Want to Get Unstuck? How Science Can Help

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Wharton’s Katy Milkman shares strategies to create lasting change from her new book, ‘How to Change.’

Have you ever wanted to change something in your life but can’t seem to get started? Or maybe you started, only to lose all momentum? Wharton operations, information and decisions professor Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist who has spent most of her career studying the strategies that help people create lasting, effective change, whether that’s quitting a bad habit like procrastination or achieving a big life goal like saving for retirement. She shares her findings in a new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Milkman, who is also co-founder of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at Penn, joined Knowledge@Wharton to talk about the book.

Listen to the podcast at the top of this page. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you choose this topic about change?

Katy Milkman: My research has always been about change. But I think the moment when I realized I’d have enough to contribute to write a book, because it felt like it could really have an impact, was about a decade ago when I was an assistant professor here at Wharton. I was sitting in a lecture at the medical school and saw a graph that has been burned into my brain ever since. It was a graph showing the percentage of premature deaths in this country that are due to behaviors that could be changed. I was just blown away to discover that 40% of premature deaths are due to behaviors like what we eat, whether we smoke, whether we drink, whether we are physically active, whether we make safe decisions when getting into vehicles, and so on. I just couldn’t believe how big the opportunity was to change lives for the better.

Even though I haven’t seen a graph that’s similar for decisions about savings or education, it’s clear that these little things really add up, and that’s what I’ve been studying throughout my career. What can I do to help people create daily changes that accumulate to have big, positive effects? Once I realized how huge that impact could be socially, then I was committed.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your colleague and friend here at Penn, Angela Duckworth, wrote the bestseller Grit about resilience. She also wrote the foreword for your book. It includes the passage: “Every book is like a conversation with its author. You have to be picky about the books you read. You want a conversation partner who can teach you something you didn’t know.” If your readers are in a conversation with you, what is the key takeaway from this book?

Milkman: One of the things I’ve learned over the course of doing research on this topic is that a lot of organizations and individuals that are looking to create change just reach for off-the-shelf solutions that sound nice and that have been written about in other bestsellers before — books about setting big, audacious goals, for instance, or visualizing success. That sounds great, but what’s missing is a real appreciation of what is the barrier to change in your particular situation, because what’s going to work depends on what’s holding you back. That’s a key lesson.

Let me give you a couple of concrete examples. If someone isn’t taking their medications regularly, you might not be able to get them to take those medications that they’re forgetting about by simply saying, “Hey, set a big, audacious goal.” If forgetting is the barrier, then you need to solve for that particular problem, probably with really effective reminders.

If you have a challenge of getting to the gym more regularly or staying off social media, then you probably have a completely different kind of problem. You don’t need reminders, you don’t need big, audacious goals. You need to find a way to make it so that the instantly gratifying choice is aligned with your goals.

My book is all about trying to figure out what is the barrier to change and match a solution to it that science has proven can be effective, because that yields far better results than a one-size-fits-all, shiny, attractive solution approach that has been taken traditionally.

“What’s going to work depends on what’s holding you back. That’s a key lesson.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In each chapter, you present common obstacles to change, then you offer ways to hurdle these obstacles. You draw on a lot of research and real-world examples, but you are also very candid in sharing your own experiences. You talked about being in graduate school and how you found yourself putting off studying or exercising in favor of things you’d prefer to do, like reading your favorite novels. You overcame that through a device called temptation bundling. What is that, and how does it work?

Milkman: I’m so glad you asked about temptation bundling because this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever studied and, indeed, that came from my own life. I was struggling to get myself to the gym at the end of a long day in class, even though I knew exercise would ultimately make me feel better and more energetic. I just couldn’t motivate myself. And I was simultaneously tempted to dive into these novels. I realized I could solve both of those problems at once. All I had to do was only let myself read the next chapter in whatever novel I was enjoying while I was exercising.

I turned to audiobooks. I was only allowed to listen to the next chapter in my audiobook while I was working out at the gym. Suddenly, I found myself craving trips to the gym at the end of a long day to find out what happened next in my latest thriller, and enjoying my workouts because I didn’t even notice the pain of exercising. I was having so much fun listening to my favorite characters and the plot unfold. I felt no guilt whatsoever while I was indulging in this entertainment that used to take me away from my studying, because now I was doing it in alignment with my big goal of getting to the gym.

