The new book How to Change by Katy Milkman is well suited to our moment. Its premise is that research provides techniques for making the changes that we want in our lives and our work—from losing weight to combating procrastination.
New chapters in our lives are especially ripe moments for tackling such changes, according to Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And, lo and behold, with America’s emergence from the pandemic and the re-establishment of something approximating normal life, we are all gifted such an opportunity. “I don’t know when we’ll have another one like it,” Milkman told The New York Times.
She contends that there’s no one-size-fits all approach to changing your habits. But Milkman suggests a number of approaches that her research and that of others supports:
- The “fresh start” effect. Whether it’s New Year’s Day, or your birthday, or the start of a new week, a new job, a move, or an end to Covid mask mandates, there are myriad milestones that allow you to have the feeling of a blank slate, and increase the chances that the change you’re pursuing sticks. “We’re more likely to pursue change on dates that feel like new beginnings because these moments help us overcome a common obstacle to goal initiation: the sense that we’ve failed before and will, thus, fail again,” Milkman writes. (p. 22)
- Temptation bundling. Rather than counting on your willpower to power you through to long-term goals, you can make any short-term drudgery involved more appealing by bundling something pleasing with it. In one experiment, people exercised more when they were given a free audiobook to listen to at the gym. Milkman quotes lyrics from “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap! The job’s a game.”
- Commitment devices. “Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedom in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device,” she explains. (p. 68) Examples include putting smaller plates in your kitchen so you eat smaller portions, or promising colleagues to deliver an optional work report by a specific date. Cash commitment devices—where you promise to pay a person or charity some amount of money if you don’t achieve a goal, like not smoking for a month—are more extreme, and generally more successful. Simple pledges also can work. In one study, asking doctors to sign a pledge not to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics and post it in their waiting rooms cut their inappropriate prescriptions by one third.
- Cue-based planning. People are much more likely to do something when there’s a cue at the right moment for them to act on it—whether a calendar alarm or person reminding them, or an internal mental prod. Researchers, for example, found that people were much more likely to put on their seatbelt if reminded as they were getting into the car, as opposed to five minutes earlier. Flossing after you brush your teeth can be a more effective way to get in the habit, one study found, seemingly because putting down your toothbrush can be an effective reminder that you should floss. People are significantly more likely to vote if asked about when they plan to go and how they’ll get there, and more likely to get a flu vaccination at work if asked to write down the date and time they planned to get a shot. “Encouraging people to make a plan, whether over the phone or in the privacy of their own homes, is an underappreciated way to combat flaking out,” Milkman writes. (p. 108)
- Nudging. Setting good defaults—like forcing people to opt out of saving for retirement, rather than having to opt in—is known as “nudging” and can be an effective way to get people to change.
- Repetition. Repeating a desired behavior at a regular time of day means you’re more likely to continue over time. But Milkman’s research suggests that the habit can be even more lasting if you’re flexible about when you do it—so you’ll keep it up even when something forces you to change your schedule. Also, giving yourself license to skip a few times can decrease the likelihood that you’ll give up entirely if you aren’t perfect. “Too much rigidity is the enemy of a good habit,” she writes. (p. 135)
- Confidence. It turns out that you’re more likely to change if you have confidence that you can. One striking finding is that giving other people advice is highly effective at motivating you yourself to achieve goals. “After you say something to someone else, you’re more likely to believe it yourself,” Milkman explains. (p. 152) She recommends an advice club, where you and friends give each other advice, or asking yourself what advice you might give a colleague when you face a problem. Mentoring programs also serve this purpose.
- Social influence. Research shows that we can be highly influenced by the behaviors of people around us. One study, for example. found that people whose friends went to retirement savings seminars subsequently became better at saving for retirement themselves. An effective tactic is to “copy and paste” the specific habits of people you know who you want to emulate.
To be sure…
- As Milkman told the Times, with the return to normalcy, “There’s an opportunity to rethink. What do we want a work day to look like?” How to Change doesn’t get too deep into specific management techniques or professional strategies, so it requires some additional thinking about how the research might apply more directly to work.
- Some of the findings about habit and growth mindsets are already very familiar to lay readers, thanks to books like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Mindset by Carol Dweck.
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- A campaign to reduce sudden infant death syndrome succeeded in raising the percentage of US infants put to sleep on their backs (a key way to prevent SIDS) from 17% to 73%, a remarkable increase compared to other public health efforts. Its effectiveness was presumably linked to the change being prompted at the blank slate of a child’s birth.
- Undergraduates were more likely to visit the gym in January, earlier in the week, after a school holiday, at the start of a new semester, or after their birthdays.
- Researchers found that 36% of attempts to make a major life change like a career switch occurred after the people had moved homes, while only 13% of failed attempts followed a move.
- Slumping baseball players picked up their performance if they were traded midseason and their stats were reset, while players on a roll that had their stats wiped clean by such a trade did worse afterward.
- Volunteer Wikipedia editors who randomly were given symbolic awards were 13% more likely to be active a year later.
- The average adult every day forgets three things, such as birthdays or chores.
- An IT consultant who proactively changed the prescription default at the University of Pennsylvania's health system to favor generic drugs singlehandedly increased the generic prescription rate from 75% to 98% overnight, since doctors rarely bother to override the default.
- Housekeepers who were told that their work helped them get the recommended daily exercise lost two pounds on average and had lower blood pressure after a month. “Our expectations shape our outcomes,” writes Milkman.
The bottom line is that How to Change is a very readable survey of the research on how to shift your habits and achieve your goals. Even if the specific professional applications aren’t totally fleshed out, it’s bound to be thought-provoking for most people at this major moment of reset.
You can watch Milkman’s 2017 TEDx talk here.
You can also read all of our book briefings here.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.