Switch by Chip & Dan Heath: Book Summary and Notes

switch book cover

“Until you can ladder your way down from a change idea to a specific behavior, you’re not ready to lead a switch.”

Rating: 9/10

Related: Decisive, Made to Stick, Upstream, The Power of Moments, Atomic Habits

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Switch Book Short Summary

Switch by Chip & Dan Heath is a book that seeks to demystify change. To make effective changes, you have to appeal to both sides of your brain: the elephant and the rider. To make change easier, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. A great psychology book with actionable insights based on scientific facts. Highly recommended.

The Elephant and the Rider  

The brain has two independent systems at work at all times:

  • The Elephant: the emotional side. It’s instinctive and feels pain and pleasure. Without a clear path, the Elephant will stand in your way and you will make little to no change
  • The Rider: the rational side of the brain, and it provides direction and does the planning

“Emotion is the Elephant’s turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself – that’s the Elephant.”

The Rider’s weakness is the tendency to over analyze and overthink things – spinning his wheels. When the Rider does this, the Elephant lacks direction and change cannot happen.

Change is only possible when both Rider and the Elephant come together:

“If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.

The Change Framework

To make change easier, you need to:

  1. Direct the Rider. Provide crystal clear direction. “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”
  2. Motivate the Elephant. Engage the emotional side. “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”
  3. Shape the Path. Create the conditions for both the rider and the elephant to excel. “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.”

Direct the Rider

Directing the Rider involves strategy and rationalizing. These are the core strengths of the Rider.

There are 3 main strategies to direct the rider:

  1. Bright Spots
  2. Script the Critical Moves
  3. Point to the Destination

Bright Spots

Bright spots: successful efforts worth emulating

To discover bright spots, ask yourself: “What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

The Miracle Question: “What’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think the problem was gone?”

You could also ask yourself if the success of the few could be replicated by the many? If yes, then you’ve found a bright spot.

In many cases, even in organizations that are underperforming, or in marriages that are on the brink of collapse, there are bright spots – rays of light worth emulating. Find these rays of light and replicate them.

Script the Critical Moves

Too many choices can lead to decision paralysis. For effective change, limit the options as much as possible.

 “Ambiguity is exhausting to the Rider, because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path. But when the road is uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path.”


When what needs to be done is clear, the Rider and the Elephant will work together to deliver change. As a change leader, it is your job to eliminate ambiguity as much as possible.

“When you want someone to behave in a new way, explain the “new way” clearly. Don’t assume the new moves are obvious.”

Point to the Destination

Create a destination postcard that shows what you want to achieve in the near future.

When you describe a compelling destination, you’re helping to correct one of the Rider’s great weaknesses—the tendency to get lost in analysis.”

Destination postcards show the Rider where you’re headed and the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile.

To make the switch, the destination needs to be vivid. Lose 10 pounds, finish this course, run 10 miles etc. are vivid and clear destinations. Getting healthy is not.

Black-and-white (B&W) goals: an all-or-nothing goal. Useful when you worry about backsliding. For example: “No wine ever” or “Gym every day”

Your goals need to be black and white (B&W) with no wiggle room.

Motivate the Elephant

switch book motivate the elephant

Change requires the right emotions and emotions are the turf of the Elephant.

The Elephant:

  • Hates ambiguity
  • Freaks out if the task is daunting
  • Dislikes failure
  • Is easily demoralized
  • Cherishes progress no matter how small
  • Is strongly influenced by identity

By understanding the above facts, motivating the Elephant becomes easier. 

The main strategies for motivating the Elephant are:

  1. Find the Feeling
  2. Shrink the Change
  3. Grow Your People

Find the Feeling

Change happens in the order of SEE—FEEL—CHANGE as opposed to ANALYZE—THINK—CHANGE. You don’t need to know to act, you need to feel to act.

FEELING makes it easier to initiate change even when the data and analysis say otherwise. 

Your role in the change process is to make people excited for what’s coming; excitement is good food for the Elephant.