I found temptation bundling to be an incredibly useful personal tool. I’ve also seen and talked to people who use it to solve all sorts of different challenges with self-control in their lives. It’s not just about exercise, though I think it’s really well-suited to that. But you can imagine, for instance, only letting yourself pick up your favorite treat at your favorite coffee shop on your way to the library to hit the books, or only letting yourself binge-watch TV or listen to your favorite podcast while doing household chores.

These are just a couple of examples of different ways you can temptation bundle so that something that you’d normally find unpleasant or not look forward to or even possibly dread, suddenly becomes a hook. You’re excited to do it, and you don’t waste time on some other indulgence.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re talking about impulse control. Are there some other commitment devices you can draw out from the book to help us get into these good habits?

Milkman: We just talked about a way that you can give yourself a temptation or a treat. I sometimes call it the “Mary Poppins effect” — use fun to pull yourself towards doing something that is good for you. But the flip side is that you can also use the stick, as well as the carrot, to set up systems that will punish you if you don’t achieve your goal. The cost of failure becomes so high that you won’t procrastinate. You’ll be able to control your impulses because it will be so valuable to you to do so.

Let me give you an example of what that might look like. There’s a company called stickK that sells commitment contracts. You can go on this website, tell the website a goal that you’re hoping to achieve — say, exercising three times a week or cutting out caffeine over the next two weeks. You have to define the time frame. You also name a referee who will hold you accountable, and you give them your credit card and choose a charitable organization that will get money from you if you fail.

It might sound counterintuitive that you would voluntarily penalize yourself, but this is what other organizations are constantly doing, right? When government is trying to take care of us, they set speed limits so that we don’t make the wrong decision and go too fast and get into a fatal accident. Or limit heroin use. These are the kinds of rules and regulations that are placed on us by benevolent policymakers, and we can place them on ourselves in order to constrain our future impulses.

I think commitment devices can be really valuable in dealing with this impulse problem. They’re probably underused because most people think it sounds so crazy, but they’ve proven really effective. There are randomized control trials showing that this kind of commitment device, where you can put money on the line that you’ll give up if you fail to achieve a goal, has been proven to increase people’s success quitting smoking by 30%. Similar commitment devices can be used to increase savings. That might sound counterintuitive, like you’d fine yourself for not saving. But the way those tend to be structured is not as monetary commitments. Rather, you put money into an account, and then that account locks. You cannot access the account and withdraw money until you reach a predetermined date you’ve chosen or a goal.

“You need to find a way to make it so that the instantly gratifying choice is aligned with your goals.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In the second half of the book, you focus on common behaviors that keep us from our goals. Two of them are forgetfulness, which you call “flaking out,” and laziness. Can you talk about those?

Milkman: Forgetfulness is one that I think tends to be underappreciated. Most people think, “Oh, that’s so silly. That doesn’t really prevent us from achieving our goals.” But it turns out that we are more forgetful than we think, and it’s a bigger barrier than we appreciate. Anywhere from 40% to 70% of us flake out on a goal that we set, and often that has to do with simply not remembering that we set it in the first place, or that we need to actually follow through and vote or get a vaccination or hit the gym or do something else that’s important to achieving that goal.

How can we combat forgetting? We can use the kinds of tools that memory champions use in order to ingrain information. One thing that has proven really effective is something called “making an implementation intention.” Instead of making a plan by saying, “I intend to exercise,” you say, “I intend to exercise every time it’s 5 o’clock and it’s a weekday.” And then you say, “I will go to the gym down the street from me,” and you make that more concrete. You can hold yourself accountable by telling someone else you’ll do it. When you have that form of plan that says, “If this happens, then I will follow through,” you’re a lot less likely to flake out.

You don’t want to be inconsistent with a concrete commitment, rather than a vague intention. You’re also more likely to remember because you’ve linked it to a cue, which is the time when you intend to do it and on which days of the week. Now that cue is a trigger to your memory. This is how memory works. Cues recall memories, and you’re more likely to follow through. You can do this with one-time actions. You can do it with repeated actions. I’ve proven that it can be an effective tool for getting people to get flu shots or colonoscopies. Some of my collaborators have looked at how effective it can be for increasing voting.

