Book Review — Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

…or how I started going to the gym again after 16 years.

I started reading the book just a couple of months before a week-long trekking trip to Alpes-Maritimes. By the time I finished, I had just over a month to get in shape.

But before I describe how I did it, let’s go over the lessons from the book — because this is what helped me in getting into regular exercise in the first place.

About The Authors

Switch” is the second book by the Heath brothers. It was preceded by “Made to Stick: How Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and superseded by “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.”

To give you a rough idea what the brothers are interested in — Chip teaches business strategy at Stanford and Dan co-founded Change Academy which tries to boost the impact of social sector leaders.

The Goal of The Book

I’ll let the authors speak for themselves:

Our goal is to teach you a framework, based on decades of scientific research, that is simple enough to remember and flexible enough to use in many different situations — family, work, community, and otherwise.

They also acknowledge that:

We’ve deliberately left out lots of great thinking on change in the interests of creating a framework that is simple enough to be practical.

So, a framework for change that is easy to remember and actionable in various settings. Let’s see whether it lives up to the promise.

The Contents

The book starts out with three observations about change:

  • what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity — so, provide clear instructions (to the Rider);
  • what looks like laziness is often exhaustion — so, motivate the emotional side (the Elephant);
  • what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem — so, shape the environment (the Path).

These make up the backbone of the whole book.

To make them easier to remember they borrow a concept from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt: the Rider represents the rational side, the Elephant the emotional side and the Path the environment or given situation. To make change happen, all three have to be taken into account.

So, the Rider sits atop of the Elephant and tries to direct it. But when the Rider and Elephant disagree about something, the Elephant is going to win in the end (e.g. controlling emotions is very hard).

Another lesson is that when the Path is not shaped correctly, it doesn’t matter how much you want something — it will still take you to the wrong place.

Every new idea or finding is introduced through a story — either from research or as an anecdote (backed by research). Some are pretty well known in psychological research (like this popcorn study), some less so.

It reads like a collection of short stories. Pure pleasure.

Each chapter also has exercises (they call them clinics) that help you think through some examples for better memorization.

The Switch Framework

What is especially great about this book is that it also gives you a useful checklist for remembering what to think about when trying to bring change about. It’s very well thought out and even provides keywords for the examples (stories) described in the book, so, that you can easily recall what each point is about.

As I described earlier, the framework consists of the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path.

Direct the Rider (the Rational Side)

  • Follow the bright spots — investigate what’s working and clone it
  • Script the critical moves — don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behavior
  • Point to the destination — change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it

Motivate the Elephant (the Emotional Side)

  • Find the feeling — knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something
  • Shrink the change — break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant
  • Grow your people — cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset

Shape the Path (the Situation)

  • Tweak the environment — when situation changes, the behavior changes. So, change the situation
  • Build habits — when behavior is habitual, it’s “free” — it doesn’t tax the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits
  • Rally the herd — behavior is contagious. Help it spread

Applying It in Personal Life

So, after finishing the book I had less than 6 weeks to get in shape for my trekking trip. How did I do that?

Let’s follow the format of the book and go through a so-called clinic. The topic of the clinic is: how can I make sure I get in good enough shape for trekking in just over a month?

Situation

I hadn’t been to the gym in 16 years. I used to do an occasional pilates lesson or two, or go running or cycling (in the summer) for short distances. In some rare cases, I also managed to do trekking and surfing. But that was pretty much it — no regular exercise.

I also remember from high school that gym was a real pain in the ass — boring, repetitive exercises, no air, the struggle for equipment etc.

How Did I Make The Switch?

Direct the Rider. I started by scripting the critical moves — to go to the gym twice a week for a month. I also knew the destination — to be able to go trekking in the Alpes for a week without dying :)

Motivate the Elephant. I had been to the Alpes many times before (I used to live just next door — in Munich) and once also for an entire week in autumn, so, I more or less knew what happens if you’re not fit enough. After 30 minutes of climbing, you will be dead tired and will need to start making stops after every 10 minutes. If you survive the first day, the next day you will wake up in the cold (some of the huts are not properly heated) while your body aches from every possible place. Just 6 more days to go…

But I also remembered how easy some of the day trips were — you climb a bit, take a ski lift up and enjoy a cold beer with Obatzda on a nice summer day with unbeatable views.

There were several gyms I could have chosen but I went with the one with the most room and the nicest interior and machines. A sauna was something I looked for in a gym as well — to get some immediate gratification after working out.

I shrank the change even a little more than just going twice a week — I told myself that going to the gym for 30 minutes at a time is enough. If I want to stay longer, fine. But I don’t have to. It took some of the anxiety away.

I started by booking a time with a personal trainer. Just to make sure that I follow through with my first visit. This, however, turned out to be a curse in disguise.

Apart from social pressure (to show up for appointment) I wanted tips on how to train for trekking. So, he showed me an exercise. Then another one. And then another one. In the end, I went through more than a dozen exercises. Almost none of them enjoyable for a beginner and some of them too complex to remember.

Arnold Schwarzenegger once said in an interview to never trust the advice from the pros in the gym — it’s advice for pros and will wear the beginners out. I politely thanked the trainer for the “advice” and only chose the one exercise from the dozen that I actually liked doing.

I then checked out the machines and chose the ones I knew how to operate and the ones that I liked. One of them was obviously the stepper — as I would have to start climbing the mountains soon. But I tried to get all the main muscle groups covered.

The goal of choosing my own exercises and machines was to get rid of any psychological resistance in the form of “I hate that exercise!”. I remember vividly why I stopped going to the basketball practices in middle school. Firstly, they took place very early on Sunday mornings (I’m a night owl) and secondly, the warm-up exercises were annoying as hell. Especially that one, portrayed here by the Cable Guy:

I kept wondering long after about that first experience with the personal trainer — what is the churn rate of that gym with that kind of advice?

Shape the Path. I made sure that I had my gym bag packed a day before. I put it in front of the door, so, it would be impossible to not take it with me when I left in the morning. This also meant that when I finished work I already had my gym bag with me and no real excuse for not going.

To further build the habit of going to the gym I started treating myself with some delicious Asian food afterward. It’s the trigger>action>reward loop (more on that in a later article). Having some Asian places in the same building with the gym helped.

The gym I chose was just a 10 min walk from my house on my way to work — so, that I would have to pass by every day anyway.

Going right after work seemed to make sense for a while but then I noticed that it’s quite crowded. It kills the routine when you have to wait in line to use a certain exercise machine. So, instead of going after work I started going late at night where there were very few people around.

It seems it worked — I’ve been going to the gym at least twice a week since August — that’s over half a year. And I don’t have any real anxiety about it. You could even say I like it.

Conclusion

The book certainly lives up to its promise. It is both easy to remember and apply.

While you could just take the framework and try using it immediately I recommend reading the book itself. It helps you remember it better and provides you with vivid examples from various domains.

If you manage to insert the checklist into every new project you start, you’re already half-way there in terms of changing behavior. In my case, the first project was getting fit enough to go on a fairly long trekking trip (the side benefit was that I’ve kept going to the gym since). But it’s also easily applicable at work.

PS: The brothers’ website also hosts a list of additional resources for Switch.

As a thank you for making it this far, here are some photos from the trip:

Mercantour National Park

Wait, there’s more…

This is the first in a series of blog posts about habits and how to change them. Follow me below to get notifications about new tips.

Head of Growth @ Planyard.com. Ex-Pipedrive and ex-Amazon. Will occasionally comment on growth, product, marketing, and tech. @teemast on Twitter.

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