How to change things when change is hard (Chip & Dan Heath)
A meagre 2% of change projects go as initially planned. Embedding enduring changes and leaving behind dogged habits and adopting new habits repeatedly seems to be very hard indeed. Literature offers a wide variety of methods to help cope with changes and this (rather light) review offers easy-going and to the point insights to the world-famous ‘Switch’, courtesy of the Heath brothers. It is one of the reference works mentioned in the StreetwiZe workshop Leading Change.
I’m staring out of the train window submerged in thoughts, my eyes fixated on the Flemish horizon made up of ribbon development.
Internal cruise control active. Grinding teeth, ready for action. An irresistible urge to cut down my nails looms inside me. Kilometres pass by, my eyes absorb the view of the passing villages and my nails shorten with every city I pass. My teeth, a well-oiled machine, have effectively cut down my nails to just a few millimetres long. More is less?
A quick look at my freshly cut down claws makes me realise dreadfully that this can’t just go on and on. When the train arrives at the platform, I realise this is a key turning point. I need to stamp out my stubborn habit of biting my nails. No more biting, no more.
Enthusiastic and proud about my freshly made decision, I exit the Brussels-South station. I go down the escalator, and with every single step a feeling of shame sinks in. This is the 543rdtime that I decide to stop nail-biting. And yet, this time I feel my decision was taken rather radically. The exceedingly painful moment has arrived. I glance at my own reflection at the bus stop and declare aloud: I need professional help!
At home I pace up and down the living and as if the gods of self-help felt it coming, my left eye caught the title of a book. Chip & Dan Heath smile at me, Colgate style, and entice me to their blue-red cover with their promising looks. ‘How to change things when change is hard?’
264 pages to help me deal with my repeatedly failed intentions. Thousands of soothing words to help me turn around my Switch. The New York Times classifies it as a bestseller, I classify it as a blog post challenge!
Overly charmed by metaphors as I am, the first page instantly bewilders me. The brothers Heath use the metaphor of the ‘Rider’ and the ‘Elephant’ all over the book. This analogy comes out of ‘The Happiness Theory’ courtesy of Jonathan Haidt, and I genuinely want to thank the brothers for using it. Nothing is as powerful as a simple metaphor happily dancing inside my brain. So, change is all about playing Jungle Book in your mind? Game on!
Picture this: a hobbly wobbly elephant loiters on the intended path to change. The elephant likes slow steps, needs some peanuts from time to time and, when life goes sour, the elephant might be bold enough to march the wrong way, stampeding all your good intentions.
This gigantic elephant comes with a ‘rider’ (ratio), the person trying to keep the elephant in check by tightening the reins. The ‘rider’ understands the concept of change but he’s not capable of keeping the savage animal in check completely. These two figures walk the path of change together and they both don’t like not knowing how long the path is. Equally, they don’t like not knowing whether the intended path involves a wobbly Ardennes road, made up of rocks and boulders.
Keep these three elements in mind when you are facing a difficult change.
- The Rider = Ratio
- The Elephant = Emo
- The Path = Change project
Keeping this metaphor in my mind, I start working. Note pad? Check. Glitter pen? Check. In order to manage the whole change project, I prepare meticulously by keeping a diary for one week. It’s all about a thorough and ruthless deceit of my psyche. I’m not yet ready to look the elephant straight into the eyes, so my first challenge is to tackle the nail-biting rider.
STEP 1: DIRECT THE RIDER
Follow the (nail-biting) bright spots
The brothers tell me the ‘rider’ doesn’t like to uncertainty and freezes when too many setbacks coincide. That’s why it’s important to go look for Bright Spots. Bright Spots give hope and make sure the ‘rider’ stays in control of the reins and doesn’t fall back to his infinite analysis mode. In other words, I need to keep a moment in mind on which I didn’t resolve to nail-biting … surprisingly there are quite a few of those. My heart jumps joyfully.
Script the critical (nail-biting) moves
On to the next brainwash method my ‘rider’ needs! Time to make an emergency plan for those weak moments. After 72 pages I understand, I need some simple rules. Rules making sure my ‘rider’ doesn’t have to think for himself when problems arise. Easy Game. Lists are my middle name (you probably already guessed that, didn’t you?)
Point to (nail) destination
My ‘rider’ has to know where to go, preferably on a tropical holiday. Thus my next task is to create a postcard destination. A simple, understandable and attractive end goal for your path to lead to. I instantly dive into my Instagram feed and I see numerous possibilities for ugly magnets on my fridge and I create mood boards at an extortionate rate.
STEP 2: MOTIVATE THE ELEPHANT
Find the (powerful nails) feeling
Time to catch the elephant by his tusks. The emotional animal reacts best to overwhelmingly positive messages. I have to create an optimistic atmosphere so as to associate my nails with pleasure and ‘colour popping playfulness’ (I could’ve written that). I dream rainbow colour nail polish and the sound of vast fake nails dancing on my keyboard. Working my elephant proves to be difficult once more: the animal is rather powerful and stubborn. Yet a healthy dose of self-knowledge easily takes him down.
Shrink the (nail-eating) change
The mantra ‘raise the bar’ is incredibly contra-productive to change. Our elephant needs instant and visible proof of growing nails and of walking in the right direction, so as to not to discourage him. I set mini-goals and I decide to celebrate every small victory by rewarding myself. I look for a rather constructive reward, I don’t want to create an even worse habit. The idea of rewarding myself with wine is discarded immediately. I award myself with two stamps on my ‘I’m doing so well card’.
Build (powerful nail) identity
People often come to a surprising conclusion when asked the following: how would I react in this situation? We take on an identity and use it as a base to support our rather irrational decision. I look for a strong image, a person making my identification indicator go wild and who breathes confidence. She serves as my compass in a desert full of temptations.
Growth (nail success) mind-set
Should your elephant fuck up now and then, don’t immediately start shaming him. I convince my environment to be kind to my ten ton friend, to stay friendly and to encourage him. This ensures you don’t end up in a closet somewhere, uncontrollably rasping down your nails, filled with shame and completely discouraged. Getting caught in a trap is part of the change project, evading the negative vortex and taking a look at my ‘I’m doing so well chart’ helps me. My elephant is fired up, ready to go!
STEP 3: SHAPE THE PATH
Tweak the environment
After having dealt with the ‘Rider’ and the ‘Elephant’ it’s time to create an environment to bring this change project to a good and, one in which my emo and ratio can thrive. The first hurdle is to tweak your environment, making everything readily available and – preferably – also aesthetically acceptable (remember my rampaging elephant). A shiny case containing tons of equipment used to revert any nail-crisis is acquired. Hema is my best friend.
I plan a moment so my inner Pavlov conditions to claw-caring. Netflix & Chill evolves to Netflix & Trim. Reserving a moment in my daily routine ensures I start colouring my nails in psychedelic colours in a sufficiently positive mood. The trigger of my favourite series is all that matters. I efficiently use my megalomaniac change project to soothe my guilty conscience caused by extensive binge watching. Do I come over as a nail psychopath already?
Rally the herd
The final point of attention for my nail-biter change project is almost there! Hallelujah, will the world ever be the same again? The last thing to do is using the force of masses. Even if I sometimes look down rather reprovingly from under my fringe, I’m still very influenced by positive impulses my direct environment emits. The Heath brothers advise me to surround me with positive good examples who bring me to account from time to time, taking the sensitivity of my elephant into account.
Thanks, Chip & Dan.
I won’t be fooled again.