Knowledge@Wharton: Chapter 6 is titled “Self-Confidence.” In it, you talk about how sometimes we’re held back from achieving our goals or the things we want to change because we don’t believe that we are capable. I think this is a particularly important subject for women, who sometimes are socialized to believe they can’t dream big or can’t achieve something. What are some of the practical ways that we can build up our self-confidence?

Milkman: One of the really interesting ideas I have come across in this area in the last few years came from a former Wharton postdoc who’s now about to start a faculty job at our peer institution, the Kellogg School of Management. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler had this insight that we’re constantly bombarding people with advice about how to achieve their goals when they’re struggling. It’s actually pretty demoralizing when somebody comes up and puts their arm around you and starts giving you tips on how to be more successful in a domain where you’ve been working hard and haven’t been reaching your potential.

She thought, “What if we have the script wrong when we’re trying to help people? What if that’s exactly the way to harm confidence, to the extent that confidence is an important part of goal achievement? And what if we flipped the script and instead asked people who were struggling if they could give us some advice, or give some advice to a peer who’s not as far along as they are towards that goal?” Maybe the act of encouraging people to give advice to others, to be mentors, to be coaches, could be effective by making them feel like, “Wow, someone believes I can do it and that I’ve got what it takes.” And that will boost their confidence and motivation.

“Change isn’t something you can work on for a month and expect to magically endure.”

At the same time, it has some other really lovely ingredients, like getting you to introspect and think about what has worked for you in the past. Maybe once you say to someone else, “You should do this,” there’s a saying-is-believing effect where, “If I’ve encouraged you to do it, how am I not going to follow through myself?”

I really like this idea that by coaching others, by mentoring others, by offering advice to others, we can build our own confidence because now these other people are looking up to us as role models. We start to feel like we need to grow into those shoes, but it also can give us insights we might not otherwise have dredged up.

I think advice-giving is really powerful, and I will say that, as a woman, one of the things that startled me when I kept advancing in my career is how hard it can be to say no to all of the things that are thrown at you that maybe aren’t worth your time. Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon University is a world-renowned economist who has studied this common problem for women. We aren’t confident enough to say no to some of what she calls “non-promotable tasks” that won’t help us advance in our career but that need to get done by someone. Women end up doing them more often.

Linda talked about forming a “no club,” a group of women who advise one another on how to say no. I ended up forming one on her advice with a couple of peer scholars at peer institutions. While I get a huge amount out of the advice I receive — because it’s solicited advice, so it doesn’t hurt my confidence — I’ve gotten a tremendous amount out of giving advice because it has built my confidence. I can figure out for myself, “Oh, this is where the line is between what’s worth doing and what’s not.” Another element of confidence is seeing other people like you achieving similar goals, so this kind of advice club could reinforce your confidence in those two ways.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about the final lesson in your book: Making change is not a one-and-done. You want your changes to be permanent, or you’re going to go back to the same habits you’ve been trying to avoid or change. You compare managing change to managing a chronic disease. What do you mean by that?

Milkman: When I first started studying durable behavior change, I had this fantasy that we could develop really creative interventions using the tools of psychology and economics, where we’d put someone through a program and give them new tools, and they’d do it for a month and be set for life. We’d teach them how to build an exercise habit or a medication adherence routine or a productivity routine at work. We’d coach them for a month, set them on their way, and everything would be better. Things like that just kept failing when I tried them.

I called a colleague in Penn’s medical school, Kevin Volpp, who’s a really brilliant doctor and also studies behavior change. I said, “Kevin, why does this keep failing? What’s going on? Why can’t we make it stick?” And he said, “Well, maybe we have the wrong model of change.” He’s really the one who gave me this metaphor. He said, “Why do we think that change is something that’s curable like a rash? Maybe it’s more like a chronic disease. It’s not like these things that we’re trying to change — the impulsivity feature of human nature or confidence or forgetfulness — can be cured. They’re built into us. Why don’t we try to create more interventions and tools that people can carry with them and keep using over and over, instead of trying to give them a program for a month and then abandon ship? If we’re treating diabetes, we wouldn’t give someone insulin for a month and expect them to be cured.”

