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On the Emotional Shape of Change

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emotionalshapeChip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard reports a useful analysis of the emotional shape of projects.* At the start, spirits are high. As you get stuck into the project, people start to get bogged down – things go wrong, unforeseen obstacles emerge – and the initial positive emotional tone drops. As you get towards the end, when you’ve worked through the problems and the finish line is in sight, spirits rise again. These three phases are labeled Hope, Insight, and Confidence.

The first thing to note is that just recognising this shape is useful. It stops you minding too much when the initial euphoria wears off to be replaced by challenge and difficulty. Oh yes, you think, it’s not that it’s all going horribly wrong, it’s just that phase of having to figure out a load more stuff than we had identified at the outset. That would be normal. In this sense, the graph resonated a lot with the experience I had recently written about of living with imperfection.

The second thing is the stroke of genius in labelling the middle phase ‘insight’. Because whilst the lived experience may be full of brain-cudgelling and consternation, the reward for this effort is understanding all the things you need to sort out to bring your plan to completion. It takes the emotional cost of living through this phase and recasts it as investment.

Chip and Dan Heath introduce this idea in the context of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. Accepting that things don’t always go right first time (or rather, that it is the exception rather than the rule when they do) is part of that emotional resilience that helps people persist in the face of setback. It’s not that I’m a failure, as the fixed mindset would lead me to worry, it’s that I need to keep trying.

And this recognition not only motivates persistence, it mitigates the emotional pain of the insight phase, though only to an extent. You’re no longer haunted by the fear of failure, which has to be good for how you feel about the work, and you’re encouraged to muster patience, which is a good counterbalance for frustration. But it’s still going to involve some proper cognitive engagement, which as Daniel Kahneman tells us will get us frowning as our slow System 2 brains chew over the nitty-gritty.

I was also struck by the similarity of the shape of this journey with the classic attention span graph. The diminishing quality of attention and the sinking mood are both correlated with depleting cognitive resources. And the end effect lifts you in both whether the finish line you are galloping towards is the completion of the project or just the chance to stop and have a bit of a rest.

So if any of your endeavours are feeling a bit bogged down right now, don’t despair. Focus instead on what the challenges are teaching you. This is the opportunity to develop insight that will not only help you in this project, but in the future ones you have yet to start.


* They do credit the person they learned this from, but I’ve forgotten his name. I’ve also lent my copy of the book to someone so I can’t easily check. I’ll add a comment at a later date when I get the book back!
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