Changing our behavior is not always easy, as anyone who has resolved to quit smoking, eat healthier or start running in the mornings will know. So what is it that can make change so difficult? Well according to the book Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, it is indeed possible.

An excellent analogy for examining behavioral change is that of an elephant and its rider trying to follow a certain path. The elephant, being a powerful, stubborn creature, represents the emotional side of people, looking for a quick payoff rather than long-term benefits. The rider in turn represents the rational side that knows what should be done, and can tug at the elephant’s reins to exert some small degree of control over it. Finally, the path represents the situation in which the change is to take place.

Consider a situation where you want to get up at 5:45 in the morning to go jogging. Your inner rider has rationally analyzed the situation and thinks this is good for you. But what happens when the alarm actually goes off in the morning? If you’re like most people, your inner elephant will demand just a little more sleep, totally overpowering your rider, and you’ll end up skipping the jog.

But what about the situational factors that help or hinder your noble quest? A comfy bed and bad weather outside won’t help get that elephant moving, that’s for sure. On the other hand, the smell of freshly brewed coffee just might.

All three components influence whether change will be successful, whether progress along the path is made. From changing your own diet to influencing others’ behavior, your success will depend on your ability to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path.

Implementing change is like riding an elephant: choose a direction, give your elephant some peanuts and stick to an easy path.

Your inner rider is a terrific thinker and planner. Unfortunately, he is also prone to spinning his wheels: overanalyzing every aspect of a potential change without actually doing anything. Worse still, his analysis is totally problem-focused, obsessing over all the difficulties ahead.

But endless analysis of the obstacles in your way gets you nowhere; you must give the rider a clear direction to go in so he can put his planning and rational thinking to good use. Instead of looking at the problems, find and focus on the so-called bright spots: specific situations or areas where change has already succeeded. Then figure out how change was achieved and leverage these lessons to make the change more widespread.

When faced with a change situation, the rider can easily succumb to something called decision paralysis. Say you’re trying to implement the vague behavioral change to “eat healthier.” The rider will try to analyze all the possible alternatives of how to do this: eating more vegetables, eating less pasta, using less salt, frying with a different oil, etc. Any one of those changes would already help, but the rider ends up doing a lot of analysis and changing nothing.

This is a very human tendency. Studies have shown that, somewhat paradoxically, the more choices we have, the less able we are to make a decision. Too many alternatives just confuse us. From the outside, this may look like resistance to change, but it’s actually lack of clarity on what to do next.

The solution is to give the rider clear directions to follow. Ambiguity is the enemy, so you need to provide clear behavioral goals and instructions. Think about the situations that are most crucial for the change and script the critical moves for those situations. For example, to eat healthier, you probably need to script the critical moves for shopping; what you buy is what you eat.

When health researchers wanted to persuade West Virginians to eat a healthier diet, they did not offer vague advice like “eat healthier.” Instead, they provided crystal-clear instructions: “Next time you’re buying milk, buy one percent milk instead of whole milk.” That’s it. This advice was so easy for consumers to implement, the market share of low-fat milk doubled, dramatically lowering consumers’ fat consumption.

When scripted correctly, even small changes can bring big benefits.

The rider hates making decisions, so clearly script the critical moves needed for a change.

When faced with change, the rider will often obsess about which direction to move in, wasting energy by overanalyzing every option. However, you can avoid this analysis paralysis by giving the rider a direction that he can navigate toward.

But what about when someone isn’t really committed to change? Say you’ve decided to “eat healthier.” You can try to adhere to a new diet, but sooner or later you’ll start rationalizing: “Well, I did eat a salad last week, so surely I can eat these six hot dogs now!”

To stop rationalizing, one solution might be to make the goals black and white, meaning they have no wiggle room. Instead of “eat healthier,” you could say, “I’ll never eat another hot dog again.” This strict approach is less inspiring, but it does make it harder for you to slip from your new diet.

While your inner rider may technically hold the reins of your inner elephant, in a battle of wills, the rider will only be able to command the powerful beast for so long before his strength runs out and the elephant veers off in the wrong direction. This is why successful changes usually demand motivating the elephant as well. Logical analysis and rational arguments that appeal to the rider are of no help here. Instead, to get the elephant moving in the right direction, a powerful emotion must be triggered.

The emotion evoked to get the elephant moving can be either positive, like desire, or negative, like fear. In general, a negative emotion can highlight a sense of urgency, narrowing people’s focus to fix an obvious problem quickly – as the sense of shock and outrage did in Stegner’s case.

But when problems are less clearly defined and the solutions aren’t obvious, positive emotions are more productive, as they tend to broaden people’s outlooks, helping them find new solutions.

Change often seems massive and daunting. For example, a person who is deeply in debt can feel like they’ll never be able to pay it off. To the elephant, a massive change looks like a demoralizing mountain that it is expected to climb, and hence it remains stubbornly still.

So how do you get this elephant moving? You need to shrink the change: show the elephant it just needs to climb a small hill first.

One solution is to demonstrate to the elephant that progress has already been made. Consider this study: When people were told they needed ten stamps on their car wash loyalty cards to get a free wash, only 19 percent completed their card. When another group was told they needed 12 stamps, but – here’s the catch – the card already had two stamps, 34 percent completed the card. That’s almost double the amount! Despite the identical effort needed, the second group was more motivated to complete the card, because they felt they had already started the journey. Hence, to motivate people, emphasize progress already made.

But the most important way to shrink change is to split it into smaller milestones or “inch-pebbles.” Make it easy to attain small wins. Small wins create hope that change is possible, and hope is like fuel for the elephant. As more and more milestones are hit and small wins accumulated, the elephant gathers momentum, making the change effort self-sustaining.

At heart, humans are herd animals: in situations where we’re not sure how to behave, we look to others for cues. For example, if you’re at a fancy dinner and don’t know which fork to use, you will look to other diners and follow their lead.

Behavior is contagious. This is why TV shows have laugh tracks and bartenders seed their tip jars at the beginning of an evening. We tend to follow the example set by others, laughing and tipping with the herd.

When trying to change people’s behavior, you can take advantage of this tendency if you demonstrate that the majority of the herd is rallying around the change. For example, if you want everyone in your company to start using new time sheets but a small minority remains resistant, post the compliance lists publicly. Peer pressure will get the resisters to change their behavior, too.

Note, though, that this only works if the majority of the people are already using the new time sheets. If you face an oppositional majority, then things are different. Your task is then to find the minority who support your change and help them strengthen their case by giving them their own space within which to discuss the benefits of the change. For example, you could have the people who support the new time sheet meet regularly to discuss its benefits and find the language to describe those benefits (“more efficient time management,” “better cost-control,” etc). This will help them to sway the resisters.

Eventually, there will be an inevitable conflict between the “conservatives” and the “reformers.” While this is not desirable, it is necessary. Think of it as organizational molting, after which a better organization will emerge.

Make the path look well-trodden: show people they are following the herd.

When you want to change your behavior, three key components affect your chances of success: The rider represents your analytical side, and he needs a clear direction to move in. The elephant represents your emotional side, and it needs to be motivated to walk in the rider’s chosen direction. Finally, the path represents situational factors that are in play, which is why you must shape it to make it easy to follow.

Make that change!

Check out my related post: Do you have The Charge? – Part 2

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