Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman shares 5 key insights from her new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Listen to the audio version—read by Katy herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
Tailored attacks work better than one-size-fits-all solutions
I’ll start with some bad news: Most attempts at change fail. Part of it is that change is hard, but a more helpful explanation is that we don’t typically think strategically about change. Instead, we try to deploy one-size-fits-all solutions, like setting “big audacious goals” or “visualizing success.”
I’ve discovered that change comes most readily when you size up what’s standing in your way and then tailor your solution to match that obstacle. Let me use a simple example that I’ll come back to a few times because it’s so relatable: Say the change you want to make is getting yourself to the gym regularly.
If you’re not getting to the gym because you find workouts miserable, then the best way to change your habits and build a workout routine will be really different than if you love exercise, but just keep forgetting to plan time for the gym.
I was trained as an engineer, and I’ve found that thinking about change like an engineer comes in handy. You have to figure out what forces are working against you, and then science has lots of insights to offer about what exactly you can do to overcome those particular obstacles.
Fresh starts are an ideal time to kick-start change
About a decade ago, I gave a talk about nudging behavior change at Google, and I got a great question: An executive in the audience asked me if there was an ideal time to encourage positive change, some moment when people are naturally primed to take the leap. The answer is yes.
You’re probably familiar with New Year’s resolutions, but what you may not know is that the New Year is just one well-known moment when we experience what my collaborators and I have come to call “the fresh start effect.” At New Year’s, the end of one year gives the sense that we have a new beginning. Last year, maybe you meant to quit smoking or cook more for your family and you didn’t manage to, but this New Year’s you say, “That was the old me, and this is the new me, and the new me can do it.” You have the sense that the slate has been wiped clean. You’re also more likely to step back and think about the big picture of your life during moments that feel like a chapter break in your narrative. Those chapter break moments also exist at the start of other new cycles, like the start of a new week or month, a birthday or holiday, or the start of springtime.
We’re naturally drawn to make changes around fresh start dates. Research has shown that when you move to a new home or community, change is also more likely to take hold, in part because it’s easier to break bad habits when old haunts and harmful triggers are removed.
I think what’s really interesting, though, is that we can encourage change more effectively when we point out fresh starts that might otherwise go unnoticed, and encourage people to pursue change on those dates. In one study, my collaborators and I invited nearly two thousand people who weren’t saving adequately for retirement to either sign up for a savings plan now or on a future date. That future date fell on either their birthday or the start of spring, but we randomized whether we mentioned the fresh start. So, if your birthday was in three months, a coin flip would determine whether we invited you to “start saving in three months” or to “start saving after your birthday.” What we found is that just mentioningfresh starts in these invitations increased the likelihood people said “yes” to opening a retirement account, and ultimately, mentioning birthdays or the start of spring in our mailings increased people’s retirement savings by 20 to 30 percent over the following eight months.
You’re more likely to step back and think about the big picture of your life during moments that feel like a chapter break in your narrative.
If we can capitalize on the motivation produced by fresh starts, we’ll be more likely to kick-start change. Of course, then the problem becomes how to use that motivation to produce more than an ephemeral change.
Choose an enjoyable path than a highly effective one
Research by Ayelet Fischbach of the University of Chicago and her former student Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell suggests that when we want to kick-start change and the activity required is a bit of a chore, most of us make a crucial mistake. Take my example of building a gym habit: Typically, when someone decides they’d like to get fit, they look for the most effective workout—say, the maximally efficient Stairmaster—and that’s what they try to do from the start. But a small minority of people take a different approach. They look for the most enjoyable way to get in a workout—say, by taking a Zumba class with a friend—even if it doesn’t maximize calories burned.
It turns out that this second group is onto something. Fishbach and Woolley have shown that if we’re encouraged to pursue change in a way that’s fun rather than effective, we persist longer. That’s because a common obstacle to change is something economists call “present bias,” meaning we tend to care a lot more about instant gratification than long-term rewards. As a result, it’s really hard (and rare) for us to keep doing something day in and day out that’s unpleasant in order to achieve a distant goal. Pretty quickly we tend to throw in the towel if the experience itself is a drag. This is true when it comes to studying harder in school, eating right, exercising, etc. People who pursue their goals in ways that are fun stick to them longer because they aren’t fighting an uphill battle. Present bias isn’t working against them.
