Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – Summary

October 2012

in Bookshelf, Notes, Self-mastery

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

This article contains my book notes for Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.1

Summary (What You Need to Know)

Your brain is like an elephant with a rider perched on top. The rider does the planning and analyzing. The elephant provides the emotional energy. To create change the elephant and rider must cooperate. The Switch Framework helps create change by:

  • Directing the rider. Make sure the rider knows where to go, how others got there, and how you’ll get there.
  • Motivating the elephant. Knowing isn’t enough. Make sure the elephant feels drawn to the change. Make the change small (so it’s not intimidating) and encourage a growth mindset (“change is possible”).
  • Shaping the path. Change the environment to change the behavior. Build habits. Behavior is contagious: surround yourself with others exhibiting the behavior your want; help is spread.

That’s the gist of it! What are you trying to change? And are you factoring in the influence of the rider, the elephant, and the environment?

More Resources

My Notes

Switch asks: “Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?”2

The answer begins with the realization that we have two minds: an elephant and a rider.3 In this analogy, our mind is like a rider perched atop a large elephant. The rider is our analytical, long-term planning, thinking, and understanding mind; the elephant is our emotional, short-term, passionate, motivational mind. The rider provides the planning and direction; the elephant provides the energy.

Alas, our elephant and rider have issues. When they get along, life is great, and change is possible. When they disagree, things get ugly. The elephant usually “wins” in a bad way—you experienced this yourself every time you procrastinate, skip the gym, fail to get out of bed, refuse to speak up in a meeting, overeat, try and fail to quit smoking, and say something in anger you later regretted. The elephant isn’t all bad: it gives us a fierce loyalty to our children, a heightened alertness in dark alleys, and a passion to work harder and excel. The rider, in its attempt to control the elephant, can take things to far, such as by spending five hours to decide what to have for lunch. If the rider isn’t sure exactly where to go it tends to lead the elephant in circles.

This leads us to three key surprises about change:

  • First, people problems are often situation problems. The environment has a large influence on the behavior of our elephant and rider. Popcorn overeating may have a simple cause: the bags are too big!
  • Second, laziness is often rider exhaustion. Our rider can only tug the reigns of our elephants for so long until it’s arms get tired. Self-control is an exhaustible resource! Have you ever been in a one-hour meeting where you wanted to scream the whole time, but kept your cool, and felt exhausted afterwards?
  • Third, resistance to change is often a lack of clarity. Our rider needs crystal-clear directions so it doesn’t spin in circles. Being told to “eat healthier” is vague (and mostly useless), but “Drink low-fat milk!” is simple and actionable.

This knowledge gives us a framework for change, a framework for making a switch in our behavior.

The Switch Framework

The switch framework has three key components:

  1. Direct the Rider – Provide crystal-clear directions so the rider doesn’t spin its wheels.
  2. Motivate the Elephant – Get the elephant onboard with the riders plans, so that the rider doesn’t have to tug on the reigns all day.
  3. Shape the Path – Create an environment that puts both the elephant and rider on the right path.

How do we do each of these three things? Switch provides several tools for each part of the framework.

Direct the Rider

  • Find the bright spots. Figure out what’s already working and clone it.
  • Script the critical moves. Don’t think too much about glorious big picture changes. Instead, think in terms of small, specific behavior changes.
  • Point to the destination. Change is much easier when you know where you’re headed and why it’s worth it. Make your destination/goal clear and visible.

Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the feeling. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something.
  • Shrink the change. Break down the change into small pieces that don’t spook the elephant. Don’t plan to clean the entire house, plan to put the dishes away.
  • Grow your people. Build a sense of identity. Encourage a growth mindset (change is possible, our character and qualities are not carved in stone).

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the Environment. Situations change behavior, so change the situation.
  • Build habits. Habits, once formed, are “free” behavior—they are effortless.
  • Rally the herd. Behavior is contagious. Surround yourself with others exhibiting the behavior you want. Spread your desired behavior to others.

If you are having a hard time changing your behavior, critically examine whether you are taking into account the influence of your elephant, your rider, and the environment.


  1. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2010. Switch. Crown Business. []
  2. http://www.heathbrothers.com/switch/. []
  3. Switch makes heavy use of this elephant and rider analogy, which originates from Jonathan Haidt. []