Switch by Chip and Dan Heath: Book Overview

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What does Switch by Chip and Dan Heath teach us about sustainable change? How can we create change that lasts?

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how change works, how to motivate change in yourself and others, and how to create sustainable change by overcoming obstacles and making change as easy as possible.

Here is a brief overview of Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

We often don’t know why changes succeed or fail—we just know that they do. As it turns out, sustainable change follows a pattern that can be applied again and again to help you reach your goals, spark organizational shifts, and get people aligned with your ideas.

The premise of change is simple: Nothing changes unless…something changes. However, the outcome is less simple. Despite your best efforts, some changes fail while others succeed—and it’s usually unclear why this happens.

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath assert that sustainable change depends on three essential elements: 1) your rational side, 2) your emotional side, and 3) the environment you shape.

Creating Sustainable Change

Creating a successful path toward change means keeping your rational and emotional sides moving forward together by eliminating instant-gratification distractions and removing any obstacles that might spark overanalysis. Interestingly, your environment can either work independently of or in tandem with your rational and emotional elements. 

  • It can be an independent “quick track” to change. However, this only works if the environment is entirely foolproof and distraction-free. Not only is this difficult to achieve, but your rational and emotional sides aren’t under control—meaning any small distraction can irreversibly derail your progress toward change.
  • Environment is better as an aid to in-sync rational and emotional sides. This allows for distractions or unexpected obstacles—when your rational and emotional sides are a balanced team, you can shake off problems and continue moving forward.

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath share three ways to build support into your path toward sustainable change. 

1) Build a Change-Supporting Environment

The first way to smooth your path is to create a change-supporting environment—that is, an environment that makes good behaviors easier to perform, and bad behaviors harder to perform. Create a change-supporting environment by modifying your routines or your space.

Change-supporting routines: Change up your routine to surround yourself with tools that make good behaviors easy and roadblocks that make bad behaviors difficult. Imagine you’re trying to start running every morning and want to spend less on unhealthy food. Make good behaviors easier by setting your coffee to auto-brew at 7 a.m. so you’ll be more motivated to get up, and packing your lunch the night before so you don’t order takeout at work again. 

Make bad behaviors more difficult by finding a running buddy you’ll have to contact if you want to skip your run, and only ordering takeout with one specific credit card that you keep in an inconvenient place like your garden shed.

Change-supporting spaces: Physically rearranging your space can guide you toward performing more change-supporting behaviors. 

  • This might look like moving The Chair that sits by your back door and seems to gather clutter no matter what you do. If you remove this natural drop-zone, you’ll likely find that your clutter gets put away where it belongs.

2) Create Change-Supporting Habits

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath recognize that it’s not always possible to change your environment—in these cases, work on building habits that trigger good behaviors. When desired behaviors become habitual, autopilot behaviors, you’ll naturally and effortlessly fall back on them to conserve rational energy.

At the base of good habit-building are “action triggers.” These are the triggers we set up to prompt a certain action. For example, “When I leave work (trigger), I’ll go to the gym (action).”

Powerful habits come from combining action triggers with preloaded responsespracticed and memorized reactions. Your preloaded response happens reflexively in a situation that calls for it. Pairing action triggers with preloaded responses prevents you from getting lost in possible solutions or pulled off track by your emotional wants.

How to Create a Preloaded Response 

While creating preloaded responses, reframe your thoughts from “What is the right thing to do?” to “What is my action trigger, and how can I get the right thing done?”

Your action triggers need to be specific and visible—otherwise, they won’t be strong enough to trigger your preloaded response. For example, you’re trying to cut down on drinking. You identify specific situations where you’ll be tempted to drink and create preloaded responses that make you do the right thing: not drink.

  • “When the waiter asks me what I would like to drink, I’ll say seltzer.”
  • “When I’m walking home after work, I’ll take the long way to avoid passing the bar.”

These triggers—“when the waiter asks me what I would like to drink” and “when I’m walking home”—are specific enough to prompt your response. On the other hand, a vague action trigger such as, “When I go out, I’ll drink seltzer instead of wine,” leaves room for deliberation: “We’re at dinner, which isn’t really going out. Just one glass of wine will be fine.”

