A book summary of Switch, and how to apply its principles to your health and fitness
Updated: Jul 24
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard is a bestselling book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, published in 2010. Whether you’re a health and fitness professional, just starting out in fitness, a recreational athlete, a superhero-in-training, or anything in between, you’ll get something out of this book. It outlines a framework for successfully making – and sticking to – changes in your life, which you can apply to nutrition, fitness, and other health habits (and if you’re a fitness professional, you can use the framework to help your clients).
The book discusses individual, organizational, and societal change. My summary article focuses on the individual level, and how you can apply the book’s principles to improving your own health and fitness.
The book's basic idea
Imagine that your mind is divided into two parts: the rational mind and the emotional mind. The rational mind wants to be athletic and lean, and is motivated to create a lifestyle change. The emotional mind wants to eat a jumbo-size bag of Skittles and is motivated to stay in the comfort zone of the couch. As you can see, the rational mind and the emotional mind are often in competition with each other.
But what if we could get them to work together? The authors of Switch argue that when this happens, impressive changes can result. (And by the way, a lot of peer-reviewed psychological research supports the idea of a “divide” between the rational and emotional minds.)
The Heaths borrow an analogy first used by Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis.
The emotional part of our minds is the “Elephant”. It seeks out the easiest path (sitting on the couch) and is interested in short-term benefits (eating delicious Skittles). The rational, conscious part of our minds is the “Rider” perched atop the Elephant. The Rider can plan, set goals, and look toward the long-term (like losing 20 pounds of fat in the next six months).
The Rider can direct the Elephant – but not for long. It takes a lot of effort for the tiny Rider to lead the massive Elephant in a direction that it doesn’t want to go, and thus the Rider gets exhausted very quickly. This is why it’s important to make sure that the Elephant is on a path it wants to follow, which occurs when the rational and emotional parts of our minds work in harmony. The authors call our environment (which influences our behaviour) the Path the Elephant is following.
When these three components of change – directing the Rider, motivating the Elephant, and shaping the Path – are aligned, you’re more likely to make a successful change.
Direct the Rider
The Rider needs to know exactly where to go in order to make lasting change. The first part of the book describes how to make it as simple and easy as possible to re-route the rational, intellectual part of your brain (the Rider) onto a new path.
Find the bright spots
You can solve a problem by looking for areas in which it’s already been solved, on a small scale. Rather than asking, “Why isn’t this working?”, ask “When does this work – even a little bit – and how can I do more of that?”
Maybe you’re having difficulty trying to increase the number of hours you sleep per night from 7 to 8. Instead of wondering why it’s not working, think back to a time when you did manage to get 8 hours of sleep, even for only a few days. What was different about those days? Maybe you read a book for 20 minutes before bed those nights instead of getting caught up in hours of Netflix shows. So do more of what’s working (reading) and less of what’s not (Netflix binges) before bed.
Rather than focusing on problems, which impedes change, take a solution-based approach by investigating what’s already working. That will lead you to a realistic action plan.
Script the critical moves
To guide your Rider through the process of change, you need to make sure that you have a clear, unambiguous set of steps to follow. When we see people who seem resistant to change, the real reason may be that they just aren’t clear about what to do.
For example, Shauna may seem resistant to go to the gym and work out. But it’s not that she’s resistant to change – it’s that she has no idea which exercises to do once she gets to the gym. When I give Shauna a step-by-step workout program, she now has clarity and is more likely to make (and keep) her new fitness change.
Point to the destination
The Rider, who thinks long-term, needs a clear goal. This is what the authors call a “destination postcard”. Perhaps your destination postcard is performing 10 strict pull-ups in a row four months from now.
Once you have a clear destination, you’ll need a set of immediate, short-term actions or habits that will achieve that goal. Your short-term actions could be to do three sets of pull-ups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the beginning of your regular workouts. This way you’re scripting the critical moves so you’re 100% clear on what you need to do in the short term in order to achieve your long-term goal.
Motivate the Elephant
In order to be successful in creating change, we need to give the emotional part of our brains (the Elephant) a kick in the butt. We can’t rely solely on sheer willpower – which is the Rider attempting to drag the Elephant onto a path it doesn’t want to follow. Inevitably your Rider will tire out from dragging the resistant Elephant along, and you’ll abandon your change. You need to find a path your Elephant wants to follow.
Find the feeling
In order to make a change stick, we need to find an emotional driver for making that change. For example, I’ll see a new client (let’s call him James) in the gym office for a consultation. James says, “I want to lose 20 pounds and start weight training.” I could leave it there, move to the gym floor, and immediately start his training program. Instead, I’ll ask “Why is that important to you?”
James might say, “Because I want to feel healthy.”
“My wife and I just had a baby, and I realized I need to be a role model for my son as he grows up. I want him to grow up in a healthy, active environment.”
That’s the real reason, the real “why”. Find yours.
Shrink the change
The Elephant gets spooked by large, overbearing changes. Don’t be afraid to make your destination postcard a big, scary, awe-inspiring goal, but you’ll need a way to shrink this down into manageable chunks if you want to prevent your Elephant from getting spooked.
Here’s an interesting study summarized in Switch: a car wash ran a promotion using loyalty cards. One group of customers received a blank 8-stamp card that would earn them a free car wash once filled. The second group of customers received a 10-stamp card with two stamps already filled. Both groups had to earn the same number of stamps, but a few months later, only 19% of the 8-stamp customers had earned their free car wash, and 34% of the 10-stamp customers had earned theirs (the 10-stamp group earned their free wash faster, too). We’re more likely to be successful when we feel like we’re already on our way toward making a change.
