Emotional Energy: The Driving Force of Change

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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Is your emotional side stronger than your rational side? How can you leverage your emotional energy to make positive changes?

Your emotional side is usually to blame when changes fail. However, your emotional side is stronger than your rational side. If you learn to harness your emotional energy, it can be a major force for positive change.

Keep reading to learn how to get your emotional energy moving in the right direction.

Harness Your Emotional Energy

Your emotional side acts instinctively and is driven by 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, because your emotional side is much stronger than your rational side, it will do most of the legwork in getting you to your goal, if you can harness emotional energy. 

There are three ways to leverage your emotional energy:

1) Appeal to the Right Feelings

Most people think that all change follows the process: analysis→ thought→ change. You receive information, carefully analyze it, think of a solution, and execute the change. However, this process only works for small, defined changes, such as deciding to stop buying paper towels.

Using this process to try to get people on board with large, ambiguous changes is a waste of energy. It misdirects your efforts—you’ll assume that your audience isn’t changing because they don’t understand the information well enough to see the problem. 

  • For example, you might think, “People won’t stop buying bottled water because they don’t understand the impact plastic bottles have on the environment.” 

However, your audience usually understands the information—hearing it again won’t make them care, or see the need for change. Most people naturally feel that they’re better than others, which helps them rationalize away information. 

  • I’m not the problem. I don’t drink nearly as much bottled water as some people, and I almost always recycle.” 

When large change is at stake, the process looks more like: experience→ feel→ change. That is, you have to create an experience that sparks a strong emotion—such as outrage, joy, or disgust. That emotional energy will drive people to change. Emotions are hard to rationalize away. 

  • Imagine you want your husband to stop using vulgar language around your child. He rationalizes the information: “He’s a baby. He doesn’t understand any of those words. Besides, I don’t swear around him that much.” You engineer an experience: You hype your child up on sugar—which always brings out his potty mouth—and send him to the store with your husband. Your child uses some choice language when speaking to the cashier. Your husband feels deep shame and embarrassment—he cleans up his language to avoid further public shame.

Which Emotions Are Most Effective?

Context has a large part in determining which emotions you should appeal to. 

  • Personal changes: Negative emotions like shock or disgust usually prompt specific actions, so they’re best for specific, personal changes. For example, a heartbreaking intervention may prompt an addict to stop buying drugs.
  • Organizational changes: Positive emotions like surprise or empowerment are better suited to the ambiguous, evolving, and long-term goals of organizations. Instead of motivating employees with a layoff threat, inspire them with an ambitious, exciting goal. 

2) Minimize the Effort

One of the most distracting factors along the path to change is the possibility of instant gratification. The gratification that far-off goals offer is too distant—your emotional side naturally starts looking for more immediate ways to feel satisfied. Keep your emotional side on track by building frequent opportunities for gratification into the journey. You can do this in two ways. 

Method #1: Shorten the Distance to Your Goal

People are naturally more motivated to work toward a goal when they feel that they’re already partway there. When progress isn’t immediately apparent, your emotional side becomes demoralized and distracted. However, a “head start” on your goals feels like immediate progress—giving your emotional energy a boost of satisfaction and confidence that carries you to the next benchmark of progress. Motivate change by demonstrating the progress that’s already been made. 

  • For example, you want your team to start meeting with their direct reports at least once a month. You remind them, “Last year, you only did two meetings per year. You’re already on track for seven meetings this year—one per month is achievable.”

Method #2: Build in Opportunities for Celebration 

Keep in mind that any achieved goal is just a collection of small, doable actions. Shifting your focus toward these small actions, instead of the result, can prevent discouragement and generate positive emotional energy instead.

You can do this in two ways: 

1) Start small. Instead of considering the overwhelming work to be done, think: What is the smallest task I could complete that would be a step in the right direction? Completing this small first task gives you a quick fix of emotional energy in the form of instant gratification, motivating you to complete the next task. 

  • For example, if the idea of cleaning your whole house is too daunting, commit instead to doing the smallest task possible, such as washing the dishes piling up in the sink. 

2) Create milestones. Building small, frequent milestones into the journey and celebrating them ensures a regular supply of instant gratification opportunities. For example, if you’re learning French, you might set the following milestones: 1) Read and understand one article from Le Monde, 2) Watch a season of your favorite show with French subtitles, 3) Listen to and understand one French podcast episode, 4) Write an entire essay without using a dictionary. 

  • Building these types of small wins into a long journey not only reassures you of your abilities, but it also diminishes the pressure and difficulty of achieving the goal. Instead of thinking, “I’ll never be fluent,” you’ll think “I can already understand a whole podcast episode. Learning French isn’t as hard as I thought.”

3) Cultivate Identity

When trying to get people on board with ambiguous ideas or big changes, it’s most effective to appeal to identity—the essential part of your sense of self and the way you make decisions. Identities can be relatively flexible in that you naturally adopt different identities throughout your life, such as parent, world-traveler, or musician. However, identities can be rigid in that if you propose a change that contradicts someone’s identity, they’ll naturally resist. Therefore, you need to either align your proposed change with someone’s identity or align their identity with your proposed change. Start by asking yourself if the people you’re appealing to would say: “I want to be the kind of person who makes this change.”

  • Yes: You don’t have to convince them—they’ll make the change because it nudges them closer to the identity they want.  
  • No: You’ll have to convince them to adopt the identity of someone who changes.

Start small—ask your audience to perform a minor change-supporting behavior. The behavior makes them think that they do align with the identity you suggested. Subsequently, they start performing more behaviors that align with the change—reinforcing the identity. 

  • For example, if someone tells you they don’t care about your town’s environmental awareness board, have her sign a simple “Keep Our Community Clean” pledge. This prompts her to think about herself as a responsible citizen. She starts picking up trash in town and participating in clean-up initiatives. Six months later, she’s on the board.

When you harness emotional energy and direct it toward your goal, you smooth the path toward change.

Emotional Energy: The Driving Force of Change

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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, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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