3) Leverage the Influence of Others

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath explain how to use the people around you to support sustainable change. Humans, as social creatures, figure out how to behave by watching others—when you’re not sure how to react to a situation, you’ll look for cues in the behavior of those around you. This means that behavior is contagious between people. There are three ways you can ensure that your environment sends contagious, change-supporting social signals.

Method #1: Broadcast Good (and Bad) Behavior

Get people on board with changes by broadcasting just how many people are performing change-supporting behaviors. People take this information as a social signal that indicates what they should be doing—and they feel ashamed when their actions fall short of this standard. 

  • For example, an editor who wants a faster article turnaround creates a spreadsheet that’s shared with all writers, so everyone can see others’ progress. A lagging writer will see that her late work is the odd one out and will quickly speed up. 
Method #2: Give Shape to Ideas People Already Agree With

At times, your proposed change will be an idea that everyone already agrees with—you just have to attach social signals to it in order to make it a widespread practice. When the idea has a concrete shape, it can be publicized and incorporated into common knowledge and opinion.  

  • For example, in the 1980s the concept of “designated drivers” was virtually unheard of in the United States, though most people agreed there was a need for a safe way to get home after drinking. A public health professor asked TV writers to include designated drivers in their scripts—attaching social signals to the idea. Within three years, 90% of the American public knew, and used, designated drivers. 
Method #3: Get Change-Supporters Together 

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath explain that cultural changes can be difficult because they disrupt the “way things are,” which is often closely intertwined with people’s identities. Put your efforts toward helping change-supporters find one another and cultivate a new identity and culture. In doing so, they’ll feel more emboldened to speak up for change—thus sending out social signals to a larger audience.

  • Imagine you’re tasked with getting your corporate office on board with a four-day workweek. A change-supporting employee comes into conflict with an anti-change employee who makes snide comments about her work ethic. You say, “Maria, you should work with Sean (a change-supporter) on this project. I think you’ll be better aligned in your values.” Maria and Sean regularly discuss the perks of the shorter week, giving them the confidence to praise the system to colleagues, even those who are anti-change. Eventually, their ideas spread through the office, and everyone agrees to a four-day week.

Conclusion: Make Changes Stick

Getting your change in motion is half the battle—now, turn your sights to making that change stick for the long term. In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath share three ways to accomplish this. 

1) Reinforce change: Sustainable change doesn’t happen in an instant—it’s a long process of repeated behaviors that slowly get closer to your goal. You can motivate continued attempts at change by celebrating behaviors, no matter how small, that represent progress toward the goal.

  • For personal goals, this might look like praising your daughter for letting her little sister watch her play—although your end goal is getting her to share toys willingly. 
  • In an organization, this might look like publicly thanking an employee for handing in her report using all of your new guidelines—even though there are several mistakes. 

2) Give the change time to settle in: The beginning stages of change are the hardest simply because you’re not used to them—but you’ll find that changes become acceptable and start to snowball as you give them time to settle in. This happens for two reasons: 

  • The mere exposure effect—that is, the more you’re exposed to something, the more you like it. For example, you may initially hate vegetables, but over time you come to appreciate their interesting flavors and textures.
  • When you repeat behaviors enough, you eventually attach your identity to those behaviors. This makes them easier to continue because you’re acting in line with who you believe you are. For example, if you start running every day, you’ll start to think of yourself as a runner—which further motivates you to stick with running. 

3) Remember that change is a pattern: When change works, it’s because you got your rational side, emotional side, and your path all on track—change follows this pattern in all contexts. This knowledge helps you with change in two ways:

  • You’ve likely already made successful changes in your life. This means you’ve used the change pattern before and already know you can do it. Keep this in mind to maintain your confidence when taking on new changes. 
  • Going forward, your changes will have a higher success rate because you understand the three essential elements and know how to use their power to support change.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath offers many insights into the psychology of change and provides practical ways to create sustainable change for a lasting impact.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chip and Dan Heath's "Switch" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Switch summary:

  • 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 has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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