How to Change Things when Change is Hard

Book cover


Authors: Chip Heath, Dan Heath
Publisher: Random House Business
Year: 2011
Pages: 305
Identifiers: 1847940323, 9781847940322
Links: Goodreads, Google


Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives? The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems–the rational mind and the emotional mind–that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort–but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

In a compelling, story-driven narrative, the Heaths bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change. Switch shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you, whether your interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.


In Switch, the brothers Chip and Dan Heath describe the factors which influence organizational and social change efforts.

They begin the book by explaining that our brains have a rational and an emotional system, which they refer to as the Elephant and the Rider throughout the rest of the book.

A central theme in the book is that any large change effort requires winning people over emotionally (speaking to the Elephant) because simply understanding a problem or trying to reason about it rationally alone is unlikely to convince or motivate people to change their habits or behavior.

The book is structured so as to provide a framework that you can follow to appeal to people’s Rider and Elephant and motivate them to go along with the change:

Direct the Rider

  • Focus on the bright spots. When trying for change, focus more on the successes than the failures. Can you find successful approaches from others and replicate those?
  • Provide clear steps or instructions.
  • Point to the destination. Make it clear what you’re trying to achieve and why.

Motivate the Elephant

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the environment. People’s behaviors are dependent on the situation and the environment they’re in. Change the environment in a way which stimulates the change or makes it easier to adopt the behavior you’re looking to change.
  • Build habits. The Rider is easily exhausted, so any automatic behaviors you can instill allow people to do the right thing on autopilot without needing to rely on willpower.
  • Grow your people. Provide Free Spaces and allow “identity conflicts” to play out. Provide Positive Reinforcement and praise progress whenever possible, no matter how small.

Notes and highlights

  1. Change behavior by changing the situation (or the environment)
  2. Many studies have shown that willpower is a finite supply.
  3. Humans have both a rational and an emotional system in their brains (the elephant and the rider)
  4. If you want things to change, provide clear directions or instructions.
  5. Focus on the bright spots
  6. Some facts may be True, but useless because you cannot influence them.
  7. Positive/negative asymmetry: We remember bad/negative events much more than positive events.
  8. When trying for change, focus more on the successes than the failures. Can you find successful approaches from others and replicate those?
  9. Decision-paralysis leads to maintaining/keeping the status-quo.
  10. When people push for change and it doesn’t happen, they often chalk it up to a lack of understanding
  11. Shrink the change (and Endowed Progress Effect)
  12. The consequences and identity models in decision making
  13. The “huge ugly billboard sign for safe driving” story in part 5 of chapter 7, “grow your people”, reminds me of the Commitment and Consistency Bias.
  14. Similarly, chapter 8, “Tweak the Environment”, touches on the Fundamental Attribution Error and influencing people’s behavior through changes to the environment they are in.
  15. A reference to sterile cockpit is made.
  16. A reference to the Haddon Matrix is made.
  17. Chapter 9 discusses habits and action triggers. Action triggers remind me of 1. Using rules to create correct automatic behaviors.
  18. Towards the end of chapter 9 a reference is made to Atul Gawande and a story about a major drop in line infections after the introduction of a 5-point checklist (this story also comes up in The Checklist Manifesto)
  19. Chapter 10 begins with an explanation of the research done by Bibb Latané and John Darley in the late 60s into the bystander effect. It also includes a reference to research which claimed obesity is contagious, but the results of that study are disputed and likely wrong.
  20. The authors argue that in situations where “your herd” (see the elephant and the rider) has embraced the right behavior, you should always publicize it. Remember, Focus on the bright spots.
  21. In one of the final chapters, the authors argue that Free Spaces are often crucial to large change efforts.
  22. You need to allow an identity conflict (“us versus them mentality battle”) to play out, at least for a while. Free Spaces are important for this.
  23. The final chapter discusses Positive Reinforcement and argues you should praise progress whenever possible, no matter how small.
  24. It also mentions that people are more likely to be resistant to change in the beginning, but that once a change is underway, the effects of cognitive dissonance result in people becoming more accepting as time goes by.


  • heathbrothers-the-switch-framework.pdf
  • heathbrothers-switch-for-organizations-the-workbook.pdf

(Grab yours from https://heathbrothers.com/members/)