Wharton’s Katy Milkman uses science to unlock the secrets of how to make lasting behavioral changes, which she shares in her latest book.

This special series of the Ripple Effect podcast features leading Wharton faculty authors in lively, fast-moving conversations about their research and latest business books.


What Motivates Positive Change?

Dan Loney: Katy Milkman is a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions. She’s also author of the book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Katy, take us into the book and the genesis of why you wanted to write about this.

Katy Milkman: This has been the focus of all my research, the topic of how do we create positive behavior change. It’s the reason that Angela Duckworth and I co-founded the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at Wharton and Penn. At a certain point, I felt I’d collected enough insights and knowledge that there’s real value to share with the world, if we can put it all together in a digestible format and explain, “Here are the things we’ve learned that can help people make the positive changes they want in their lives and that can help organizations steer their employees and customers towards positive behavior change.”

Loney: We’re talking about behavior changes that can occur at any point in the course of a person’s life, right?

Milkman: Absolutely right. There’s everything from making a change related to my health — maybe I want to get in shape or start eating differently. Maybe I want to quit smoking, or I want to quit drinking. Or changes around my finances. I might want to start investing. I want to set aside something for retirement. I want to cut back on spending. Or changes with your productivity at work, the way that you interact with your family. Every kind of change that you can think of is what we study, and this book is designed to help people achieve it for themselves or help others achieve those kinds of changes.

Loney: One of the ones that you talk about, and a lot of people talk about, is New Year’s resolutions. We maybe we hold them for a couple of days, and then things kind of dissolve. Take us into that mindset.

Milkman: First, let me just say that I am actually a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think that makes me unusual, because most people write them off and say, “This is a whim. Most of them don’t succeed. Why would we do this?” I’ve done research with former Wharton PhD student Hengchen Dai, who is now a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School, on what we call “the fresh start effect,” along with Jason Reese, also a Wharton affiliate. What we have shown is that there are moments in our lives, like New Year’s, that give us the sense of a new beginning and a fresh start, and that make us feel separated from our past failures.

On January 1, you can look at things that you didn’t achieve in the last year that you meant to get around to. “I wanted to learn Spanish,” “I wanted to figure out how to be on time at my meetings,” “I wanted to eat healthier.” And I didn’t. And I failed. But that was the old me, and this is the new me. They create this sense of dissociation, and it’s not just New Year’s. That’s the most famous, but the start of a new week, the start of a new month, following birthdays, following holidays that we associate with fresh starts — so think Labor Day, not Valentine’s Day.

What we see in data set after data set is that people at those moments set goals more often. But as you point out, many of those goals fail. For most things, a moment of motivation is not enough to carry us forward, and that’s really what the rest of my book is about.

I think one of the key barriers to successful change is that most of it is, “Oh, I have a goal. I’ll just get there,” as opposed to thinking strategically about what are the obstacles I might face, and let me make a plan that can tackle those obstacles and that’s based on science. The reason I wrote this book is we now have a lot of evidence-based solutions that need to be tailored. If the reason you’re not going to the gym is you find it absolutely miserable, then you need a different solution to get you there than if the reason is your life is too crowded to fit it in. Depending on what the barrier is, you need different solutions. Once people start using the evidence, they can make a lot more progress with those fresh start moments.

Examining How Successful People Think

Loney: How much concern is there that if people try to make a change and don’t succeed, and they give up, that becomes kind of the pattern?

Milkman: It’s a thing that we often worry about. People will commonly say things like, “Oh, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which might suggest that over the course of a lifespan, it becomes harder to make change. Maybe after multiple failures, we give up on ourselves. For what it’s worth, in our research studies, we look at things like an intervention that we developed to try to help people make this positive change. We look at does the effectiveness vary as a function of age? And we very rarely see that it does. We rarely find a lot of what we call moderation, a lot of variables, a lot of features of a person that seem to say, “Oh, shoot. This intervention only works for this type of person.”

So, I am very optimistic that if people are willing to stand up and try again, they will be able to make progress. The fresh start effect does seem to apply pretty broadly, as opposed to narrowly. It’s not as if it’s only a phenomenon we see in our 20s and 30s, and then once we’ve been fooled by enough New Year’s resolutions that didn’t work out, we stop making them.

Loney: You talk also in the book about the “Mary Poppins approach” to behavior change. What does that mean?

