Switch Summary
| | |

Switch Summary and Review | Book by Dan Heath

How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Life gets busy. Has Switch been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn the key insights now.

We’re scratching the surface here. If you don’t already have the book, order the book or get the audiobook for free on Amazon to learn the juicy details.

Dan Heath’s Perspective

Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs. Previously, Dan worked as a researcher and case writer for Harvard Business School. In the late 1990s, Dan co-founded an innovative publishing company called Thinkwell. For almost 25 years, Thinkwell produced a line of online college textbooks that feature video lectures from some of the country’s top professors.

Dan has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the Plan II Honors Program from the University of Texas at Austin. 


Switch highlights the reasons that change can be so difficult. Crucially, though, Switch explains that change does not have to be complicated if you focus on success rather than obstacles. By observing others’ success, implementing habits, and utilizing emotion, you can encourage change in anybody. The key is to treat each person and environment as unique and adjust your approach accordingly.

Learn From the Bright Spots

The authors describe your mind as being an inner rider. It is generally a terrific thinker and planner. However, it is also prone to overanalyzing challenges and potential difficulties that could crop up in the future. Overanalysis gets you nowhere. As an alternative, you should give the mind a clear direction. Specifically, the authors recommend you find your bright spots and focus on these instead. 

Bright spots are situations where change has already succeeded. Analyze these circumstances and identify how this change was effectively achieved. You can learn from this type of analysis and implement it into your life so that change can become more widespread. The authors provide an example of the effective use of bright spots. In 1990, Jerry Sternin had to solve the problem of child malnutrition in Vietnam. The government had contacted him to solve this pervasive issue. This is an issue that several governments have attempted to solve. However, it is effectively unsolvable at this point. Therefore, Sternin took a different approach by focusing on the bright spots. He observed local villages that were well-nourished and identified the differences between these local villages and the struggling villages. 

Sternin noticed the families in the bright spot were feeding their children slightly differently. The families in the bright spot did not have more food, but the children received smaller portions at more frequent intervals. Sternin managed to spread these behaviors to other families, who accepted them more readily because they came from their own community, not from outsiders. By focusing on bright spots, Sternin was able to make a significant difference. Within just six months, 65 percent of the village had improved nutrition. The lesson from this success is to aim to spread the bright spots. 

Prepare For Change

The authors describe a concept called decision paralysis. Essentially, change situations have the ability to paralyze individuals. With various routes available to solve a problem, people tend to choose none of them. The authors describe studies that suggest humans are less able to make decisions, the more options given. Confusion drives this inability to decide.

The most effective way of challenging confusion is to make things incredibly clear. The authors call these directions for your rider. These directions come in the form of behavioral goals and instructions. Firstly, you need to think about the situations crucial for change to occur. Once you have identified these situations, you need to script the actions required for these situations to occur. Suppose you have the behavioral goal of quitting smoking. One of the critical moves to successfully implement this change would be to stop buying cigarettes. 

Explicit instruction is the approach adopted by health researchers. The authors introduce a study where health researchers were aiming to improve the diets of West Virginians. They understood that merely telling people to eat healthier was too ambiguous. This advice would provide too many options, leading to decision paralysis. Instead, they chose to provide clearly defined changes that West Virginians could execute. For example, they would suggest a simple swap for an unhealthy option. One option that had a significant impact was swapping out whole milk for low-fat milk. Due to its simplicity, this advice had a significant impact. The market share of low-fat milk doubled, and fat consumption significantly reduced within West Virginians’ diets. 

Choose a Direction to Avoid Analysis Paralysis

Another form of paralysis frequently associated with decisions associated with change is analysis paralysis. This paralysis prevents change but also wastes your energy. The authors highlight the key to avoiding this analysis paralysis is to provide your rider with a clear direction. The authors provide an example of Crystal Jones to explain this point. Crystal Jones was a first-grade teacher. She motivated her students by providing them with a clear destination: they would all be honorary third-graders by the end of the year. The students were internally motivated by this destination and the clarity of this goal.

The authors call this direction the destination postcard. Crucially, this destination postcard should align with the changes you are hoping to encourage in the short-term. 

Use Emotions to Control Your Inner Elephant

Your inner elephant is your impulsive and emotional side. Your inner ride is in charge of your inner elephant, but it is continuously in a struggle to control this side of you. Therefore, to make genuine, sustainable change in your life, you also have to focus on motivating your inner elephant.

You cannot motivate your inner elephant in the same way you motivate your inner driver. Instead of using rationality, you must utilize powerful emotions. The authors provide an example of Jon Stegner to outline how emotions can effectively motivate your inner elephant. Stegner was aiming to convince the leaders of his manufacturing company that their purchasing approaches were hugely inefficient. In this instance, logical approaches, like statistical analysis, just wouldn’t work. He knew their inner elephants were driving these leaders. Subsequently, to encourage a change in their opinions, Stegner developed a presentation that tapped into the management’s emotions. He collected one pair of each type of glove the company sold. Subsequently, he just piled them on top of each other, one after the next, in front of the management. Immediately, their response was one of shock. The management team knew they had to change their purchasing process.

Utilizing motivation to encourage change relies on these emotions being strong. You can effectively use both positive and negative emotions to produce change. For example, fear can be used to enhance a sense of urgency for change. The authors argue, though, that positive emotions are generally more productive for bringing about change. 

