The 3 Elements of Change: Set Yourself Up for Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the key to changing an undesirable behavior and making the change last? Is there a formula behind a successful behavior change?

Successful change involves certain patterns that you can intentionally engineer to significantly improve your change success rate. According to Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, there are three elements of behavior change: 1) the rational you, 2) the emotional you, and 3) the path forward.

Keep reading to learn about the three elements of change.

The 3 Elements of Behavior Change

No matter where you’re trying to effect change—at your organization, in yourself, in society—nothing changes unless…something changes. This feels fairly common sense, yet many attempts at change fail. On the other hand, you’ve likely experienced plenty of changes that succeed, such as starting a new career, having children, or sticking to a daily exercise routine. Oftentimes, we don’t know why some of these changes work, we just know that they do. 

We’ll discuss the patterns of successful change and how you can regularly engineer them, significantly improving your change success rate. First, it’s important to understand the three main elements of change. 

Element of Change #1: Rational You

Your rational side is the part of you that sets goals, plans for the future, and carefully analyzes problems before taking action. In short, this is the “you” that you want to be. 

However, there’s a major hidden flaw of your rational side that actually holds you back from making changes. Your rational side tends to overthink problems, overanalyze possible solutions, and get stuck in details, information, and options. Though your rational side wants to make a change, it paralyzes itself and holds you back from taking action.

  • For example, making plans to exercise more is fairly straightforward. However, your rational side will go into overdrive—analyzing the types of exercise you like and dislike, trying to find the best workout routine for your body type and goals, researching gym memberships, checking where exercise will fit into your busy schedule, and so on. Instead of exercising more, you get stuck thinking about exercising more.

Element of Change #2: Emotional You 

Your emotional side is the part of you that acts instinctively and is easily driven by the possibility of instant gratification. When changes fail, it’s usually your emotional side’s fault—change hinges on the ability to delay gratification and make short-term sacrifices in exchange for a long-term payoff. 

However, there’s a major hidden advantage of your emotional side that can drive successful change. Your emotional side is much stronger than your rational side—if you can harness the energy of your emotions and point it in the right direction, it will do most of the legwork in getting you to your goal. 

  • For example, if your goal is to get more exercise, you might get yourself excited and emotionally invested in exercise by focusing on how you’ll feel when you finally complete your first marathon. It becomes easier to put on your running shoes once you elevate exercise from an obligation to an exciting process with an emotionally charged goal. 

Rational You and Emotional You Must Sync Up 

When change fails, it’s often due to a conflict for control between your rational side and your emotional side. Jonathan Haidt explains this conflict in The Happiness Hypothesis, where he compares the struggle between your rational side and emotional side to a rider atop an elephant, urging it forward. The elephant is far stronger than the rider—if they have different ideas about where to go, the rider will lose every time. 

  • This is why, even though you rationally understand the importance of sticking to your diet, you give up and indulge as soon as you see something you’re craving. The elephant overpowers the rider and drives you straight into a cheesecake. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Happiness Hypothesis for a closer look at Haidt’s rider and elephant analogy.)

Element of Change #3: The Path Forward

The “path forward” is the environment you create around a change—a successful path is shaped to keep both the rational rider and the emotional elephant moving forward together. 

A clear, successful path has two important elements:

  1. There aren’t any instant-gratification distractions lying in sight, off to the side. These temptations will cause your emotional side to overpower your rational side, veering off the path and getting lost. 
  2. The road is straight and clear of roadblocks. These will cause your rational ride to stop and overthink which direction to move in or how to solve the roadblock. The pair will never make it to their destination.

Interestingly, the path can either work independently of your rational and emotional elements, or it can work in tandem with them. 

  • The path can be an independent “quick track” to change. However, this only works if it’s absolutely foolproof—that is, the path is completely straight and clear with no distractions. This can be very difficult to achieve, meaning distractions are likely to happen. And, because you bypassed getting a handle on your rational and emotional selves, these small distractions irreversibly derail your progress toward change.
  • The path works better as an aid to your in-sync rational and emotional sides. On this path, there may be distractions or unexpected twists—but since your rational and emotional selves are a balanced team, you can shake off the road bump and continue moving forward.

Now that you know the essential elements of change, you are set up to effect real change in your life or organization.

The 3 Elements of Change: Set Yourself Up for Success

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
  • Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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