Milkman: One thing that I think is really fascinating and that leads to this name comes out of research by Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago and Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell. What they have found is that most of us, when we pursue change, our intuition is we should just take the most direct approach, the most effective, efficient path to get to where we want to be. Say you want to ace your math test, the first approach you’d take would probably be to say, “I’m just going to sit down and study and block all distractions. I’m going to do nothing else for the rest of the day. That’s how I’ll get there.”

Or if you want to get in shape, you’d say, “Let me find the most painful workout I could do at the gym that will maximally burn calories.” But interestingly, what they’ve shown in the research is this is a mistake. A small subset of people takes a different approach, which is to try to find the most fun way to study for their math test, maybe quizzing themselves with a friend or hopping into a Zumba class. And while it may get you closer to your goal at a slower rate, it actually ends up being better because you persist, because you go back to the gym after a positive experience. You’ll study for the next test after an enjoyable first few minutes studying, or you’ll keep the studying going even late into the night if you’ve found a way that isn’t miserable.

This persistence is a really important part of success, and we neglect the importance of fun. The Mary Poppins effect is really just a description of what Mary Poppins sings about in her famous verses, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” She understood and communicated this when it comes to children. Adults are wired the same way as kids — maybe it’s a little bit less extreme. We have a little bit more ability to exert self-control. Our prefrontal cortex is more developed. But just like kids, we are present-biased, which means we care more about instant gratification than long-term rewards. Rather than trying to work against that, what we need to do is lean into it and try to find ways that we can make it more enjoyable in the moment to do the things that are going to help us achieve our goals in order to serve the long-term benefit.

It’s a mistake to constantly be looking for the most efficient path to achieve your goal, because you will quit at a higher rate than if you look for a path that you will find pleasurable. We’ve done research on a topic called temptation bundling, which is when you find a way to link something tempting with a chore that you would otherwise procrastinate on. This is a way of using that Mary Poppins insight: “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

For instance, you only let yourself exercise while indulging in watching your favorite low-brow TV show on Netflix. That’s an example of temptation bundling. Or you only let yourself listen to your favorite podcast while you’re doing household chores. Or you only get to eat a really unhealthy but delicious meal when spending time with a difficult mentee at work. We’ve found in our research that through temptation bundling, we can help ourselves achieve more.

How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones

Loney: Talk about this concept of the flake-out and how you can try to go about combating it.

Milkman: Flake-out, I think, is a vastly underestimated problem. A lot of our goals just don’t stay top of mind, and as a result, we flake out on doing things that are really important to us because we haven’t structured our lives properly around them. I’d say it’s very closely related to forgetting. Simply, you meant to vote, but oh my gosh, it slipped off your to-do list. Or you meant to get a vaccine or get your annual check-up or take care of this important issue with an employee who has been struggling at work, but you just flaked out on fitting it into your schedule. Often, it’s one-time but highly impactful decisions that we flake out on, with major consequences. In general, what we find is that people underestimate this as a barrier to follow-through on key goals.

But we can combat it using pretty simple tools, the most obvious being things like digital reminders and calendaring. But some of the less obvious can get better results. There’s wonderful research by Peter Gollwitzer of NYU on the fact that simply making if/then plans — he calls them “implementation intentions” — dramatically increases the likelihood we follow through. It’s not just saying, “I plan to go to the gym,” or “I plan to schedule this meeting,” but saying, “If it’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday, then I’ll be at the gym.” Or, “Every day after work, I will schedule time for meditation.” By having the if/then component, we end up seeing dramatically higher follow-through. There are some really wonderful research studies that have been done showing that we can use this as a tool to nudge people towards follow-through on important behaviors like voter turnout and vaccination.

I was involved in one effort about a decade ago where we ran a randomized control trial with a company that was trying to encourage people to come to an annual flu shot clinic for free vaccines. And what we found was sending a reminder that let people know the dates and times and location is useful. But we, at no cost, increased the effectiveness of that reminder by adding a simple prompt for people to write the date and time they intended to show up. And that simple prompt to make a concrete plan led to about a 4% increase in vaccinations. These are the kinds of things that I think organizations and individuals tend to think, “I don’t need to write down my plan or prompt someone to think through the date and time. Why would that matter?” And yet, making it more concrete works because that’s the way memories are stored. We need a cue that triggers the memory, so the date and time serve as a cue. It’s also more likely you literally put it in your calendar, and you now get a digital or electronic reminder.

We even tried things where there were behaviors people would get paid to do. And people said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to be paying for a reminder,” and yet when we automatically signed people up for reminders and charged for them, we see higher earnings and better follow-through than when people have the optionality because they underestimate the value of such tools.

Loney: And then there is the problem of laziness, which I think we all fall into at times.