The Heaths write, “The challenge is to get the Elephant moving, even if the movement is slow at first.” So focus on one small (but effective) diet change at a time. Break your workouts into 20-minute chunks. Don’t spook your Elephant!
My hypothetical client James wants to lose 20 pounds. If I were to say, “You need to completely overhaul your lifestyle, start working out 6 days a week, and follow a meticulous diet plan”, that’d spook his Elephant and he probably wouldn’t stick to this plan for very long – if at all. Instead, I could say, “Let’s work together twice a week for the next month.” This makes workouts a no-brainer for James, since I do all the programming. “Also, keep making your morning smoothies, but add one tablespoon each of chia seeds and ground flax seeds.” These are small wins that are within immediate reach, and they build on what James is already doing.
Grow your people [in this case, person]
The authors describe the difference between a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe your abilities are basically static. You believe you might be able to get a bit better at certain skills, but your abilities reflect the way you’re wired. You’re less likely to tackle challenges, because if you fail, you’re afraid people will see you as a failure as a person. Maybe you believe you’re just “not someone who works out” or you’ve never been good at long-distance running so you never will be.
If you have a growth mindset, on the other hand, you believe that “abilities are like muscles – they can be built up with practice”. You’re not afraid to tackle challenges and you’re not afraid of criticism, because it tends to make you better and doesn’t define you as a person. People with a growth mindset reframe failure as a natural part of the change process.
You’ll need a growth mindset if you want your change to stick. Interestingly, people with a fixed mindset can learn to adopt a growth mindset. “You’re so good at soccer!” is fuel for a fixed mindset. A growth mindset compliment praises effort rather than skill: “I’m proud of how hard you worked on your speed drills today!”
In order to make a successful change, you need to make your change a matter of identity. Aspire to be the type of person who would make a certain change, like going to the gym 3 days a week. Rather than worry about consequences (like feeling guilt for missing a workout), ask yourself, “What would a recreational athlete like me do in this situation?”
Shape the Path
After directing the Rider and motivating the Elephant, we need to make the Path as easy to follow as possible (remember that the Path is our environment). When we attribute problems to people, rather than to the environment, we’re committing what’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.
A research study on irrational eating behaviour found that people ate 53% more popcorn when given a larger container. The lead researcher of this study was Brian Wansink, who wrote Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, which I recommend reading, by the way. We’d be committing the Fundamental Attribution Error by assuming that these people were gluttons. It was the environment (container size) dictating their behaviour, not some intrinsic personality trait.
Sometimes it’s easier to change the environment (like giving people smaller popcorn containers) than it is to direct the Rider or motivate the Elephant.
Tweak the environment
The Elephant will follow the path of least resistance. Remember that the Rider can only direct the Elephant for so long before the Rider gets exhausted. You’re more likely to overindulge in Oreos if you’ve walked by the box on your kitchen counter 18 times than if you didn’t have the box on your counter, or in your house, in the first place.
Tweaking the environment is essentially the Rider outsmarting the Elephant. Here are some ways I do this (feel free to use these yourself):
I put my phone out of reach so that when the alarm rings in the morning, I need to get out of bed and walk across the room to turn it off. Now I’m up, awake, and ready to work out.
When I’m craving a treat – usually something sweet – I go to the bulk section of the grocery store and buy a small handful of Jujubes. That’s all I need, but if I were to buy an entire bag, I’d probably eat the whole thing!
I pre-schedule some of my workouts with friends and clients. I swim every Saturday at 8am with a friend, meet at least one client at the track on Wednesdays at 7am to do our own workouts, and schedule partner workouts with our gym receptionist at least once a week. Now my environment is shaped to support sticking to my workouts, and I don’t have to rely on sheer motivation or willpower.
Habits are behaviours we engage in without thought, as if on autopilot. This is a way of bypassing both the Elephant and the Rider. Our environments can promote or detract from our health habits, so try to find changes in your environment that shape good habits rather than bad ones.
Building habits also involves creating action triggers, which are predetermined actions that dictate the next step. For example, dropping off your son at school triggers the next action, going to the gym. By creating action triggers, you’re conserving the Rider’s self-control and passing the control of your behaviour onto the environment instead. A meta-analysis of 85 studies found that people who set an action trigger did better than 74% of people who didn’t set one for the same task.
Try attaching a new habit to an existing habit (as suggested by Leo Babuta of Zen Habits). For me, putting my oatmeal into the microwave every morning triggers the next action: doing my stretches and corrective work for my scoliosis-related lower back issues for 4 minutes while my oatmeal cooks.
Rally the herd
We’re influenced by the behaviours of those around us, and we can use this to our advantage when it comes to health and fitness.
One way I “rally the herd” is by publishing Client Spotlight blog articles profiling various clients. Other clients see what these superstars are up to, they’re more motivated to stay consistent with their own health and fitness habits.
Some trainer friends and I created a “Monthly PR” sheet in our staff room for each of us to keep track of personal records for 6 different lifts. It’s not about beating the others (well OK, maybe a little bit!) – it’s about seeing that they’re all working on their weighted pull-ups, or handstands, or deadlifts, which helps me to stay consistent with my own practice.
Keep the change going
As we all know, change is a process, not an event. Remember to recognize and celebrate steps in the right direction, even if they’re small.
The authors write, “We can say this much with confidence: When change works, it tends to follow a pattern. The people who change have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment. In other words, when change works, it’s because the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path are all aligned in support of the switch.”
Comments? Suggestions? Just wanna say hi? Get in touch with me any time.
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