How to make change in your life — for good
Katy Milkman
Wharton professor, Choiceology podcast host and author of How to Change

Why is change so hard? Whether it’s exercising more, eating healthier, saving more money, or making a big career move, often our most well-intentioned efforts to achieve our goals fall flat. But it doesn’t have to be this way. First, we need to recognize that change is not one-size-fits all. Then, tailor our strategy and behaviors to get to where we want to be. That’s according to Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of Charles Schwab’s Choiceology podcast. Katy joins us to talk about her new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. We discuss the common forces that hold us back from achieving our goals (like laziness, procrastination, and lack of confidence) and the science-backed – and fun! – tricks and tips to overcome them. Katy shares simple strategies to get your head in the game and finally make the changes you want in life – for good.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How an experiment with Google employees led to the surprising discovery that building too much rigidity into our routines is the enemy of good habits (flexibility is key!)
  • How to use “temptation bundling” to coax yourself into making change feel easier
  • Ideas for building specific cues and triggers into your day to help you overcome the “flake out” problem
  • The power of the “fresh start effect” and how to harness it to make positive change
  • Techniques for turning laziness and procrastination into assets that will help you meet your goals
  • Why giving solicited advice, rather than receiving it, can be the ultimate confidence booster
  • How a post-Covid world presents a rare collective opportunity to change for the better


For more information, visit https://www.katymilkman.com/


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

How to make change in your life — for good

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and so is making change from setting a new workout routine to making a career move. Why is it that our goals can feel so uncomfortable and so difficult to achieve? Katy Milkman is here to break it all down. She's a Behavioral Scientist and Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is also the co-director of the university's behavior change for good initiative.

Katy is no stranger to podcasts either. She's the host of Choice Ology, Charles Schwab's Behavioral Economics Podcast. She just came out with a fantastic new book called How To Change The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want To Be. She joins us to talk about the forces that hold us back from achieving our goals. She shares science-backed, innovative, and guess-even fun tricks and tips that will get you closer to making the changes you want in your life. Have a listen.

Katy, it's so great to have you here today.

Katy Milkman: I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Emily: Let's start by talking about why change can feel so hard. Honestly, I feel like I'm just failing over and over and over again. I'd love to hear from you what are some of the common forces that are really holding us back to create change?

Katy: Yes, it's a great question, and you are not alone. Change is really, really hard even when you have all of the best science behind you, and all the tips and tricks. There's always setbacks. I think that's a big, important lesson for everyone to hear. One major obstacle to change that is extremely common is that we tend to be really set in our ways, we have habits and routines that propel us forward, and so inertia is against change. That's a human trait that's common to us. We're all looking for the path of least resistance, and because of that, we tend to build habits, and routines that are consistent where we don't look up a lot, and it's hard to shift out of them.

Other barriers to change that are really common to, though, include impulsivity, so we look for whatever is instantly gratifying. We overweight those immediate rewards of say eating something unhealthy or sitting on the couch instead of going to the gym, or screaming at a kid who's irritating us instead of being patient. All of those things, even though we know it's not good for us in the long run, the instant gratification we get from that action overrides what's good for us. There's lots of other obstacles too, but let me pause there and say, it's part of the human experience to have these barriers to change. That's why we find it so hard, but there are things we can do to overcome them.

Emily: I may or may not have done a few of those things that you've mentioned, probably more times than I'd like to admit. You talk about habits being really innately human. How can we start to build these positive habits into our lives to make sure that the changes that we want to make are actually going to stick?

Katy: The biggest lesson I've learned from my career studying behavior change is that there's not a one-size-fits-all solution, it really depends on what the obstacle is that is holding you back. If it's confidence, for instance, you don't believe you can, there's really different solutions than if it's impulsivity or simply inertia, bad habits, or even forgetting, which is actually a really common obstacle that we tend to underweight and undervalue the importance of. It depends is the answer, but I'd be happy to dive into a few techniques that I think are often helpful.

Emily: That would be great.

Katy: Let me start with one of my favorites, which is, I think a common misconception about change is that if you have some new goal that most of us think the best way to pursue, it is like to focus on what will be the most effective way to get to a solution. For instance, you want to teach your kid to read, maybe write. Then you were like, what's the fastest path there? What's the set of things that I could do that would be most effective, even if they're going to be really miserable for both of us or you want to start an exercise routine, like let me head straight for the Stairmaster. It's super effective, or if I want to eat healthy, I'm going to only kale because that's the healthiest food.