Play Down the Severity of Change

The authors explain that significant change is equivalent to getting an elephant to climb a mountain. It is unlikely that an elephant is going to agree to climb a mountain. However, suppose you can convince the elephant to walk up a small hill with you first. In that case, you can help move it towards accepting bigger hills. 

Change is daunting. Therefore, you need to shrink the change before introducing it. For example, you could demonstrate to those you seek to convince that progress has been made before. The authors provide an example of a study that highlights the effectiveness of highlighting progress. In this study, participants were told they needed ten stamps on a car wash loyalty card to get a free wash. In this instance, only 19 percent of people completed their cards. Comparatively, another group was told they needed 12 stamps, but the card already had two stamps on it. In both circumstances, participants needed to collect ten stamps. However, the completion rate in the second group was 34 percent. The only difference between the two groups is observing progress. 

Another way of shrinking the change is to split the change into smaller milestones. The authors call these milestones’ small wins’. The small wins towards more remarkable change offer people hope that complete change is possible. This type of motivation is one that fuels the elephant. Subsequently, as these small wins accumulate, any change will become a self-sustaining effect. 

Adopt a Growth Mindset to Overcome Failure

“Failing is often the best way to learn, and because of that, early failure is a kind of necessary investment.” – Chip Heath

Failure is part of life and can provide an obstacle to change. The authors suggest adopting a growth mindset to overcome failure. One way to overcome failure is to accept that these experiences are inevitable and beneficial. You can improve yourself once you accept these two facts. The authors highlight our brains and abilities are not static. Instead, they are muscles that can be trained to become stronger. A growth mindset, whereby failures are considered opportunities, will help you become better at all you do. 

Reduce Attribution Error by Providing an Easy Path

“And that’s the first surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” – Chip Heath

Change is possible even with a confused rider and reluctant elephant. However, change then requires they are on a path that includes situational and environmental factors that affect this person’s behavior. If you can shape the path to be a gentle, pleasant downhill stroll, then you can help anybody engage with change. 

Situational factors have a significant influence on our behaviors. However, humans tend to underestimate the impact of these factors. The authors call this underestimation the fundamental attribution error. This error assumes that individual behavior is a consequence of the way people are rather than their situation. 

Research Supports the Importance of Situational Factors

Research suggests that situational factors have a significant impact on our behaviors. The authors introduce a study where friends rated each other on their innate charitableness. The top half was labeled as saints, while the bottom half was labeled as jerks. After this part of the study, the students were mailed letters asking them to contribute food to charity. The independent variable in this study was situational factors. Half of the participants were given a basic letter that asked them to bring food to a well-known spot on campus. In comparison, the other half received detailed instructions that requested a can of beans and provided a map of the exact donation location. The first half was associated with terrible charitableness. Only 8% of the saints donated, while none of the jerks donated. Comparatively, one-quarter of the jerks from the second group donated. This highlights that situational factors are often more important than innate tendencies. 

The moral of this story is you can utilize situational factors to encourage change. This is true for even the least likely individuals. 

Build Habits to Make Change a Breeze

Building habits allows change to become part of an individual’s routine. However, building habits is not straightforward. Hence, the authors argue you must alter the environment to make habits simple to implement. One way to effectively alter the environment in favor of habit building is to establish action triggers. These triggers should be associated with the habit you are aiming to build. The authors use the example of dropping your children off at school (the trigger) before going to the gym (a habit).

The authors offer an example of the importance of the environment in maintaining habits. Specifically, they focus on a harmful habit that was not retained after a change in the environment. During the Vietnam War, 20 percent of the troops developed a heroin addiction. Subsequently, the US government was anxious about the number of drug-dependent troops that would be returning to their country. However, after one year of returning, only one percent of veterans were still addicted to heroin. The availability of heroin in Vietnam had offered an environment where they could easily maintain this bad habit. However, the familiar home environment and reduced access to heroin broke the habit. 

Another way to effectively build habits is to utilize what the authors call the humble checklist. Step-by-step checklists help you to execute a habit as intended. These checklists will prevent you from getting sloppy with your habits, like cutting corners. Pilots utilize these checklists to avoid risky shortcuts in their work routine.

The importance of habits is we have little control over these behaviors. Habits are our inner riders on autopilot. Hence, if we can build an environment that encourages a desired change in your habits, you will develop low-effort success. 

Positive Change Is Contagious

In an environment lacking cues, we generally follow the majority. Subsequently, the authors describe behavior as contagious. Crucially, you can take advantage of this human nature by highlighting that most people adopt a specific change. However, it may not always be the case that your desired change has a majority. Comparatively, your choice of change may have an oppositional majority. 

In the case of an oppositional majority, it is your job to identify the minority willing to help strengthen the case for change. For example, discussing the benefits that this change brought to their lives. 


We rate Switch 4.4/5.

How would you rate Dan Heath’s book?

Click to rate this book!
[Total: 1 Average: 5]

If you have feedback about this summary or would like to share what you have learned, comment below.

New to StoryShots? Get the audio and animated versions of this summary and hundreds of other bestselling nonfiction books in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured by Apple, The Guardian, The UN, and Google as one of the world’s best reading and learning apps.

To dive into the details, order the book or get the audiobook for free.

Related Book Summaries

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Nudge by Richard Thaler

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins

Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven

The 5 am Club by Robin Sharma

The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy

Switch summary
  • Save

Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.