Shrink the Change

Recall that the Elephant is easily spooked and demoralized, but what if there was a way to make it less so?

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one.

Shrink the change is a strategy that seeks to address the shortcomings of the Elephant.

To motivate the Elephant, don’t “raise the bar”. Instead, you need to lower the bar.

The 5-Minute Room Rescue:

  • Get a kitchen timer and set it for 5 minutes
  • Then go to the worst room in your house and, as the timer ticks down, start clearing a path
  • When the timer buzzes, you can stop with a clear conscience

To shrink the change:

  • Make the change small enough that you can’t help but score a victory
  • Limit the investment you’re asking for
  • Think of small wins—milestones that are within reach

“Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can often trigger a positive spiral of behavior.”

Grow Your People

Growing your people is all about building the necessary rapport to get things done.

The strategy relies on the identity decision-making model that essentially asks three questions:

  • Who am l?
  • What kind of situation is this?
  • What would someone like me do in this situation?

By making people embrace a certain identity, you can rally them to support goals that they otherwise would not care about. 

So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequences?

Growing your people also involves cultivating a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. The growth mindset sees change as possible, and it acknowledges that failure is part of the process.

The growth mindset is a buffer against defeatism. It reframes failure as a natural part of the change process. And that’s critical because people will persevere only if they perceive falling down as learning rather than as failing.

You can create a growth mindset for yourself and your team by:

  • Highlighting progress
  • Creating milestones
  • Accepting learning as part of the process

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

Shape the Path

Shaping the path means tweaking the environment so that change feels and seems effortless.

The three strategies to shape the path are: 

  1. Tweaking the Environment
  2. Building Habits 
  3.  Rallying the Herd.

Tweaking the Environment

“Fundamental Attribution Error”: our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in

People may be willing to change but the environment they are part of may not permit it. 

What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem.

By recognizing the power a situation has over the individual, it is easier to tweak the environment to favor the change that you are pursuing.

“Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.”

Examples of tweaking the environment:

  • Sales. Amazon’s 1-Click ordering
  • Diet. Shrink your dinnerware. Use smaller plates, bowls, and cups. Big plates = big portions = overeating. Never, ever eat snack food directly out of the bag or box; instead, pour a reasonable portion onto a small appetizer plate
  • Habits. Lay your jogging clothes and shoes before going to sleep
  • Impulse purchases. Freeze your credit card in a block of ice. When you feel the urge to spend, you are forcing yourself to have a cooling-off period

Here’s a post about designing your environment and another about designing your defaults.

Tweaking your environment is also about using productivity spaces.

Build Habits

Habits can be both good and bad and to change yourself, you have to replace the bad habits with the good.  

Changing habits requires a change of environment and a change in mentality.

You can change habits by employing action triggers. Action triggers take advantage of the things that you already do on a daily basis. By preloading the decision, you conserve the Rider’s self-control.

For example:

Whenever you opt to drink coffee, you can also commit to writing 50 words reinforcing a new identity, for example

Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness.

Checklists perfectly combine tweaking the environment and building habits. They can be added to the environment in order to make behavior more consistent and habitual. That tool is the humble checklist.

A good book on checklists is “The Checklist Manifesto“.

Rally the Herd

Rallying the herd means getting everyone on the same side because humans tend to heed social cues or do what others are doing.

“The Elephant constantly looks to the herd for cues about how to behave.”

To make an organizational change, highlight what everyone else is doing and not the other way around.

“In situations where your herd has embraced the right behavior, publicize it. For instance, if 80 percent of your team submits time sheets on time, make sure the other 20 percent knows the group norm. Those individuals almost certainly will correct themselves. But if only 10 percent of your team submits time sheets on time, publicizing those results will hurt, not help.”

Keep the Switch Going

To keep the switch going, it is necessary to recognize your own success. The first step may be small but it is the most important one.

“Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball. The first thing to do is recognize and celebrate that first step.

Celebrating progress reinforces the behavior that you are trying to create.