I did some research years ago on one technique that can help make change fun, and I call it “temptation bundling.” The idea is you only let yourself enjoy a temptation, like binge-watching lowbrow TV, while pursuing a long-term goal that you normally find to be a bit of a drag, like exercising. I’ve used temptation bundling to stop wasting time at home on lowbrow entertainment and to turn workouts into a treat I crave. Some people temptation bundle their favorite snacks with studying, their favorite podcasts with household chores, and red wine with cooking fresh meals. It’s just one way that you can turn present bias from a challenge into an asset.
You might want to form an advice club
This idea comes from research by a brilliant psychologist named Lauren Eskreis-Winkler of Northwestern University. Her work suggests that when people are struggling to achieve a goal, most of us think the best way we can help is by offering words of wisdom. But Eskreis-Winkler wondered if we had the formula backwards. She’d noticed in interviews with struggling students and professionals that many people who aren’t hitting it out of the park can actually generate lots of great insights about what might help them achieve more—they just lack confidence, motivation, and a reason to introspect. Eskreis-Winkler had the brilliant idea that it might be helpful to flip the usual script and ask goal strivers to give other people advice.
By putting someone up on a pedestal through inviting them to coach their peers, a few things might happen. First, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a confidence boost to be asked for your words of wisdom. It conveys that someone believes you’ve got real know-how and capability. Second, giving your peers advice may cause you to introspect in ways you wouldn’t otherwise, and dredge up insights about what could work for someone else in similar shoes that you wouldn’t have bothered to consider if you weren’t in the position of an advisor. Finally, when you encourage someone else to make a change, you’ll feel like a hypocrite if you don’t take your own advice, and you’re more likely to believe it’s worthwhile advice too after you’ve said it because of something psychologists refer to as “the saying is believing effect.”
Eskreis-Winkler has now run numerous studies showing that asking people to give advice actually improves their ownoutcomes. I even got to work on one project with her showing the benefits of this tactic, where nearly two thousand high school students were randomly assigned to either a control condition or to spend ten minutes writing down study tips for their younger peers. We found that the advice-givers got higher grades in math and in the subjects they’d told us they most hoped to improve in that quarter—just from that ten-minute exercise. The effects were small, but robust. You can see how Alcoholics Anonymous’ well-known system of assigning new members sponsors probably not only helps the newbies, but also helps the sponsors.
So if you’re looking for a way to improve your own outcomes, you might try forming an advice club. That’s a group of people with similar goals that agree to ping one another when anyone runs into a bump in the road and could use some advice. Getting peer support when you’re down will surely help you, but you’ll also likely benefit from giving advice.
The best, most durable habits are elastic habits
For years, I was sure that the best way to build a habit was through routinization. If you asked me how to build a robust meditation habit, I would have told you that you should always aim to meditate at the same time of day, and do that as consistently as possible for as long as possible, rewarding yourself for each success.
My collaborators and I were so confident of this that we ran a study to prove it. We tested two ways of building lasting habits with about 2,500 Google employees who signed up for a month-long program designed to help them exercise regularly. We randomized people in the program into two key conditions. One group was encouraged to make all of their visits to the gym at the same time of day. About 85% of this group’s workouts were at that same, consistent time—the ideal time of their choice. The other group was encouraged to mix up the timing of their gym visits, and only about half of this group’s workouts during the month were at the same, consistent time.
Both our routine and flexible groups visited the gym at roughly the same frequency during the month-long program, and we had offered them small cash rewards for exercising. But then the program ended, the rewards ended, and we looked to see which group kept going to the gym more—who had built a more lasting habit? We were amazed to find that it was actually the group with the more variable schedule, not the group that had been so consistent about their workout times. And when we dug into our data, it became clear what had happened.
We hadn’t been totally off to think that consistency breeds habit; the routine group did actually keep going to the gym at their “regular” time slightly more often than the flexible group. But, the problem was that if they missed that “regular” workout time—say, a 7 am workout—they didn’t reschedule it. The flexible group, though, would still get to the gym even if they missed their ideal workout time. If they didn’t get to the gym at 7 am, they went at 3 pm instead. Overall, they went more often and had a more robust habit.
Our study showed that too much rigidity is the enemy of habit. If you have a brittle routine, an “I can only go to the gym or meditate or study Spanish at this time” type of routine, then when life throws you a curveball, everything falls apart. But, if you have an elastic habit, an “I’ll get to the gym, meditate, or study Spanish no matter what” routine, you’ll be more able to withstand the inevitable bumps in the road and stick to your habits. In other words, elastic habits will get you farther.
Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, a research initiative dedicated to advancing the science of behavior change.
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