Making the “Switch” to running

I recently read the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. I was inspired to read it by TS Balaji, who mentioned it in his interview with DesignBetter. I expected it to be all about corporate change management, but was happy to see it cover everything from large-scale cultural change to individual change.

Instead of writing a review or summary, as I’ve done in the past for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Interviewing Users, and Elon Musk’s Biography, I’m going to use the concepts from Switch to explain the bizarre human phenomenon of running.

What is this ‘running’ thing?

When you actually stop to think about it, running is a strange, strange behavior. Who in their right mind would buy expensive shoes, spend incredible amounts of time and energy, and risk repetitive strain injury just to end up right back where you started?

Ron Burgundy said it best:

Veronica and I trying this new fad called, uh, jogging. I believe it’s ‘jogging’ or ‘yogging.’ it might be a soft j. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time! It’s supposed to be wild.

Running is weird. Becoming a runner is not a very easy change to make.

My story

I used to be a runner. I have spent hundreds or maybe even thousands of hours of my life putting one leg in front of the other for a while then ending up back where I started. I’ve ran to the point of injury, too many times. Shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and more.

The author running on a road in a small town
Me running an adventure race in 2014 in Cumberland, British Columbia

About four years ago, I started cycling and stopped running. The injuries stopped too! I could cycle ten hours a week and still not get injured, whereas running half that much would land me at the physiotherapist’s.

The switch

Fast-forward to this past weekend. Shane, the ex-runner, sets his alarm for 7:00 on a Saturday 😱, battles 1000 other maniacs to find a parking spot 😱, and runs five kilometers in the April snow 😱. All after six weeks of training 😱, two physio treatments 😱, and countless hours of stretching and strengthening exercises 😱.

So why did I do it?

Back to the book Switch for a moment. This article does a way better job of explaining it than I do, but the analogy that the book sticks to is simple: a rider, an elephant, and a path. The brain is like a person riding an elephant. The elephant is very irrational and emotional but very strong. The rider, on the other hand, is very smart and rational but weak and sometimes indecisive.

Picture this rider and elephant walking along a path. If the path changes, for example if it’s blocked by a fallen tree, then the rider and elephant will be forced to change direction, even if neither of them actually want to.

In order to change someone’s behavior, you should appeal not only to the analytical rider, but also to the emotional elephant. You should also shape the path to make the change easier.

Brown elephant walking through a plain
The elephant is strong and emotional. Photo by elCarito on Unsplash

I resumed the strange habit of running because my rider, my elephant, and the path were all encouraged to make the switch.

Rally the herd

One way to “shape the path” for change is to show the people that you’re looking to change that “everyone else is doing it”. That’s why tip jars at coffee shops are never empty, even at the start of the day. An empty tip jar sends the message that no one tips and is easy to ignore. A tip jar with a few $5 bills and lots of change is much harder for customers to overlook.

Tip jar on counter with money in it
You don’t want to be the only one not to tip, do you? Photo by Kody Gautier on Unsplash

The main reason that I first signed up for this race was that my coworker suggested that we do it as a team. I definitely would not have done this race on my own.

Shrink the change

Heath and Heath explain that one way to motivate the elephant is to make the “ask” as small as possible. They tear apart the U.S. food pyramid, saying that it is hard to understand and completely overwhelming. They then tell the story of a campaign to convince the public to drink 1% milk instead of whole milk. That caused a significant drop in the intake of saturated fat, because it was a much more manageable change than obeying the food pyramid. 

Who cares about the cookies? If you want to be healthy, make sure the milk is 1%. Photo by Elliot Banks on Unsplash

If my coworker had asked me to sign up for a marathon instead of a 5K, I probably would have told him no, even if the rest of the team was doing it. That’s a huge commitment. This helped my stubborn elephant get moving.

Script the critical moves

Switch touched on the phenomenon of decision paralysis. For example, a gourmet shop offered samples of 6 different jams one day and 24 different jams the next day. Customers who saw only 6 jams were 10 times more likely to make a purchase than those who saw 24. This is because the analytical rider doesn’t have the energy to analyze all 24 jams to make the best choice, and thus decided to make no choice at all.

Try our gourmet jams! Just don’t try too many of them or you won’t buy any. Photo by Bernard Tuck on Unsplash

My coworker helped my rider by suggesting a specific race. He didn’t give a vague suggestion that we should all get into running. He gave a simple option of yes or no. Not much analysis required.

I helped my rider by finding a 5K training plan then adding it into my calendar. There was a bit of up-front planning required but after that, I was just following the script.

Point to the destination

The authors cite ambitious, black-and-white goals as a great way to direct the rider. As an example, BP once publicly announced a goal of “no more dry wells”, which was downright impossible, yet it led to significantly reduced exploration costs.

Oil well at sunset
Instead of “lower exploration costs by 80%”, how about “no dry wells”? Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Soon after I signed up for the 5K, my coworker asked me what my goal was, and I blurted out “25 minutes”. It was an arbitrary goal but it was black and white: I would either run a sub-25 5k or I wouldn’t. Late in my training, I analyzed my training data and it looked bleak. My goal was to run five kilometers at about 5 minutes each, but in my 70 km of training that I had done so far, I hadn’t even reached that pace once. (See my original tweet)

But somehow, that black-and-white goal stuck in my mind during my race and I’m pleased to say that against all odds, I finished in 24:54.



In other words, I not only took up running again, but I absolutely embraced it. I did this because my rider was directed, my elephant was motivated, and my path was shaped.

More than just for running

I’ve used my return to running as an illustration, but obviously the techniques in this book can be applied to so much more. Whether you want to make a switch with yourself, your family, your company, or the world, Switch contains practical advice for changing riders, elephants, and paths!

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