I thought that was such a powerful insight, it has completely changed the way I’m studying enduring change and trying to go about creating it. I think it’s an important lesson I hope readers will take away from the book, too. There are many tools in the book to solve problems, but they’re really not going to work if they’re just applied once. They need to be used continuously because change isn’t something you can work on for a month and expect to magically endure.

I just want to emphasize that the maintenance doesn’t have to be a drag. A big lesson of the book is that to make things work, to ensure that we can overcome these barriers, we often want to use fun. It can be enjoyable to create lasting change.

“To make things work, to ensure that we can overcome these barriers, we often want to use fun. It can be enjoyable to create lasting change.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In the interest of fun, I’ve created some speed-round change scenarios for you. Are you ready?

Milkman: I’m ready!

Knowledge@Wharton: The first one is, “I really want to start exercising regularly. I know it’s good for me, but I hate it. I’d rather just sit on the couch and eat potato chips.” How do I get there?

Milkman: This is when you’ve got to find a way to make exercise enjoyable. We already talked about temptation bundling; that’s one strategy. But to not be too redundant, let me give you a different way to make it fun. I’ve done some research with [marketing professors] Rachel Gershon at the University of California San Diego and Cindy Cryder at Washington University in St. Louis, showing that people will go to the gym about 30% more regularly if you give them a gym buddy and only give them rewards if they go to the gym with that buddy. One of the reasons that happens is they’re holding you accountable, and you enjoy the exercise more because there’s someone else whom you’re doing it with.

As soon as we get out of this pandemic and can have those gym buddies again, I think making it social is a really powerful way you can make exercise more enjoyable. It’s another form of temptation bundling.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’ve got scenario No. 2 for you: “I really want to learn a second language. I know Spanish would be so useful at my job and in my social life. I downloaded the apps. I did a little of the program, but I’m still not there yet. And frankly, between my work obligations and child care, I just don’t have the time.”

Milkman: First of all, I’m not sure you’re quite motivated. You’re not quite over the hump of deciding that you want to do it. But if you really want to do it, then the first thing is to sit down and make a plan. You’ve got to figure out a way that you are going to wedge it into your schedule. You’re going to want to make that one bite-sized so that the commitment doesn’t feel too large and distant. Is it an hour a week that you want to commit and carve out? And what’s the when and where? “If it’s 5 o’clock on Thursday, then I will be sitting at my computer doing the Spanish practice plan” — so you’ve got your cue, you won’t flake out, and that bite-sized goal will be a little bit more achievable.

Knowledge@Wharton: My last one is a little tougher: “I hate my job. I don’t want to just change jobs. I want to change careers completely, but it’s such a scary idea. I don’t even know where to start. I’m too old. I just can’t do this. I have to just stay here and be stuck.”

Milkman:  This is a tough one, but I think this calls for what Angela Duckworth, Katie Mehr (a doctoral student here at Wharton), and I call “copy and paste.”

Often, we take cues from watching the people around us and seeing what they can accomplish and what’s doable for them. Our peers can teach us really important lessons, and that sometimes just happens by osmosis. We look around and see what they’re up to, and we emulate them. But we found that people can get farther faster if we just tell them, “Hey, copy and paste.” Deliberately go find someone who has achieved the thing you want to achieve but aren’t sure how to achieve, and interview them. “What are you doing? What strategies are you using? What worked for you?” Then try to deliberately copy and paste what’s worked for them into your life.

I’d say you need to go find somebody at a similar career stage who has made the job transition that you’re feeling you can’t make, and say, “How did you do it? How did you uproot yourself? Can you tell me what got you going and how you accomplished this?” Then try to copy and paste those tactics if they feel doable for you. You might have to ask a few people before you find one that seems suited to your life. But once you find the right person, hopefully you can copy and paste. That will give you the information you’re lacking right now and hopefully the confidence you’re lacking, which I think are the two key barriers standing in the way of making the move.

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