you’re going to burn out your brain if you keep it in that state over an extended period of time.
With that in mind, how can people hope to make any kind of significant change in their life? The Heath brothers offer a clear, simple system that has the following three elements:
▪ The Rider: This is the intellectual, conscious mind. It’s great at forming strategy, evaluating options, and making decisions. However, your “rider” tires easily and tends to overanalyze things.
▪ The Elephant: This is the emotional, subconscious mind. The rational “rider” sits atop and guides the “elephant,” but is often overwhelmed by the much stronger, more willful “animal” nature.
▪ The Path: The “path” is your environment — the resources, obstacles, and other factors that can affect the progress of the rider and elephant.
The Heaths say that the key to making any change happen is manipulating these three elements to make it easier. For instance, your rider has trouble dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, so if you’re about to embark on a big behavioral adjustment, it’s important to carefully script the first few moves or actions you plan to take as closely and carefully as you can.
Another example would be “shrinking the change.” Here’s how it works: The metaphorical elephant of your mind desires instant gratification. If doing something new and different doesn’t have an immediate payoff, the elephant will say, “Well, this is useless. I guess I’ll go back to doing what I did before.” But if you break the overall change up into multiple, specific steps that can be accomplished in a brief amount of time, you’ll move toward your goal while providing key emotional wins along the way, thereby keeping the elephant motivated.
Switch offers many more such tips for making change simple and manageable. If you’re finding that you’re stuck and feel like you can’t move in a different direction, then this book may be just the thing to help you get on the right track.
“The writer Amy Sutherland studied animal trainers who teach dolphins to jump through hoops and monkeys to ride skateboards. These are very, very long journeys indeed. What do you do, in the first hour of the first day, to teach a monkey how to ride a skateboard?
“The answer doesn’t involve punishment. Animal trainers rarely use punishment these days. You can punish an elephant only so many times before you wind up as a splinter. Instead, trainers set a behavioral destination and then use ‘approximations,’ meaning that they reward each tiny step toward the destination. For example, in the first hour of the first day of training, the future skateboarding monkey gets a chunk of mango for not freaking out when the trainer puts the board in his cage. Later, he gets mango for touching the board, then for sitting on it, then for letting the trainer push him back and forth on it. Mango, mango, mango. Hundreds of sessions later, you’ve got a mango-bloated monkey ready to skate a half-pipe.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Chip Heath is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He lives in Los Gatos, Calif. Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). Previously, he was a researcher and case writer at Harvard Business School, as well as the cofounder of a college textbook publishing firm called Thinkwell. Dan lives in Raleigh, N.C. The Heath brothers write a monthly column for Fast Company magazine.