Until now I had never read the Heath brothers, which is a shame. Their books are good. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard is a mix of business experience, academic research, and productivity tools that anyone can apply. The machine that Switch attempts to fix is you – or more specifically – your attempt to make a switch.
Whether it’s at the corporate or personal level, we all make changes. Of those attempts, many fall short. Chip and Dan Heath suggest we miss because we get one of three areas wrong: the rider, the elephant, or the path. This helpful analogy in the book is a nice triad for us to frame how to change and where we may miss a switch.
Their story begins with the rider, our rational and logical selves. He does a wonderful job in the short term, but a terrible one over time. The mental rider can move us in one direction only as long as a real one could maneuver an elephant. Luckily the book gives ample examples of ways to get the rider going in the right direction, one of which is called “script the critical moves”.
Our rider wants to be right and when he’s not tugging at the elephant’s reins can fall into paralysis by analysis limbo. Weighing things rather than doing them becomes a content state because our rider knows that the right choice is around the corner. We can remind our rider to find a near-perfect truth and follow that. Don’t check email in the morning is a good one. There will certainly be a good reason to someday check email, but as a critical move, it satisfies our mental rider.
The second animal we have to wrangle is the elephant. This is the more powerful of the two, because as the Heath brothers write, “when people fail to change, it’s not usually because of an understanding problem”. We know not to eat cookies, skim projects, and forge reports. But we do. This area is also more ephemeral than talking to the rider. The rider wants a computer because of the specs. The elephant wants one because of the projects it allows.
One suggestion from the book is to “shrink the change.” Our internal elephant doesn’t like big swings. Rather than waking up early to get to a personal training session, wake up and take the dog for a walk. Rather than stop checking Twitter during the day, set up automatic alerts. Wean the elephant in a new direction, leaving peanuts along the path.
“Shape the path” is the final component to making switch happen. One way to work on this is to create habits, which both the rider and elephant like. The rider likes habits because it removes a choice, the elephant because they are comfortable. Habit formation isn’t easy. Habits have to be broken in like a good pair of jeans before we are comfortable in them. Knowing this alone – that habit formation takes time, attention, and effort can increase your chances of sticking with it by twenty-five percent.
Overall, Switch was good. It blended storytelling nicely with good information and can be the roadmap you need for whatever switch you are trying to make. The book isn’t rigorous in any one area, but fits many general ones. While the ideas in this review are personal, the book also addresses how organizations can make changes stick.
For deeper reading on habits try the scientific The Power of Habit. For our decision making (elephant, rider, or otherwise) both Predictably Irrational and Thinking Fast and Slow give foundational explanations to how we think and why.