• Dan Connors

How to Change- anything?


How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

Katy Milkman 2021


Are we slaves to our past, or are we capable of making substantial life changes even when the odds are stacked against us? Anybody who has ever set a goal to lose weight, find love, or get a better job has run up against the roadblocks that divert most of us from reaching those goals. How to Change looks at some common roadblocks like impulsivity, procrastination, forgetfulness, and conformity that keep us stuck in the same ruts, and gives some good advice on how to overcome those blockages.


Katy Milkman is a Wharton professor and host of the podcast "Choiceology". This is her first book, and is a good review of the research on behavior modification and psychological tricks to train your mind to head in the direction you want.


I will summarize this short book into the seven tips she emphasizes for those who want to make life-changing moves and need some help.


1- Use the Fresh Start effect. January 1 is the beginning of the year but also the beginning of a lot of personal changes for people everywhere. The turning of the calendar in any meaningful way can spur the fresh start effect- the feeling of a clean slate full of possibilities and desire to take advantage of it. Fresh starts are common with new jobs and school years, but can come with birthdays and anniversaries as well, any portal in time that signifies a break with the past. This is an ideal time to initiate substantial changes.


2- Add an ounce of pleasure to any difficult task. Just as in Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. We are more likely to take on unpleasant but necessary tasks like exercise or homework if they come with a reward, tasty treat, fun music, or anything else we value but feel a little guilty enjoying. Milkman calls this temptation bundling, and it makes sense that mixing pleasure with pain makes the painful parts of change easier to handle.


3- Make a public commitment. A strong contract that can't be wiggled out of has an amazing motivational effect on a person. Having your goal on record with a deadline and a consequence if you don't make it is powerful. Commitment devices are available on the internet that can keep you honest, or confiding in another person or group of people works even better. If you really want to burn bridges to the past, make a Ulysses pact that forces you into action and blocks all temptations- just be careful not to overdo it.


4- Set plenty of reminders. Sometimes we just forget. Having a reminder on your calendar, phone, or desk prompts you through the maze of distractions that pull on all of us every day. Milkman describes something called cue-based planning, where certain powerful reminders get pre-wired into our brains and when we see them, we take immediate action in the desired direction.


5- Set it and forget it. We are lazy creatures and our default setting is to follow the path of least resistance. To take advantage of that tendency, it's best to organize our lives ahead of time to nudge us in the right direction. It takes weeks to establish a new routine, but once it gets embedded it follows us day after day to produce positive results. If you want to eat better, get rid of the junk food in your house and come up with a reliable and predictable menu of meals that become a second nature. Just don't become so rigid in any new routine that adversity can throw you completely off- flexibility is key to adapt to life's curveballs.


6- Have confidence that you will succeed. This seems to be a Catch 22 situation in that when trying anything new our confidence is at its lowest. Only with progress do we feel more confident. But if you can break the negative cycle of lower expectations, you're much more likely to grow in confidence right away. Positive expectations produce positive results. There are dozens of studies out there showing that teachers with high expectations produce the best results. Even more powerfully, there are studies that helping others with a problem like the one we are trying to solve makes us feel confidence and mastery even faster.


7- Find the right kinds of people to hang around. Humans are social creatures, and we tend to take on the characteristics of those who are in our immediate social circle. To make the most progress on a new goal, find people who are just a little bit ahead of you, and follow their lead. (People too far ahead of you could zap your motivation if their level seems unattainable.) It's important to have role models. If you want to lose weight, you can't be eating with obese people all the time- they could try to sabotage you if you change too much and threaten them.


How to Change is a fun book with plenty of suggestions and studies to back them up. I highly recommend it to anybody looking to improve their lot in life.

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