Simple Tools for Building Healthy Habits from NYT Best-Selling Author Dan Heath

PLEASE NOTE: We’re sorry we’re unable to provide the actual recording of Dan’s webinar. We’ve included key points that he made, along with free resources, below.

Why is it so hard to change unhealthy habits? In this webinar, Dan Heath, author of the New York Times best-seller Switch, shares a simple, three-part framework to help you make desired lifestyle changes. Dan discusses factors that influence behavior and gives you the tools you need to succeed.

Whether you’re looking to improve your diet, increase physical activity, decrease stress, reduce your exposure to toxins, or simply lead a healthier life, Dan suggests ways to get started and what to do when you face resistance or “fall off the wagon.” 

Key Points

Again and again in life, we know things we should be doing, but we wind up going in a different direction. We have all the information we need to know that certain behaviors – such as bad habits or staying in unhealthy relationships – are destructive for us, and yet we persist in doing them. This “tug of war” is a function of how our brains are wired. We have a rational system and an emotional system. When these two systems in our brains disagree, we experience conflict.

But it’s not a fair fight. The emotional system, which controls our autopilot behaviors, is like a powerful elephant. On its back is the tiny rider – the rational system – which thinks it’s in control. But which is really more powerful? The tiny rider or the huge elephant? That’s why change is so difficult.

Here is a three-part framework to ease the difficulty of behavior change. (For more detail, please see Dan’s book Switch.)  

  1. Direct the Rider – provide direction about where you want to go. 
  2. Motivate the Elephant – learn to draw on emotion
  3. Shape the Path – find a way to remove the obstacles. 

1. Direct the Rider

People are said to resist change. But resistance is often a lack of clarity. Ambiguity is the enemy of change. But what is clarity? We are clear on the change we want when we are able to translate our goals into actual behaviors. You have a goal: losing ten pounds in two months. But you need to translate that into actual behaviors: exactly how do you get there?

One key way is to find the bright spots: focus on what works as a way to reproduce positive behaviors in order to create success. For example, let’s say you decide you want to exercise three times a week for a month but end up exercising only twice the entire month. You conclude that you are a failure. But that is not the bright spots philosophy. Instead, look at what allowed you to succeed those two times you did exercise. Study success and analyze what made it happen. What are your bright spots?  

Some circumstances that led to your success are replicable, but some are not. Be alert to things that are – things that you can reproduce. Bright spots are a way to form the connection between goals and behaviors. 

2. Motivating the Elephant

Change is exhausting because it forces us to rewire habits. A habit is an unconscious behavior. When we try to change a habit we need to uproot it first. Motivation is the fuel needed to endure that change. Remember that willpower is exhaustible. Don’t rely on it – it is not a strategy. You need motivation. Motivation is the central problem – and the opportunity – of change.

But how do you motivate the elephant? One of the most effective ways is to shrink the change. Break the desired behavior down into doable chunks, something more manageable. For example, don’t commit to cleaning the whole messy room – commit to cleaning for five minutes only. You’ll find you keep going. The task itself creates motivation, it snowballs. “The 20-minute walk that I actually do is always better than the 5-mile run that I don’t.”

If you can’t shrink the change, then you need to tap into emotion. Emotion sustains change. For example, doing physical therapy because the therapist tells you to is one thing, but being able to walk your daughter down the aisle at her wedding is the real motivator. Connect change to something that matters. The “why” has to be important to you. Knowledge does not spark change. Motivation does. 

3. Shape the Path

Make it easier to do the right behavior and harder to do the wrong behavior. Change the physical environment. When the path changes, people change. Like childproofing a room. Like in manufacturing, making accidents more difficult to happen by making it physically harder to make mistakes. Or an argument, like when the wife becomes irritated at the husband for forgetting to turn the lights off. So now they put timers on the lights. 

Bad habits and good habits share one characteristic: you don’t have to think about them. They are both the result of automatic behavior. They are free of cognition. 

Habits are the endgame. The golden carrot is making the GOOD habit as habitual as the one you are trying to change. Once this happens, you can rest easy that you will not be fighting the same battle for the rest of your life. 

Shaping the path gives us a kickstart to creating good habits. But this takes time. How can we use these tools to reach the promised land of new habits? By making the right behavior the path of least resistance. By reducing friction and obstacles. If you are prone to binging chips, don’t count on your ability to resist. It’s so much easier just to not have them around. 

If you want to change, failure along the way is part of the deal. If you are willing to stand up, dust yourself off and try again, there is great news: Great change happens all the time. If we understand the levers that make change happen, we can be the creators and the architects of change. Linger on your successes, don’t focus on the failures. Cultivate the ability to re-set. Give yourself – frequently – the power of a fresh start.