Have you ever struggled with how to change your habits or behavior? If you’re like me, it’s not a matter of knowing what to do or even how to do it. I know how to get 6-pack abs…everyone knows that abs are made in the kitchen. It’s simply a matter of eating right combined with the appropriate amount of exercise focused in proper places. So why don’t I do it? This is where Katy Milkman can help. Milkman is a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and she is also the host of popular behavioral economics podcast, Choiceology. She is also the former president of the international Society for Judgment and Decision Making, and is the co-founder and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, a research center whose work is being featured by Freakonomics Radio.
Milkman grew up in the Washington D.C. area. The daughter of an economic consultant and government civil servant, she says that she always knew she wanted to do something that would contribute to society in a positive way. As a young child she says she wanted to be a brain surgeon. That shifted as she got older and eventually her interest in mathematics led her to study economics.
Like many people, the path to discovering her true passion wasn’t a linear one. She attended Princeton set on earning a BA with a focus in economics, but once there, she discovered that she didn’t like the classes that she was required to take. She started to notice her roommate’s class schedule as she worked toward a degree in engineering, and many of these classes seemed useful and piqued Milkman’s interest. She decided to take summer school so she could switch majors.
This new path toward earning her engineering degree required her to write a senior thesis which got her hooked on the field of research. She finished her bachelor’s degree studying Operations Research and American Studies, before earning a PhD in computer science and business from Harvard. Milkman now works as a behavioral scientist in the academia world, and she counts herself as incredibly lucky to do the work she does.
Over the course of her career, Milkman has worked with and advised numerous brands and organizations on how to create positive change. She has worked with heavy hitters like Google, the Red Cross, the U.S. Department of Defense, Walmart, 24 Hour Fitness and more. Milkman has also written numerous pieces on behavioral science for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Scientific American.
She has just released her new book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You are to Where You Want to Be which uses research, science, and an understanding of human nature to help readers elicit positive changes in their lives. Her book is incredibly intuitive and useful, and through the course of our conversation, I was able to piece together some of my favorite bits of advice from her. Some tips:
Choose Your Moment:
Milkman says that we have natural moments in our lives where changing, or starting something new is more organic and natural. It might depend on the type of change that you’re looking to make. She mentions that there’s pretty much never a bad time to start making healthier choices, but if you’re considering making a major move that might cause upheaval to your life, that there are opportune times to think about making those kinds of bigger moves.
“Say that you have decided that you’d like to change but you haven’t quite gotten the energy to start so you need some sort of launchpad that’s going to get you over the hump to actually take it to the next level from an abstract idea to an action,” she says. “When there’s a moment in your life that feels like a breaking point between chapters–and it turns out the way we think about time in our lives is as if we’re characters in a novel–whenever you open a new chapter, and it can be about as small as a start of a week or more momentous like celebrating a birthday, starting a new year, starting a new job, moving to a new city or home…all of those moments make us feel like we have a fresh start and a clean slate because we have this new beginning in our lives… We also tend to step back and think bigger picture at those moments, because they’re breaking points and they just cause us to step back from the mundane of every day and think about our goals. Those are really good moments to kickstart change.”
A lot of these in between chapter moments are perfect opportunities to wipe the slate clean. Maybe someone has just gone through a breakup and it’s an optimal time to begin a therapy journey. Maybe someone has moved to a new city and it’s a perfect time to try joining a sports club, or a book group. Times when we’re in transition can naturally be fertile ground for trying something new. If you’re already navigating a new life moment, what’s one more new thing?
Be Decision Ready:
There is an asterisk to the statement above and that’s that while ending and beginning chapters can be good times for change, Milkman says that there is value in making sure you’re ‘decision ready’ and not just making a choice out of impulse, or to try and find normalcy again. For example, if someone is experiencing grief or trauma, it might not be the best time to launch a new career.