We go for that effectiveness in building our plans, but it turns out a better strategy, and one that few people take is actually to try to find the most fun way to pursue the goal. Rather than heading straight for the maximally effective and punishing Stairmaster at the gym, you might choose the Zumba class. Rather than choosing kale maybe you go for smoothies that are good for you, but delightful. Rather than choosing the most brutal reading exercise Rubric, you find a way to make reading fun by choosing stories that you and your child absolutely adore, and work in a little bit of learning on the side.

A key insight is that when we make something fun, we're actually more likely to persist research shows, and we have the wrong intuition, we think if I just grin and bear it, that's how I'll achieve my goals but actually, we give up when we tried to do things the hard way. If we try to do it the fun way, a way that's actually enjoyable, we persist more.

Emily: I think that's something that we've all probably learned over the past year is that flexibility is also very important nothing, when, as any of us had planned so can you talk about the importance of flexibility and trying to achieve some of these changes?

Katy: Absolutely. I will say the importance of this came as a bit of a surprise to me after I'd read the literature on habit, which really emphasizes the importance of building habits through repeating the same behaviors under the same circumstances, over and over again, and finding rewards and if you've read bestsellers, like the Power of Habit, or atomic habits, you've probably seen the habit loop, which is really, an accurate representation of what we've learned about how habits are formed from animal models and from research on humans over the last 50 years.

I ended up making a discovery through a project I did with Google about the importance of flexibility when you're building those habits. Rather than rigidly pursuing our habits by at the same time, every day trying to stick to a goal, what I found in an experiment, my collaborators and I ran with Google, where we were trying to build exercise habits and thousands of their employees was that what worked best was actually to reward people for trying to exercise at different times, not always at the same time.

We compared two groups of people, one who we rewarded for really routine consistent exercise, always at the same plan time that they told us was best. Another group was rewarded if the exercise of that plan time, or if they exercised at other times. We did this for about a month to kick-start habit and then we let go and looked at what happened to the two groups, but the key discovery was the people who had built flexibility into their routines, if they didn't make it to the gym at their usual time, say 7:00 AM, they still got there so they'd show up at noon that day instead.

Emily: Right.

Katy: The other folks were a little bit more robust and going at their consistent time, but they didn't go at all if they didn't make it at the usual time. Having an end if only goal doesn't end up being as effective as, under any circumstances or no matter what kinds of goals. That was a really, I think, important finding, we aren't always going to be able to do the thing that we want to do, whether it's meditation or reading practice with our kids, or going for a jog, we're not always going to be able to do it at the same time, because life is a mess and so the most robust habits build in that flexibility to say, if my first best plan doesn't work, I'm still going to find a way to squeeze it in.

Emily: I love that and in your book, you talked about temptation and procrastination, and even laziness as being enemies to change. I was reassured to hear you say that these can actually be turned into assets that can actually help us to meet our goals so how can we do that?

Katy: Once we understand what's holding us back, we can turn that force in our favor and I talked a little bit already about making it fun to pursue our goals. That's one example of a way that we can flip temptation on its head so I've done some research on something I called temptation bundling, where you take something that you find alluring, but probably should do less of, and you align it or link it with something that is a bit of a chore.

Let me give you some examples to make this concrete. I only let myself listen to tempting audio novels like the Hunger Games, or the Twilight series books that I feel a little guilty indulging in but look forward to while I'm exercising, and I have friends who do this with Netflix shows that they binge-watch, they're only allowed to watch at the gym. Then you find yourself craving workouts and Time flies at the gym and you don't waste time on that indulgence, or you could bundle your favorite podcast listening with doing household chores.

Only let yourself have your favorite glass of wine while you're cooking a homemade meal for your family. Only let yourself enjoy some other indulgent snack walls or hitting the books if you're trying to study for some goal. There's all different ways that we can create these temptation bundles and when you do that, the thing that you're driving actually becomes alluring and you're using temptation as a hook to compel yourself to do the thing that you want to do in order to change. That's an example of turning temptation into a solution.

Emily: That's brilliant.

Katy: Thank you.

Emily: I love it. I love it. A lot of us really do lack confidence, we struggle with some insecurities, which sometimes really does hold us back from creating change. You say that actually giving solicited advice rather than receiving it can actually work to boost her confidence and help us to achieve more. I would love for you to elaborate on that for our listeners.

