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To Make a Positive Change, Make it Emotional

  • Matt Bell
  • 2011 6 Oct
To Make a Positive Change, Make it Emotional

Making an important lasting change in our life can be tough.  We vow to get out of debt, but old habits are hard to break and we just can’t seem to make progress.

In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath offer helpful insights into the challenges of change, along with practical steps for succeeding.

What often gets in the way is the battle that takes place between our emotional side and our rational side.  To emphasize which side usually wins, they use an Elephant as a metaphor for our emotions and a Rider as a metaphor for our rational thoughts.  The Rider may appear to be the one in charge, but the Elephant, with its sheer heft, can easily resist anytime the Rider tugs on the reins.

In my first post about Switch, I described one of three surprises the Heaths came across in researching the process of change: What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.  Being crystal clear about the destination and scripting the critical steps to the destination helps overcome the Rider’s tendency to over-analyze.

Now let’s address their second surprise: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.  To keep a beefy Elephant moving in the right direction requires more than logic and will power; it requires an emotional appeal.

Find the Feeling

The Heaths cite research showing that “Change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.”

They explain that most people think change happens in this order: Analyze, think, and then change.  In reality, though, it happens like this: See, feel, and then change.

In other words, trying to bring about a change through analytical arguments or how-to guidance alone isn’t enough. To get out of debt, for example, you need some knowledge about what it’s going to take, but you also need to infuse the desired change with emotion – how you’ll feel once you’re out of debt.

Which Emotions Are Best?

You could tell yourself that if you don’t get out of debt, things will only get worse.  You could lose it all – your car could be repossessed, your house could be lost to foreclosure.  And sometimes, the Heaths note, negative emotions are needed to get us moving in the right direction.  The fear associated with an eviction notice may be what it takes to get us talking with our mortgage lender.

However, in most cases, the Heaths say the research is clear that positive emotions are more helpful in bringing about a desired change.  They tend to foster creativity, openness to new ideas, and other traits that are helpful in bringing about our desired change.

Want to get out of debt?  Dwell on how good it will feel to be free of debt once and for all.

Shrink the Change

Making a big change, like wiping out $20,000 of credit card debt (something I know all about), can feel overwhelming.  The Elephant in us would rather numb the pain at the mall.

That’s why it’s important to set yourself up for small wins.  It feels good to make noticeable progress.

When tackling debt, I recommend going after the lowest balance debt first, regardless of interest rate.  It’s the most easily attainable win as you work toward becoming completely debt-free.

While it will help to pay more than the minimum due, that, too, can feel overwhelming.  That’s why I encourage people to “fix” their paymentsas a first step.  That’s a very simple step anyone can take and it’ll really speed the process of getting out of debt.

We Are, Therefore We Do

One of the Heaths’ most interesting findings has to do with how our identity drives our behavior.

Parts of our identity are set at birth – our nationality, our ethnicity.  But parts can be chosen, such as our occupation.  The Heaths describe several examples where change came about through the conscious cultivation of a new identity, such as the factory workers who were encouraged to see themselves as inventors and became amazingly creative at coming up with ideas for new products and finding new ways of running the factory more efficiently.

I believe very firmly in this idea.  As I’ve written before, our culture conditions us to see ourselves as consumers.  And yet, by definition, to consume is to use up, squander, and spend wastefully.  That goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have so much debt and so little savings.

Consciously rejecting that identity and seeing ourselves as builderscan help us use money in constructive ways that enable us to build lives of meaning, purpose, and joy.

What About You?

How do you see the Heaths’ guidance about our emotions impacting your life, either in a change you’ve already made or in one you’re working on right now?

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, including the brand new "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: