How to Motivate Change: 3 Ways to Spark Action

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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Do you resist change? Do you take a long time to plan and scheme, but when it comes to taking action, you back off?

Too often we fail to activate change because we are stuck in thinking mode. We analyze and rationalize, and we get mired in too many details and options. Fortunately, we can learn to get out of paralysis and into action—motivating change in ourselves and others.

Here are three ways to motivate change, get unstuck, and spark action.

Give Your Rational Side Clear Direction 

Your rational side makes goals, plans for the future, and analyzes problems before taking action. This is the ideal “you.” However, your rational side can actually hold you back from making changes by overanalyzing problems and solutions and getting stuck in details and options. If you don’t give your rational side clear direction, it becomes paralyzed. To motivate change, push your rational side out of analysis into productive action. There are three ways to do this.

1) Motivate Change With Success Stories

Often, when we want to make changes, we look at the problems and possible solutions. Instead, we should be seeking out success stories that we can emulate—essentially, look for what’s already working, and do more of it. This exercise guards us against three major issues that often block change: 

  1. It interrupts your rational side’s overanalysis and reflection, which can hinder change because you’re stuck in the details. A success story to emulate motivates change by giving your rational side an obvious direction to move in.
  2. When we look at problems first, our rational tendency is to seek solutions on a similar scale to the problem. Looking for successful solutions first often reveals that the solutions are much smaller than the problems.
  3. We naturally feel defensive against “outsider” solutions, because we believe that what worked there would never work within the context of here. In contrast, when we see an “insider” success story, we receive the message, “That does work here.” This motivates change.

Imagine you’re having trouble getting your employees to use a new feedback system. Instead of spending time and energy “fixing” those who are struggling, look for an employee who has successfully incorporated the new system into her workflow. Have your struggling employees spend an afternoon with her—they’ll learn practical ways to make the change within the context of their work, and they will naturally trust the solution more because it’s coming from a peer.

2) Motivate Change by Minimizing Ambiguity and Options

When presented with too many options or ambiguity, humans naturally default to the most familiar option. Making familiar choices lets you function on autopilot, which doesn’t require you to expend any energy on decision-making. On the other hand, change creates unfamiliarity that disrupts your autopilot. You’re forced to weigh options, make deliberate decisions, and supervise your behaviors—especially when the change you’re trying to create is ambiguous. 

  • For example, you decide to eat healthier breakfasts. The ambiguity of this goal prompts deliberation: What is the benchmark for “healthy”? Are smoothies too sugary? Would fruit or oatmeal be a healthier choice? 

This quickly depletes your rational thinking power, allowing your emotional side to take over control. And of course, your emotional side will always choose the instant gratification of the status quo instead of the difficult work of change.

Avoid Decision Paralysis 

To avoid defaulting to your status quo—and motivate change instead—reduce options and ambiguity as much as possible. Lay out precisely the actions that are most critical to making the change stick. This helps you know what to do, without deliberation. You can’t put guidelines in place for every imaginable scenario—focus on several specific behaviors that cover numerous situations.

For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier breakfasts, you can’t predict what foods will be available to you every morning. Instead, you might put together four critical guidelines: 

  1. Never eat anything that’s covered in whipped cream.  
  2. Don’t drink Diet Coke before noon. 
  3. Every breakfast must contain at least one vegetable or fruit.
  4. Eat only one carb-heavy breakfast, such as pancakes, per week.

Over time, these guidelines become less unfamiliar and more instinctive—the status quo that your autopilot defaults to. This not only motivates change, it creates sustainable change, because the desired behaviors will no longer require your rational side’s concentrated effort or self-supervision.

3) Motivate Change by Painting a Picture of Your Destination

You most successfully motivate change when you paint a clear picture of a not-too-far-off destination you want to head toward. For example, making changes to lose weight might have the destination of “fitting in my favorite jeans again.”

Often, when faced with an ambitious goal, your rational side will get stuck deciding if there’s even a problem that needs to be solved and wondering what the best possible solution might be. Reframing your goal as a clear destination points your rational energy in a productive direction in two ways: 

  1. It articulates that there is a problem and why the change is worth it. “I have gained enough weight to not fit in my jeans anymore, and I really want to wear them again.”
  2. It shifts you away from the thinking and analyzing stage of change and into the doing stage. A vague weight loss goal leaves you wondering, “How much weight should I lose?” A favorite jeans destination directs you: “I need to lose enough to fit in my jeans. I last fit in them when I was walking to work every day, so I should start walking again.”

Blend Guidelines and Destination to Block Rationalization 

Your emotional desire for instant gratification may occasionally control your behaviors. These bumps are normal, but be very careful not to rationalize anti-change behaviors. 

  • For example, after a few weeks of a new exercise routine, you choose to skip your morning walk. You rationalize the choice, saying, “I deserve a day off. And I shouldn’t do too much exercise or I might injure myself.” 

Rationalizing anti-change behaviors moves you in the opposite direction of change. You believe your rational side is still in full control, simply allowing a small sidestep from the path. However, these small, controlled sidesteps are anything but—they’re your emotional side’s sly way to drag you back to square one before you realize what’s happening. 

When you combine a strong sense of where you’re going with clear guidelines with no wiggle room for rationalization, you’re aware of how far you’re going off track and avoid the subtle trap of rationalization.

To motivate change in yourself and others, use any or all of these techniques to get results.

How to Motivate Change: 3 Ways to Spark Action

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
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  • 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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