Katy: Absolutely. This is an insight from Lauren Eskers Winkler, who's a brilliant-- She's about to be a faculty member at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, a former postdoc at the Wharton School with me and PhD student at Penn. She realized that too often when people are struggling to achieve goals, we assume they don't know what it will actually take and we just put her arm around them and give them some advice, which is actually often demotivating because we're saying like, I must know better than you, even though you've been struggling and trying to achieve this for so long.

You really need my two seconds of introspection, leading to my wisdom and maybe if confidence is a barrier for a lot of people rather than knowledge, which she figured out when she was interviewing people struggling to achieve their goals and heard they had all these great insights. She thought, what if we flip the script and actually ask people to advise their peers who are trying to achieve similar goals and if we put them on the pedestal of saying, "Hey, can you give some advice to someone else?" First, they're going to introspect more, because they're going to feel like let me think about what will work and they might dredge up some insights that would be useful to them.

Second, they're going to have boosted confidence, because now they're being asked for wisdom and they're like, wow, somebody thinks I can do this and I know what I'm talking about. That's cool and finally, there's something called the saying is believing effect, where when you tell someone else advice and suggest they do something, you're more likely to actually feel like, gosh, I better follow this myself. You don't want to be a hypocrite.

We've done research showing, for instance, that if you ask kids in high school, to give some study advice to their younger peers, like how can you study more effectively at the start of the term, that actually helps the advisors, the kids who are asked to give the advice, improve their own grades. This advice-giving improves the advisor and we think it should be more widely used. It's something we can all use, if we realize, hey, maybe by forming an advice club or putting myself in a mentoring role around something that I'd like to achieve more in, I can actually boost my own performance and do a good deed for other people, too. It's a win-win.

Emily: Katy, I don't know about you but over the past year, I feel like I've become more forgetful than ever before. I can't seem to remember things anymore and you talked about forgetfulness as a silent killer, to our goals and our resolutions to create change. I'd love to hear from you some tips and tricks we can use to overcome this forgetfulness, especially for busy working parents who have much on their minds between work and what they're also balancing in life.

Katy: Yes, forgetting is really pernicious and we forget how big of a deal it is. I think we often underestimate its impact on getting things done that are important to us. One of the things that's most powerful and useful, I think, when it comes to combating forgetting is making a specific kind of plan that's been studied by NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, called an implementation intention.

Most of us when we have some goal or some intention, we just say, Oh, yes, I'm going to read with my kid more, I keep using that example. Go back to that one. I'm currently working with my son on learning to read my five-year-old, it's very salient to me. Imagine that, that's my only plan, I'm going to work on this more. That's the way most of us make plans but that doesn't really embed it deeply in memory, or make it likely that I'll follow through a better kind of plan is what Peter Gollwitzer would call an if-then plan.

A really concrete cue that I'm going to use to trigger reading. What we do in our household is every night after dinner, on the weekdays, I am going to spend 20 minutes doing reading exercises with my son, and that's more likely to lead to follow through because it prevents forgetting. Now I have a concrete time, that's a cue that's going to trigger my memory, oh, I just had dinner and this is the time that I said, every day I'm going to do reading and it can help me then actually build a habit or routine, that it is almost effortless.

It's really helpful for kids, by the way, who thrive on routine to have that consistency and when you do it, but when you build that if-then plan instead of the vague intention, you also have a concrete goal and a concrete action that you've said you'll take and it's going to feel worse if you fall back on that. Anytime you want to do something, it's really important to write down sort of that if-then statement, if this happens, or when this happens. That is when I will do the following and it's been proven to help us follow through on everything from voting to getting flu shots, to getting colonoscopies.

Emily: It's almost like a constant mind game that you're playing with yourself, between, trying to not forget, but trying to be flexible, like how do you balance those two things?

Katy: That's a great question. Well, when we build these kinds of routines, I think it's really important to have that flexibility and sort of the backup plan. My first best is after dinner, I will but, if that falls apart, and I am not able to do it that night, then there's a lot of different strategies you can take when you can have sort of your backup.

Oh, if it falls through for after dinner, then we'll do it right before bathtime that'll be the last thing we do or you can also have an emergency reserve, which is something one of my colleagues at Wharton, Marissa Sharif, has studied and emergency reserves are giving yourself a couple of get-out-of-jail-free cards. If you intend to do something say every day of the week, but you allow yourself a couple emergency reserves, like there's a disaster I really couldn't do it, you don't feel like you fall on as far off course if you have a miss and you actually end up sticking to your goals more effectively.