Milkman: Yes, we all have this issue. I like to say that it’s a pro of the human operating system, rather than a con. My background is in computer science, and computer scientists know that the best algorithms are efficient, lazy algorithms that take shortcuts, rather than searching every possible solution. So, laziness is a good feature for a system to have built in, that you look for the path of least resistance. But when it comes to achieving goals, it can be a problem if we are looking for the fastest route to success or the simplest path.

There are two ways that laziness comes up in the human operating system, and is important to keep them in mind if you want to build solutions that will help people achieve their goals. The first has to do with a well-studied and pretty well-known phenomenon, which is that we succumb to defaults. We are very susceptible to whatever is automatic. If you get a new computer, it comes with a whole bunch of default settings. Most of us just accept those and move on. And P.S., that means it’s important to set them wisely and in ways that will set people up for success.

One of my favorite studies showing how important it is to set defaults was done here at the University of Pennsylvania in our medical system. It involved changing the way that drug prescriptions were automatically sent to pharmacies, to prioritize sending generic drugs. There is higher compliance by patients when their drugs are cheaper, and everyone saves money. So, they just made that the default. Instead of the doctor having to remember to prescribe the generic, they remember the brand name, they type in “Lipitor,” but unless they check a box saying, “Not the generic,” the generic was automatically sent to the pharmacy. Overnight, this ensured that Penn Medicine was one of the best hospitals in the area on generic prescriptions. They went from something like 75% of drugs being prescribed as generics to almost 100%. There was one drug where this didn’t work. It was a drug where the generic and the brand name had chemical differences, so you didn’t see this bump.

It’s a really nice illustration, and it basically says any time you can, set a wise default. That’s really important for setting yourself up for success. It could be something like, “I stock my pantry only with healthy snacks, so that the default snack is something that’s easy.” Or, “I set my default website to be The New York Times, as opposed to Facebook, so I spend less time on social media.” Those are personal defaults. Organizations can have wise defaults that they set to try to support success in the workplace, whether that’s by default we don’t have meetings from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. You have to override something in order to make that possible.

The second thing that’s important has to do with habits. We are creatures of habit. We build habits in order to short-circuit having to think deeply about decisions. It’s very helpful not to have to think every morning about shampooing your hair, brushing your teeth, what you’ll eat for breakfast. You’ve formed some habits around that, and as a result, you just have a shortcut. But habits can be harmful if they’re not supporting your goals.

There is large literature on how we intentionally form good habits. I think there have been some wonderful books that cover this quite nicely, like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg; Atomic Habits by James Clear; and Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood. The simple story is that, as with animals, when humans repeat a behavior and are rewarded for it, over time it becomes more habituated. This is how you learn the piano. You sit down, you practice, you repeat. We can do the same thing with habits, trying to form a habit around exercise. Research shows that if we pay people to go to the gym eight times in a month, as opposed to just once, and then take payments away, and look what happens after. Now, there’s no reward. We see the people who are paid to go repeatedly habituate and continue to exercise at a higher rate than people who were only rewarded for going once — even though there’s no longer any reason to do it.

The key idea here is if you have the desire to form a habit, you want to think of it like practicing a new skill. You want to try to repeat it as frequently as possible. Find a way to reward yourself. That might be through temptation bundling, making it fun, or it might be by announcing to friends that you’re doing this, simply tracking your progress. Over the course of that repetition, you’re going to build something that starts to feel more habitual and becomes more natural.

Loney: With all this work you’ve done in your career around behavior change, what still is out there? What is the next hill to climb?

Milkman: Some of the most exciting work in behavior change that we’ve done and that others have done shows the power of our social networks in influencing our behaviors. The people around us show us what’s possible. They show us how to achieve and signal what’s appropriate. For instance, there’s some really wonderful research that has been done by Scott Carrell at the University of California, showing that the randomly assigned college roommate you get affects your grades. If you end up with someone who is a better student, they study on Friday nights, and you do, too. We are really shaped by these random allocations of our compatriots.

What I am looking at at the Behavior Change for Good Initiative in collaboration with Angela Duckworth, who is my key partner in crime on this, is how can we use that insight to build better social interventions that help connect people with peers who have shared goals and help facilitate peer interactions that increase success? We’re doing work right now in the space of education around this, to try to see if we can leverage peer effects to improve student outcomes and reduce student dropout from school at the college level. But we’re also interested in workplace peer effect, and generally leveraging this power of groups, as opposed to simply studying individuals and how we can help people in isolation.