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.
As it turns out, successful change depends on three essential elements: 1) your rational side, 2) your emotional side, and 3) the environment you shape. We’ll discuss the role of each of these elements and how to harness their power for change—first, by giving your rational side clear direction; second, by harnessing the energy of your emotional side; and third, by shaping a change-supporting environment.
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. There are three ways to push your rational side out of analysis into productive action.
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:
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.
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.
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.
To avoid defaulting to your status quo, 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:
Over time, these guidelines become less unfamiliar and more instinctive—the status quo that your autopilot defaults to. This creates sustainable change because the desired behaviors will no longer require your rational side’s concentrated effort or self-supervision.
Change is most successful when you can 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:
Your emotional desire for instant gratification may occasionally control your...
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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.
In this summary, 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.
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...
Reflecting on failed changes and the misalignment of your three elements of change (rational, emotional, environmental) can help you understand the importance of getting them in sync for your next attempt.
Describe a change you recently tried to make but didn’t succeed with (for example, spending less time on social media).
Often, when we want to make changes, our rational selves focus immediately on the problems and possible solutions. Instead, we should be seeking out success stories that can inform decisions or be emulated—essentially, look for what’s already working, and do more of that.
This exercise performs the essential function of interrupting your rational side’s analysis and reflection. While analysis and reflection can be helpful in some contexts, too often they stop the process of change completely—examining one problem reveals 10 more, and it’s easy to get mired in the details. Finding a success story to emulate is what gives your rational side a clear direction to move in. Suddenly, the way forward seems obvious—“we need to do more of that.”
Examining success stories helps us avoid two major issues that contribute strongly to the inability to change.
1) Our rational tendency to examine problems instead of solutions means that we’re often preoccupied with the scale of the problem—therefore seeking large, complicated solutions to large, complicated problems. **However, success stories usually reveal that _effective solutions can be much smaller than the problem at...
Often, the best solution to a problem is one that’s already working but may have been overlooked.
What is a problem you’re facing? (For example, “I eat too many snacks between dinner and bedtime.”)
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Humans are predisposed to “decision paralysis”—that is, when you’re presented with too many options you tend to default to whatever feels easiest or most familiar, or you don’t do anything at all.
You default to familiar options because doing so saves energy. When you’re functioning on autopilot—that is, making familiar choices—you’re not expending any energy on decision-making. Change disrupts your autopilot, forcing you to consider options, make deliberate decisions, and supervise your behaviors. 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.
Decision paralysis doesn’t only come from having too many options—it also stems from getting trapped by ambiguity. Unclear options trigger overanalysis and questions, and we can’t move forward until we feel we have an answer to those questions.
If you’re trying to make a change, you need to specify the actions needed to get there, or you risk getting trapped by options and ambiguity.
Describe a change you’re trying to make or a goal you’re trying to reach. (For example, you want to learn a new language.)
One problem that many people run into when making goals—both on a personal level and an organizational level—is that they focus on an ambitious, ambiguous result. These types of results don’t have a clear metric for measuring “success” and often take a long time to reveal themselves. When you can’t quantify or immediately see success, you quickly become discouraged. And, if your goal is too far off, you lose sight of what you’re working toward. Imagine you set the goal to “lose weight.” With an ambiguous goal like this, you don’t know exactly what you’re aiming for, which makes it hard to understand your progress.
Change is most successful when your goals have two essential elements:
For example, make your weight loss goal feel more achievable by setting a clear destination such as, “I want to fit into my favorite jeans again.” This tangible destination means that you know exactly what you’re aiming for. And, you can measure your success—every few weeks, you try on your jeans to see how much you’ve advanced toward your destination.
Visualizing a vivid destination that’s not too far out of reach can help you stay on the path toward change by reminding you of what you’re working toward.
Describe a goal you’d like to accomplish, personally or within your organization. (For example, “I’d like to lose weight,” or, “I’d like to see departments collaborate more.”)
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Once your rational side identifies a destination and solutions, get the driving power of your emotional side to spark action. In these next three chapters, we’ll focus on productively harnessing emotional power in three ways: appealing to the right feelings, minimizing the change, and cultivating identity and failure tolerance.
Many people think that all change follows the process: analysis→ thought→ change. That is, you’re presented with information, carefully analyze it, and execute a solution. However, this process only works for small changes that are quantifiable and defined, such as changing your route to work to hit an extra 1,000 steps each day.
When large change is at stake, the process looks more like: experience→ feel→ change. That is, when you experience something that makes you feel strong emotion—such as outrage, joy, or disgust—you’ll automatically feel driven to make a change.
When information isn’t enough to make people care about change, spark their interest by appealing to their emotions.
Describe a change you’d like to see—for example, in yourself, your organization, a relationship, or your community.
When you’re working toward change, one of the most distracting factors is the possibility of instant gratification. As soon as your emotional side senses an opportunity for gratification, it will head right toward it, regardless of what your rational side wants. To keep your emotional side moving in the right direction, minimize the effort by building small, achievable goals into your path. And, keep your emotional side’s craving for gratification satisfied by celebrating your progress every step of the way.
Not only does this give you ample opportunity for gratification, but it also creates a crucial sense of confidence. Looking at a distant goal from your starting point can make you feel discouraged: “I’ll never be able to run 10km. I can barely walk 2km now.” On the other hand, small, frequent goals ensure that you’re only looking at the very next step instead of impossibly far ahead. Each time you achieve a small goal, you become more confident you’ll reach the next one: “I’ve done a five-minute jog every day this week. It’ll be no problem to take on next week’s seven-minute jogs.”
**Minimizing the effort required for a change creates a positive cycle of...
Make a change more motivating by reflecting on the progress that’s already been made toward the goal and building in regular opportunities for celebration.
Describe a change you’re trying to make in your organization or personal life. (For example, trying to eliminate sugary drinks from your diet.)
When making decisions, we usually follow one of two lines of thinking:
1) The consequences of the decision. We do a cost-benefit analysis to determine which decision will have the most satisfying outcome. We usually follow this line of thinking when it comes to small, simple decisions—such as what to get for lunch.
2) Our identity. We ask ourselves: Who am I? What would the kind of person I am do in this situation?
Identities can be relatively flexible in that people naturally adopt different identities throughout their lives, 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,...
If someone is resistant to a proposed change, find small ways to align their identity with the change.
What is the change you’re proposing? (For example, you’re trying to get your roommates to eat vegetarian.)
In the next three chapters, we’ll discuss how to build an environment and path forward that make your change as easy as possible, minimizing your temptation to go off-track.
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.
For example, one college experimented to see if being a good person or having clear instructions would make people donate more to a food drive. They polled students, having them identify which of their peers were most likely to donate and least likely to donate. They then created two groups with an even mix of “giving” and “selfish” students:
Change is easier when you create an environment that makes good behaviors easier to perform than bad behaviors.
Describe a way that you’re struggling with a change you’re attempting to make—for example, going to bed earlier so you have less trouble waking up in the morning.
It’s not always possible to change your environment to fit your change—your cubicle at work might not have the space for a change-supporting revamp. In these cases, work on rebuilding your habits so that they trigger good behaviors instead.
When you make a habit of your desired behaviors, they become autopilot behaviors that you naturally fall back on to conserve rational energy—over time, they stop being a conscious effort and become an effortless reflex.
At the base of good habit-building are “action triggers.” These are the triggers we set up to prompt a certain action.
Using action triggers to prompt certain behaviors works well, but only under certain circumstances. They’re effective for actions you know you need to do, such as doing homework or finishing a project. On the other hand, they usually don’t work with things you don’t want to do—especially if they don’t need to be done.
Preloaded responses help ensure that you react to situations with reflexive desired behaviors.
Describe a situation that usually pulls you off track from a change you’re trying to make. (For example, you want to eat fewer unhealthy snacks, but Carol always brings baked goods to the office.)
An interesting aspect of humans’ social nature is the way that we figure out how to behave—when you’re not sure how to react to a situation, you’ll naturally look for cues in the behavior of those around you. This means that behavior is contagious between people. If all your friends are smokers, you’re more likely to become a smoker than if your circle consisted of mostly non-smokers.
When pushing for change, it’s crucial that your environment sends change-supporting social signals that will prompt contagious change-supporting behaviors.
When you’re making personal changes, you can increase your environment's change-supporting signals simply by surrounding yourself with people who behave the way you want to and distancing yourself from situations and people who encourage “bad” behaviors.
Trying to create change in others, on the other hand, can get complicated. Most people don’t like being told what to do or who they should spend...
Showing others that they’re the odd ones out with bad behavior can motivate them to fit in with the herd.
What’s an organizational change that some people are on board with and others not? (For example, you want your employees to send short status updates every Friday morning.)
Motivating change is half the battle—ensure the change progresses and sticks by reinforcing good behavior, giving the change time to settle in, and reminding yourself that change follows a pattern.
Have your goal clearly in mind and reinforce any behavior that represents a step toward this goal, no matter how small. This is important—many people become discouraged when change doesn’t happen quickly. Change doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a long process of repeatedly performing change-supporting behaviors. Recognizing and celebrating good behaviors not only encourages more frequent good behaviors, but also good behaviors that are increasingly close to your goal.
Regular celebrations, reflections, and adjustments go a long way toward keeping a change going once you’ve gotten it started.
Describe a recent change you’ve made.