How to change when change is hard

We’ve all thought about changing something about ourselves.

Whether we’re looking to set a goal, extinguish a “bad” habit, or establish a new routine- change has been a part of everyone’s life at some point.


I just finished reading an amazing book called Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. The book was given to me by my supervisor and has helped drive positive change at my school site. However, as I read through this New York Times #1 Best Seller, I realized that much of what the Heath brothers were discussing in this book can be applied to so much more than the workplace. The tools and strategies talked about can be applied to any change you’re looking to make in life! I wanted to share some of the things I learned from this experience and hope that you’ll purchase Switch to dive deeper into the process the next time you’re looking to make an improvement to your life through change.


Let’s start with the basics.

1. Knowledge does not change behavior.
Think about the last time you told someone that you wanted to change something about yourself.

Maybe you declared that you wanted to stop smoking and someone quickly told you that you should stop because “smoking will give you lung cancer!”

Maybe you set a goal to give up soda or sugar and someone gave you a dissertation about the horrible effects of sugar on the body.

Maybe you decided that you were going to reduce the amount of stress in your life and someone informed you of how stress will “give you a heart attack! Or cancer! Or an ulcer!”

We’ve all known these people, and while we know that they have our best interest in mind, true successful and long term change cannot come from just knowledge alone. Even when met with the most rational and convincing of arguments, people still cannot solely rely on those words in order to produce long term, permanent change. Our brains don’t always buy into rational thought. We’ve got to have a connection to the knowledge. We’ve got to be made to feel the effects of change in order for it to stick. We have to be motivated to want to make the switch. And we need to act on making the switch.

So where do those “feelings” come from? How does one find the motivation to change something they’ve set out to change? Once you’ve grasped the understanding that knowledge alone cannot change behavior, you can start to unravel this process.

The second significant realization that needs to be made is that in order to make change a permanent part of our lives we must:

2. Focus on what’s already working instead of focusing on what’s broken and how to fix it.
What’s working and how can you do more of it?

What routines do you already have put in place that can be the framework for new routines you want to establish?

What positive role models do you have in your life that can help keep you accountable and motivated?

The book makes a great emphasis on the idea that in order to begin to change something about ourselves, we must look for the bright spots. To truly implement change, we must build on the things we are currently successful at so that these bright spots help support the changes we wish to make.

Once we’ve identified those bright spots we can move on to understanding how to set ourselves up for success.


3. Learn to abandon the “status quo.”
The status quo feels comfortable and familiar because much of the choice for other options has been removed. Everyone has their routines and ways of doing things. Most of the time we’re on “autopilot.” When we are presented with choice- especially ones that really throw a monkey wrench into the status quo- our autopilot shuts off and we are forced to make decisions that are out of the norm and uncomfortable.

For example: let’s say you want to make a healthy change by giving up soda.

Your status quo has been drinking 3-4 cans of soda with meals and snacks each day.

When you set the goal to give it up, you are presented with choice each time you walk by the soda vending machine. Buying those 3-4 cans each day is no longer part of the plan. You’re not in autopilot anymore. Now you must consciously make the decision that was once already decided for you. These changes can bring uncertainty and anxiety into your life and because of that, you may dive back into the status quo, abandoning your goals and going back to that familiar place.

But the status quo doesn’t lead us to change. The status quo won’t get us to meet our goals.
So how DO we begin to change?

4. Plan the moves that will help map the way towards change.
We know that change starts with us. We know it’s all about establishing new behaviors and routines based on the decisions we make. But that can be a really tough place to start. Depending on our thoughts alone can lead us to have some serious arguments with ourselves (which we all know can certainly lead us back to the status quo!).

A push in a new direction starts with a crystal clear vision and plan. We’ve got to think about the specific positive behavior that we would want to see when facing critical moments (like when you walk by that soda machine!). Think about exactly what you would need to do in order to bypass that vending machine and skip the soda. One way to set yourself up for success is to shift your environment. Even small alterations can make a huge impact! Having a reusable bottle filled with ice-cold water with fresh lemon slices and mint leaves sitting front and center on your desk at work can help motivate you to stay away from the soda machine. It’s prepped and ready and may prove to be an equally refreshing pick-me-up as you’ve always believed that soda to be- with a million more times the health benefits! These “triggers” that we purposefully set up can support goals and keep us from falling back into that dreaded status quo.

5. Attach feeling and emotion.
When thinking about the changes we want to make it’s important to not only plan the moves to guide the decision making process, but to also find the feeling.

Why do we care about these changes?

How are they going to make us feel?

There’s a difference between knowing how to act on change and being motivated to act. We’ve got to feel it in order to believe that we can do it, and act on it in order to follow through with the change.

Sometimes people will change out of fear or threat. Negative emotions can definitely be a motivator of change. But what exactly is fear motivating? Fear, anger and other negative emotions help us avoid risks and confrontation- specifically the confrontation of problems. These negative emotions can be effective at attaching quick, short-term “fight or flight” types of change, but they aren’t necessarily a successful motivator of implementing positive long-term change.

One way to build on positive feelings is to make ourselves realize how close we are to a goal than we had originally thought.

For example: maybe you want to complete your first 5k race. You might lace up and head to your local park and walk or jog a mile. You tell a friend about your accomplishment and she responds with “A mile?! That’s awesome! A 5k is 3 miles so you’re already 1/3 of the way there!”

Experiencing that feeling of being a third of the way towards a goal that you’ve set gives you a major confidence boost and can help you make that change into your life. The goal doesn’t seem as daunting and impossible as it did before.

That feeling of success and progress is a vital part of long-term change. It’s like the reassurance our brains need to continue on the journey. When we scale down the change we wish to make into smaller “chunks:” we give ourselves opportunities to experience what success feels like. When we focus on these small “wins” and give ourselves lots of opportunities to achieve them, they add up to bigger victories along the way.

We’ve all heard the saying “A long journey starts with a single step.” But that one step doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll actually stick with the journey. How do you ensure you’ll keep going. 


6. Celebrate the first step and any “restarts” along the way.
Most of the time that first step is the hardest of all and should be recognized and praised. And although we may have good intentions to continue going down this path to changing something about ourselves, we all know that mishaps occur, and sometimes we fall off the wagon. Well the answer to getting back on that journey is not through punishment- like negative self-talk. Instead, focus on what’s working, reset your plan, and praise yourself for starting again. Life happens, setbacks occur, and sometimes we lose focus. We have to be our own biggest cheerleaders. We have to believe that a setback won’t stop us from achieving our goals. We have to be kinder to ourselves and learn to pick ourselves up off the ground and keep moving forward no matter what.

For behavior to change, we’ve got to set ourselves up for success. Not only to we need to build a strategic plan of action, but we must also convince our minds and hearts to buy in. 

What do you want to change about yourself? Is there a goal you’ve set or a routine you would like to start? I’d love to hear! 🙂

Switch is available as an eBook and on audio from Random House. Visit for more information and to purchase this book. There is also a Switch website! Visit for resources, podcasts, book club materials and so much more!

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