Switching Things Up: How to Affect Change in Yourself

Friday, October 18, 2019
Nick Williams

Change is one of the constants which exists from the day we are born until the day we die. We spend our whole lives changing, physically, mentally, and socially. 

Even though change is a fundamental and inescapable part of our lives, it can also be difficult and scary. As a society, we celebrate change mostly when we feel like we are in control of it—think of New Year's resolutions, when we decide this is the year we’re going to workout more, eat better, or quit smoking. 

Yet, it’s those big, paradigm-shifting changes that cause us so much grief—fantasizing about change and actually going through the process are two totally different things. 

New Year's resolutions don’t always pan out. Instead, what flies under our radar are dozens of significant changes happening all of the time: When you get sick of eating tuna salad sandwiches, you switch over to egg salad. When you wear the same rotation of work shirts, eventually you probably hit a breaking point and order some new threads. It may feel mundane, but these are the types of small transformations that we go through happily, and unconsciously.  

Can recognizing these unconscious, incremental changes teach us how to implement change and deal with the inevitable, unexpected changes in our lives?

Chip and Dan Heath seem to think so. The brothers outline how to deal with change in their co-authored book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. It’s all about maintaining a clear direction, recognizing micro-milestones, and staying on the right track.  

The Heath brothers

Chip and Dan Heath are two brothers with a ton of business and writing experience under their respective belts—Chip is a business professor at Stanford University and Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University. Together, they have published four books—examining business theory through a filter of relatable, light-hearted reasoning—all of which have climbed to the top of various bestsellers lists and garnered numerous awards and accolades.

In Switch, the Heath brothers challenge us to adjust our perspective and spell out methods of understanding that help summon the motivation required to actively seek and handle change. 

The brothers split our brains into two parts: our emotional side (the Elephant) and the rational side (the Rider). You might think the rational side of your brain ‘rides’ the emotional side, but often it’s the opposite. 

Change is inevitable, but examining this dichotomy of the mind offers a foundation for understanding how we react to change, which can help prepare us for all of life’s shifts, big or small. 

The Driver and the Elephant 

When we have a hard time dealing with change, it’s quite possibly because the emotional and rational sides of our brains aren’t working harmoniously together.

You might recognize this mental conflict when reflecting on how to best spend your time. For example, our rational side might be like: “Yeah, I should totally spend my Sunday cleaning my house and making a budget and applying for jobs,” but our emotional side ends up being like “Beer. Dill pickle chips. Let’s freaking go!”

Both sides are equally important and serve essential purposes—we need to be productive, we also need to relax—but as they often disagree with each other, rather than untangling the mental mess, we become overwhelmed and are more likely to just go with the flow and default to bad habits or stagnant behavior. 

The Heath brothers describe this conflict as a form of schizophrenia and claim it’s one of the reasons why change can be so hard to manage. Further expanding on the tension of these two sides, Chip and Dan draw from psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, where the symbols of the Elephant and the Rider originates. 

Haidt explains, the Rider may seem in control, perched on top of a massive creature, holding the reins, yet its control is precarious because it is dwarfed by the Elephant’s sheer size. Thus, anytime a disagreement happens between these two characters of our mind, the Rider is going to lose because he is overmatched. 

Thus, the goal, as outlined in Switch, is to give your Elephant the motivation and your Rider the power to direct. The final step is getting the Rider to successfully guide the Elephant down the Path you’re traveling on, in other words, consensual cooperation towards a mutual gain—change. 

The first step: direct the Rider 

The Heath brothers claim that the Rider side of our brains is inherently negative, especially when it comes to change. The Rider likes to analyze situations endlessly but is equally comfortable bathing in anxiety. When faced with the facts—in the same manner we may feel more inclined to log and share the negative stories we read in the news—the Rider will study the negative side of things, i.e. when presented with change, we often think about all the things that might go wrong, instead of the potential benefits. 

One strategy the Heath brothers recommend to counteract this tendency is to re-focus the Rider’s attention on what they define as “bright spots:”

“If you're trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in your field of view, and if you learn to recognize them and understand them, you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: What, exactly, needs to be done differently?”

We tend to ignore the presence of these bright spots because we take them for granted. A bright spot is “a successful effort worth replicating.” The Rider craves going in the right direction, so what better direction to point it towards than a success story?

Yeah, you haven’t been working out every other day as you planned, but on the other hand, you take your dog for walks every night. What would happen if, instead of just taking Fido out for 5 minutes, you took him for a half-hour walk to the big, beautiful park near your home? Sure, it might not turn you into Usain Bolt overnight, but it’s a good start!  

Change doesn’t happen in one sudden burst, it’s a process that takes time but we don’t often think about change as a process when we are agonizing over it. 

Ultimately, to further appeal to the Rider, it helps to custom-tailor your vision of change to play to its strengths, rather than fan the flames of its weaknesses. In other words, to provide a clear, step-by-step roadmap towards change. When “I need to go back to school” becomes “I need to contact student services, notify my workplace, register for courses, and go buy supplies,” change suddenly turns from some daunting, scary monster into a series of easily manageable steps towards success. Suddenly, you’re experiencing scalable pillars of change.

Once the steps become clear, so does the endpoint—that tangible benefit or accomplishment—of the change you’re trying to initiate. 

But, hold your horses, relying solely on the analytical side of things won’t get you to the finish line. This is where balancing out the rational side of your brain with its emotional side comes into play. 

Enter, the Elephant. 

The second step: motivate the Elephant 

The Elephant represents our emotions and gut response. In order to instigate change in yourself, it’s not as simple as knowing that change is right, you have to also feel that change is for the best. By positively examining our efforts, we can more accurately feel the positive effects of change. 

In terms of goals, it’s always better to take things one step at a time; to let yourself revel in your personal successes and enjoy the journey on the road to transformation. Remember, no matter what the change is, it usually doesn’t happen in one step. If you set your standards too high, you might get overwhelmed and never achieve them. 

Since our emotional side’s modus operandi is making ourselves feel good, breaking down big changes into palatable steps is important. This appeases the rational side of our mind rather than overwhelming it. 

The goal is to recognize and appreciate the milestones leading up to the accomplishment of goals and tasks. By appreciating the micro-changes, the Elephant builds confidence and embarks on a journey that maybe started with dread, but evolves into one of positivity and pride. 

As the Heath Brothers observe: 

“The positive emotion of pride experienced when we achieve a personal goal, broadens the kinds of tasks we contemplate for the future, encouraging us to pursue even bigger goals.” 

Think about playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time. If your first experience was playing the last level and facing off with Bowser, you probably would have no idea what to do. You’d fumble around with the controller and end up falling into a pit of lava or succumbing to a fireball. Your frustration might eventually discourage you from playing the game at all. 

But, if you play Super Mario Bros. from the beginning, you’ve built up a foundation of experience that will allow you to successfully beat the final baddie. The first level is easy, teaching you the basic mechanics of the game like running and jumping. Slowly, but surely, more obstacles and techniques are thrown your way, until, by the end, you’re a Goomba-stomping, princess-saving god.

The Heath brothers call this “shrinking the change:” As the daunting idea of change shrinks, the Elephant—your confidence and motivation—grows. 

That being said, throughout this laundry list of successes, there are also bound to be some failures. That’s just the nature of mixing things up—there’s always going to be that smoking relapse or that late-night trip to McDonald’s. The important thing is to not give up. 

Rather than dwelling on these indiscretions, learn from them. As Carol Dweck suggests in her book Growth Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, if we read our “failures” as a “not yet” situation, as in we haven’t achieved our goal yet, we have a better chance of maintaining discipline and achieving the desired outcome.

As long as you stay motivated and remain confident in your goals, the prospect of change transforms from a matter of ‘if’, to ‘when'.

Shape the Path: Build a habit 

At the end of the day, we don’t always have total control over what’s going on around us—our environment is a huge determiner in inhibiting change. Once the Elephant and the Rider are mastered, you can begin to examine the path—the environment—you’re trekking through. 

There’s no sense controlling the world around us, but we can influence it. The Heath brothers assert the easiest way to exert this control is through habit-building: 

“...one of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits…[Habits] are, in essence, behavioral autopilot.”

We often learn habits from other people, so it’s a great idea when approaching change, to solicit the help of people around you who already have the positive habits you’re trying to build in yourself.

In effect, you’re building yourself an environment, or culture, that will help facilitate change in your life. If you’re trying to stop drinking but you only ever chill with a bunch of people that go to keggers every weekend, it’s going to be an uphill climb. Maybe it’s time to start hitting some yoga classes and go out for coffee with friends instead?

We can’t exactly change the world around us, but we can shape our place in it. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, fate throws a monkey wrench at our plans and there’s literally nothing we can do about it. And that’s fine! After all, failures are just lessons towards your Masters in Change. The important thing is to keep your eyes open for situations, or habits that you can shift—even if they’re small—to help pave the road towards success.

Push the limits 

Even with all of the advice, motivation, and goodwill in the world, change can still be really tough. We aren’t naturally hard-wired to run headlong into new situations. In the end, we’re still animals. We like things that we can easily understand, and we like things that are safe: A dog doesn’t usually run away and join a new family because it knows to stick with the family that loves it, feeds it twice per day, and cuddles it at night, increases its chances for survival. 

Your life is much more complicated than a dog’s though. Luckily, as humans, we generally have a lot of options and agency over our lives—it’s just a matter of finding the right key to the door of change, and that key might just be a harmonious relationship between the emotional and rational self.