We do want to still have routines, and cues, and triggers, and things that will remind us to follow through and consistency but we also need that backup plan and also some flexibility to every once in a while fall off the wagon but get right back on the next day.

Emily: That's great. I definitely would need a few of those cards in my back pocket.

Katy: Exactly.

Emily: We all know the phrase timing is everything. Timing really is critical when it comes to starting something new. I think you called it the fresh start effect. Can you talk a little bit about how timing around a specific event or date can help to shift our perspective when it comes to changing behavior?

Katy: One of the really interesting things I have learned about time is that we don't perceive it as a linear continuum which is weird because that's how we experience it, but that's not how memory works and that's not how prospective memory works. Instead, we actually tend to think about our lives as if they're chapters in a novel. You bookend pieces of your life like, "Oh, those were the Boston years. Oh, that was before motherhood or after," whatever roles you had, you create these chapters and around chapter breaks.

A moment when you're pivoting from one era in your life to the next, you experienced something that I've called the fresh start effect which is you feel like you have a new beginning. With that new beginning, you feel like you have a dissociation from the last chapter and whoever you were then can think, "Well, that was the old me and the old me wasn't great at cooking dinner every night rather than ordering takeout or microwaving something, but the new me is all over it. The new me is going to be able to do it."

You have this burst of optimism and you're also more likely to step back and reflect and think big picture about your goals. Those moments, when you have a new beginning, turn out to be really auspicious times to try to start something new or to encourage other people to start something new. It turns out new beginnings, they can be really momentous like some of the ones I just listed that we all recognize.

They can also be as small as the start of a new year, or a new week, celebrating a birthday, transitioning to a new semester at school, even celebrating the start of a new season can be enough to motivate people to start something new. Those chapter breaks in life are big opportunities to think about what are your resolutions? It's not just new year when you can do that and then to try to make plans and figure out how to set yourself on course so you'll fall through.

Emily: How about to embark on a giant post-COVID fresh start? I know a lot of companies are starting to think about going back to work and hybrid schedules. When we think about everything we've been through over the past year-plus, what do you think the effects will be on our behaviors as we re-enter our office environments, society, family gatherings, really the list could go on and on?

Katy: I think it's an incredibly big opportunity for all of us and it's really exciting. I was just writing a piece about this. I think it's the biggest collective fresh start certainly in my life that I've ever experienced. Maybe some World War II, maybe you could argue with the end of World War II was a major collective fresh start. There's not a lot of historical precedent for everyone entering this positive new era after something that has been collectively miserable and seeing a moment where we're all going to have to shift our routines because we're going to go back to workplaces, back to schools, back to restaurants that have been shuttered, back to social environments we haven't been able to visit.

It's a huge opportunity if we think carefully and try to be deliberate about the habits and routines we build at this moment. I think we could see a lot of positive change. It's a big opportunity for everyone who's a manager, a teacher, a coach, and has influence over others to start down positive paths and for individuals who can think about, "What do I want to change?" It might sound silly, but little things like, "What do I want my lunchtime routine to be?" It used to be the burrito bar, but now I have a chance to make them salad restaurant.

Even these small things, because we don't have habits in place, the ones from a year ago are so long gone that they won't be innate and ingrained. We have this opportunity, this blank slate. Now, we may all squander it, but it is an opportunity to be thoughtful. I hope the book that I've written about how to change, actually, I had no idea it would come out at the end of a pandemic as it's going to.

I started writing it years ago before COVID-19 existed, but the timing I hope is actually a specialist to help people because there is a lot we know from science about what can help build lasting change. I hope if those tools are in people's hands, they'll be able to use this to the best possible effect.

Emily: It's not often we get such a restart and an opportunity like this. That's probably a whole other podcast episode that we should dive into for people. As you said, your book has just come out and you weren't expecting it to come out at this time. I'm sure that it will be extremely helpful to people right now. Can you talk about where people can connect with you and learn more about you and your book and your work?

Katy: Probably the best place is just my website, which is katymilkman.com and there's information about the book up there. There's information about my podcast choiceology, which is very different flavor than this, but teaching about the science of behavioral biases that can hold us back from achieving our potential and so might be of interest to some listeners. Then I'm a research professor at the Wharton School so there's lots of academic articles out there too and my newsletter Milkman delivers, which my students insisted that I had to think about so I did.

Emily: That's great. I love it.

Katy: It's all there. Thank you. I hope that these tidbits will be a helpful set of information to get people started on this fresh start.

Emily: Katy, thank you so much for joining us.

Katy: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work, by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.