Chip and Dan Heath, the brothers behind the great book Made to Stick, have a new book coming out next month — Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The topic excited me, because my work with the Emerging Scholars Network tries to change an entrenched academic system I was lucky enough to score an advance copy. Like I expected, this book has strong advice that will help ESN change the university; I did not expect how much it would help me change my own bad habits.
The book’s basic concepts build from the idea that our brain has two distinct systems: an impulsive-but-powerful emotional brain and a clever-but-weak rational brain. The Heaths call these the Elephant and the Rider, borrowing an image from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to the Heaths, meaningful and lasting change happens by:
- Directing the Rider with clear objectives and “bright spots”
- Motivating the Elephant by tapping into our strong emotional desires, and
- Shaping the Path so that the Elephant and Rider have fewer choices to distract them.
I found the idea of bright spots to be especially helpful. Instead of focusing your attention and analysis on problems, focus on the “bright spots” where things seem to be going right. The Heaths give an example of a young boy who is constantly in trouble at school, except for one class. His counselor figures out why that one teacher in the whole school can get the student to behave, then maps out the critical steps for other teachers to follow. I’m looking forward to identifying bright spots within ESN.
I’ve already decided to apply the ideas of Switch to my two most vexing work problems: making my fundraising calls and writing on a consistent basis.
For fundraising, I’ve identified a couple of ways to shape the path so that it’s easier for me to make my calls. I will prepare my list of people to call the day before and print it out ahead of time, so that my emotional energy can be spent on my calls, rather than on figuring out who to call. Then, because it’s difficult for me to get motivated to start my calls, I’m going to set an action trigger: in this case, a kitchen timer that I’ll set when I enter my office in the morning. When the timer goes off, I’m going to drop whatever I’m doing, pick up my pre-prepared list, and start my calling.
If that sounds simple, that’s the Heaths’ point. Change happens through (apparently) simple adjustments. I’ve not yet figured out a Switch-style solution to my writing problem. Perhaps a move to the library or a coffee shop to do my writing, where it’s harder for me to log on to the internet and where I feel more “wasteful” if I’m using my “special writing time” to check Facebook? That might be a good solution: I experienced a bright spot with writing when I was in graduate school by working on poetry in the school’s atrium, and the change of environment might trick my brain out of its “easily distracted” mode.
As you might imagine from guys who specialize in sticky ideas, the book is filled with great stories and easy-to-remember concepts. I found it to be an enjoyable read, not too challenging intellectually, but extremely challenging personally.
What do you want to change? What are the bright spots that are already working? How can you create more bright spots in your life?
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