“Are you sort of in a state of mind where you really feel like you can step back and reflect and be calm, cool, and collected and at your best for making whatever plans or decisions that you face?” she posits. “It could be time pressure that means you’re not decision ready, or fatigue or emotional trauma. Maybe your finances are a mess. All of those things are a red flag on making a really big decision that has major consequences. So you know, if all you’re trying to do is get into a gym routine or something I wouldn’t say I’ve got to caution you against that at that moment, but if it’s a bigger life decision like, I want to pivot to a new career or moving to a new city, or spending time with a different group of friends, or making a major financial investment, then those moments when you’re in a hot state you’re probably not decision ready… and so it’s not a good idea [then.]”
Make it Fun:
Once you know that you’re decision ready, there’s a huge amount of value in making this new activity a fun one. Whether you’re considering a brand-new job, a major move, or just getting into a healthier lifestyle, Milkman says that when you can make a new attempt at change fun, you’re more likely to stick with it.
“It’s common when you have some big new ambition–some big new goal–to think just as Nike has taught us to, I’m going to just do it. Let me find the most effective way to push through to this new goal and go for it that way… say you want to start an exercise habit, you walk into the gym and you’re like, let me find the most intense workout that will get me to my goal, I’m going to do the Stairmaster as hard as I can. That’s a really common decision that people would make. It turns out that a better way to approach a big new goal and try to figure out what to do first is actually to try to figure out how to do it in the way that is most fun. And the reason for that is that a lot of us don’t achieve our goals because they feel like a chore. We focus on that immediate gratification and if it’s not feeling good, we don’t persist. So, if we can find ways to pursue our goals that actually feel good in the moment, that are fun, we are much more likely to persist. This is a really important insight because it’s intuitive at some level but most of us still don’t do it the right way. So, if you go to the gym and you do Zumba, you’re going to have a great time and you’re much more likely to come back because that wasn’t an aversive experience.”
Milkman says that it’s great to incentivize yourself with things you like. She said only eating your favorite meals or listening to your favorite music while you do the work is just one of many ways you can motivate yourself to stick with something new and this brings us to…
The Temptation Bundle:
Not only can pairing tasks with fun motivate us to do them, but pairing them with things we find tempting can be even better. We all have vices and temptations… the things we try to stay away from. It’s only human to cave occasionally, and get that donut, or buy that new clothing item or gadget we’ve had our eye on. If we can optimize our humanity and make it work for us even better. Milkman says pairing a temptation with the work you’re setting out to accomplish is a great way to trick your brain into enjoying the work.
“One way to motivate yourself to do something that feels like a chore is by linking it with something that you find tremendously tempting and enjoyable,” she says. “So, you can create these bundles that basically make it alluring to do whatever it is that you’ve been dreading. So, if you really hate doing household chores only letting yourself listen to your favorite podcast or a tempting audiobook while you’re doing those household chores can be a way to make it pleasant to get things done in your home.”
Milkman gives other suggestions like only allowing yourself to binge your favorite TV show while you’re exercising at the gym, or if you’re a student, only getting your favorite food or coffee indulgence when you’re on your way to study. In these ways she says the activity you have to complete that felt like a chore, now becomes alluring.
When it comes to making a change in our lives, Milkman stresses timing and self-awareness. No one wants to be forced to change. Tell someone they need to do something, and they’ll kick right back and tell you they don’t need to do it. Giving ourselves some grace with change is hugely important. No human being can go from zero to sixty and stay at sixty. Allowing ourselves to move into change in a slow and steady way, and to make it enjoyable is the key.
“There is rarely a one size fits all solution [to change,]” she says. “It depends on what the obstacle is that’s blocking change. Whichever one is obstructing progress you actually need to tailor your solution to that obstacle. There’s some place in everyone’s life where they’d like to get better, so even the person you most admire, there’s something they’re working to change. We all have something. Maybe some of us have more momentous things we want to change than others but everybody’s striving. That’s part of being human…to be working toward some goal, some aspiration to be better.”
More with Katy Milkman here: