'Shape a Path' for Change

Small tweaks to your environment can help you make big changes.

April 19, 2011

People can make big changes by making some small tweaks to their environment, says Dan Heath, co-author of "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard."

Heath—who will address the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Antonio, June 19-22—shares his insights on change.

What do you mean by ‘shaping the path’ for change?

Small tweaks to the environment can have a big impact. Think about’s one-click-order button. It has “shaped the path” to an order, making it as easy as humanly possible.

Many of us are blind to how much our situations actually shape our behavior. Our surroundings have been carefully designed to make us act in a particular fashion.

Traffic engineers want us to drive in a predictable, safe way, so they paint lane markers and install stoplights and signs. Banks got tired of us leaving our ATM cards in the machine so we have to remove them before we can get cash.

We can also act as our own engineers, tweaking the environment so the right behaviors are easier. A friend lays out his jogging clothes before he goes to bed so it’s just a bit easier to get started the next day.


One of the biggest issues facing society is the rising cost of health care. How would you change that?

The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that 75% of our health-care dollars are spent on chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes that respond well if patients change their diet, exercise, and stop smoking.

Of course it's easy to throw up our hands and say, “people will never change.” In fact, many physicians don't even suggest to smokers that they stop smoking, figuring that it won't do any good and they don't want to nag.

Yet our research has uncovered some remarkably simple principles that help people change their behavior even on these difficult changes:

  • How people are more likely to stay on a diet if they change their plate size and snack more;
  • How smokers are more likely to quit if you teach them they're likely to fail multiple times before they succeed; and
  • How people are more likely to lose substantial weight if you teach them that exercise doesn't mean spandex and treadmills, but that they’re already exercising every time they walk across a room or vacuum a floor.

Next: What's a 'destination postcard?'

What’s a destination postcard?

A destination postcard is a clear and vivid picture of the place you’re headed. So for a dieter, it might be a picture that shows the way you looked before you gained 20 pounds.

For an executive, it might be a vision of where change could lead. In the book, for instance, we talk about a woman who founded a new breast-care clinic. Her vision was that a woman could walk in the clinic in the morning and leave with her results that afternoon—and, if necessary, a treatment plan.

What’s something you changed in your own behavior using these principles?

I’ve learned the power of the environment. When we were working on the book, I’d get annoyed at how often I’d check e-mail or get sidetracked on the web. It was frustrating. It was a constant temptation.

Then I took my own medicine from Switch—I changed my environment. I took an old beater laptop and deleted its browsers and wireless drivers. Basically, I turned it into a typewriter.

And when I knew I had to focus, I’d take this “Wayback Machine” to the library or to a coffee shop. Presto—distraction problem solved. It was a good lesson for me: The right environment made all of those moment-to-moment struggles irrelevant.

What’s one habit that we could apply to your framework to start changing right away?

We can take a tip from a home-organization expert called the FlyLady, who found a way to take the dread out of housecleaning. It’s called the five-minute room rescue.

Set a timer for five minutes and go to that spot in your house—the garage, the kid’s playroom, your desk—that’s been causing trouble and clean for five minutes. When the timer goes off, you’re done: no need for guilt.

What you’ll find is that once you get started it’s easy to keep going. It’s the dread of starting that’s the big gap.

One fitness magazine editor does a “one-song workout” on days when she dreads working out. She listens to her iPod and when one song is done, she can stop.

But, just like the five-minute room rescue, by the time the song is over, her mood has shifted and she can keep going.

The principle here is that if there’s a kind of change you dread—but know would be good for you—you’ve got to shrink it.

If your child hates spelling tests, tackle two words a night. If you hate giving employees feedback, script a single sentence for a single employee and give it before lunch.

Dan Heath is the co-author of "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard." He’ll bring his insights about change to the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Antonio, June 19-22.