Brilliant Ways to Create Positive Change

By Chip and Dan Heath, Experience Life

Many of us have acted in ways we wish to change, or have created habits that don’t align with our future goals. You’ve likely experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.

These are all situations in which our emotional side overpowers our rational side — the Elephant overpowers the Rider.

It is helpful to think about how we can affect positive change through a metaphor used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006). He argues that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the 6-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched. Hence, we sleep in, overeat, call our ex, etc.

Most successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of the change to do three things at once: Direct the Rider; motivate the Elephant; and shape the Path.

The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being fit). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. Such change attempts get scuttled when the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment. But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and the Rider has crippling weaknesses.

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 feeling when you need to stand up for yourself — that’s the Elephant.

And even more important if you’re contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning the wheels.

The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. Chances are, you know people with Rider problems: your friend, who can agonize for 20 minutes about what to eat for dinner; your colleague, who can brainstorm about new ideas for hours but can’t ever seem to make a decision. The Rider also wears out easily: Exerting self-control and focusing intently on what “should” happen next can leave the Rider worn out and helpless to carry through with his plans.

If you want to change things, you must appeal to both these elements of the human self. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the passion and the sustained energy.

One remaining key to changing behavior is shaping your situation. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path.” When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant. If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen — even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.

One of the interesting things about change is how many mistaken assumptions we make about how it works — or doesn’t. Here are some surprising insights that can help you identify the real obstacles to change and avoid investing energy in clearing roadblocks that aren’t really there.

Next: 3 Surprises about Change

Surprise No. 1  What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.

The Rider, or the rational part of your brain, is tasked with planning, organizing, analyzing and long-term thinking. And to do that job well, the Rider needs clear, specific instructions. Without clear instructions, the Rider’s tendency is to overanalyze, overthink and endlessly spin his wheels.

So, the next time you berate yourself for resisting change (say, you commit to eating healthier but still manage to come home from the grocery store with a family-size bag of snack cookies), consider that it’s not resistance but lack of clarity. If your Rider only hears “Eat healthier!” instead of “Eat more dark leafy greens — and here is a convenient way to prepare them,” you’re more unclear than resistant.

Surprise No. 2  What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

Self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again.

This is a crucial realization, because when we talk about self-control, we don’t mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vices (smokes, cookies, alcohol). We’re talking about a broader kind of self-supervision.

Think of the way your mind works when you’re giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf, or learning a new dance. You are careful and deliberate with your words or movements. It feels like there’s a supervisor on duty. That’s self-control, too.

Dozens of studies have demonstrated the exhausting nature of self-supervision. And research shows that we burn up self-control in a wide variety of situations: managing the impression we’re making on others, coping with fears, controlling our spending, and many, many others.

Here’s why this matters for change: When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider.

The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap your self-control. And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure.

In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change.

So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out trying.

Surprise No. 3 What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

W. Edwards Deming, the chief instigator of the Total Quality Management movement that revolutionized manufacturing, told a story about a company that used a variety of flammable products in its production process. Unsurprisingly, fires frequently broke out in its plants. But the president of the company didn’t think he had a situation problem; he thought he had a people problem. He sent a letter to every one of the company’s 10,500 employees pleading with them to set fewer fires. Ahem. This is a bit like asking gardeners to come home from work less covered in dirt.

We are frequently blind to the power of situations. Stanford psychologist Lee Ross surveyed dozens of studies in psychology and noted that people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. He called this deep-rooted tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in. But many times it is the situation — not the person — that is causing the trouble. Change your situation and you are better equipped to change your behavior.

So, if you want people to change, you can address the “people problem” by providing clear direction (Rider), and by boosting motivation and determination (Elephant). Remember, though, that you can also take steps to make the journey in the desired direction easier. Create a steep downhill slope and give them a push. Remove some friction from the trail. Scatter around lots of signs to tell them they’re getting close. Resolve the “situation problem.” This is how you shape the Path.

Next: More Smart Ways to Make Change

Our research turned up an astonishing variety of methods proven effective in helping people successfully create positive change — and for making the most of the key factors at play in most change scenarios. Here are just a few of the tips featured in our book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

Find the bright spots.
The Rider loves to contemplate and analyze, but his analysis is almost always directed at problems rather than bright spots. (You can probably recall a conversation with a friend who agonized for hours over a particular relationship problem. But can you remember an instance when a friend spent even a few minutes analyzing why something was working so well?) And when the Rider sees problems everywhere, “analysis paralysis” often kicks in. That’s why, to make progress on a change, it helps to point out what is going right in a given process or relationship — and then encourage yourself or your team to replicate those right moves.

Shrink the change.
A business cliché commands us to “raise the bar.” But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant. You need to lower the bar, or at least break the process of getting over that bar into more-doable baby steps. In other words, you need to shrink the size of the change.
Shrinking the change is how the maids succeeded in losing weight. When they found out they were already exercising, the gap in their minds between being a nonexerciser and an exerciser became much smaller, and the step between their normal workday routine and doing just a little bit more became way easier to make. With less distance to travel, the maids were able to make the journey easily. The Elephant needs to believe a change is possible before he’s willing to take a single committed step, and if you can help the Elephant to see he’s already partway there, so much the better.

Tweak the environment.
The popcorn study is a classic example of how shifting the environment (the size of the bucket) can affect change (how much popcorn the moviegoers ate). Tweaking the environment can also be one of the simplest ways to foster change. Want to eat less? Use smaller plates and bowls. Going to the mall but don’t want to overspend? Take out as much cash as you have budgeted for your shopping trip and leave your credit and debit cards at home. Trying to go to the gym after work? Keep your workout clothes and shoes in the front passenger seat of your car. Determined to eat healthier? Clear the junk out of your cupboards.

Rally the herd.
Behavior is contagious. This is why laugh tracks are sometimes used in TV shows: When you see or hear someone laughing, you laugh, too. You can use this knowledge to your advantage when you want to make change. Ask your family, friends or coworkers to send you helpful signals. Trying to stop checking your smartphone during dinner? Ask your dinner companions to give you a disapproving glance if you reach for the device. Want to change a policy at your corporate workplace? Find other like-minded workers to go with you when you approach the company policymakers. Going as a group will signal that there is support for this particular change.

This article was excerpted from the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway, 2010) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He received his PhD in psychology from Stanford. Dan Heath is a columnist for Fast Company magazine. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School. The Heaths’ first best-selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007), was selected as one of the best 100 business books of all time. For details on how to win one of 10 free copies, go to


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


Angie B.
Angela B6 years ago

Great article...thankyou!! Interesting metaphor.

Camila K.
Kamila A6 years ago

this is a great metaphor to work with. I am going to keep it in mind and use it to affect the positive changes in the future

Emma S.
Emma S7 years ago

Thank you! I'll be keeping hold of this one.

Devayani Patil
Devayani Patil7 years ago


Norma V.
Norma Villarreal7 years ago

I enjoyed visualing the rider and elephant...

Kirsten B.
Past Member 7 years ago

Yup - very nicely presented and some good ideas in there I wouldn't have automatically thought about.
Thank you.

Tanya G.
Tanya G7 years ago

Thank you for this article, Megan. :-)

Shireen Hakim
Shireen H7 years ago

Excellent! One of the best articles provided on this website. Thank you.