'Shape a Path' for Change

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

April 19, 2011
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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?'

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