A Framework for changing…

I hope you don’t ever have this discussion, but imagine the situation where you are sitting down with your doctor after a bunch of tests and he gravely informs you that unless you make some drastic changes to your lifestyle (diet, exercise, stop smoking) that your heart is going to give out in the next couple of years.  You are in imminent danger and you MUST change if you want to live!

The stakes can’t really be any higher so it’s obvious you’d make the changes needed.

Or would you?

It turns out a study was done a few years back that covered this exact situation – and only 1 in 7 patients actually made the required changes.

1 in 7!  And that was with their life on the line…

We all say ‘change is hard’, but with those kinds of results for life-threatening stakes, something is clearly missing from our attempts to change.  The good news is that there’s a better way to look at change.

The Rider, The Elephant, and The Path

Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers) have written several excellent books, (the most famous being Made to Stick).  One of their other books is an excellent deep dive on change called ‘Switch’ where they outlined a straightforward framework of how we collectively act that can help us understand change… and more importantly how to change.

The model consists of 3 pieces – the first 2 components represent the 2 sides of our behavior, the Rider and the Elephant.  The Rider is our rational brain and The Elephant is our emotional side.  Picture the Rider precariously perched on top of the large Elephant and although The Rider is ‘in charge’ it’s obvious that if the Elephant doesn’t want to do something, it’s not going to get done.

As an example, I rationally know that I don’t need chocolate cake after a great dinner, but I guarantee that if you put a slice in front of me I’m going to be tempted and it’s very likely that I’ll end up eating it – because the Elephant is all about immediate gratification.  That’s not to say that the Elephant is always the bad guy.  The Elephant is also where your strength and passion come from.  It’s the Elephant that allows you to do the really hard things because you believe in them.  The trick is to get the Rider and The Elephant on the same page and working together.

The third component of the framework is The Path.  Essentially that’s your environment, which either makes a particular behavior easier or more difficult.  In the example with chocolate cake above, I’m a lot less likely to eat my slice of cake if I first have to bake the cake before I’m going to eat it.  Just like I’m a lot more likely to go to the gym if it’s easy and convenient for me to do so…

In fact, The Path (or your environment) has a much bigger impact than you might think.  In his excellent book The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor makes an excellent point that a mere 20 seconds can dramatically help you change behaviors.  If there’s something I want to stop doing – making it 20 seconds more difficult to do that thing will go a long way towards making that change.  Likewise, if I want to start doing something, simplifying so that it’s 20 seconds easier is often enough to put me over the edge and get a new habit started.

The bottom line is that change happens when your Rider is in alignment with your Elephant and there’s a clear path that supports the actions that you’re trying to make. Here are a few tips that might help you with this idea:

3 Ideas to make Change Happen

Direct the Rider – you might be emotionally invested in making a change, but if you’re not sure how to move forward, then you’re not going to get anywhere.  That’s why it’s important to figure out the specific, small steps that you need to take in order to make something happen.  If it’s a big effort, break it down into small pieces and just focus on making one small change at a time.  Maybe even go so far as to literally script the specific moves you need to make (a checklist…) as you put the change into action.


Motivate the Elephant – Along the same lines, your Elephant has to stay engaged (you need to continue to be emotionally invested) if you’re going to be able to stay focused and do the right thing.  That’s another reason why it’s important to break a bigger change into smaller pieces. It will help you focus your efforts, but it also allows you to experience (and celebrate) wins along the way.  You’ll be able to build up momentum along the way and that makes a huge difference.


Shape the Path – Finally, you need to make sure your environment supports the changes you’re trying to make.  What can you do to make it difficult to backslide into old habits?  An example that might help you is the idea to ‘rally the herd’ –  get a supportive group around you.  One of the reasons that Weight Watchers works is because they hold regular meetings with a support group who can help you maintain the right attitude and stay focused.


Change is hard, but once you recognize the framework and realize that there are 3 key components to every successful change, you can start to figure out which of those components are holding you back.  Find ways to address the components and it becomes a lot easier.

Have you tried changing behaviors recently?  How did it go?  Have you thought about this framework before?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach