There’s no shortage of information out there on how to change — how to lose weight, exercise more, curb your anger, quit smoking, and every other kind of habit someone might want to pick up or drop.
But despite this avalanche of information, you’re probably struggling to change just as much as you ever did.
What you need is an actual strategy — to identify what particular barrier is keeping you from a particular goal, and a specific solution to that specific roadblock.
My guest is well-positioned to help you cut through the voluminous noise around personal change and hone in on both sides of this equation. Her name is Katy Milkman, and she’s a Wharton professor who’s spent her career studying behavioral economics and the author of How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. On the show today, Katy and I walk through common reasons people aren’t successful in changing, and the best, research-backed tools for turning uphill battles into downhill ones. We discuss the ideal times to begin a new habit and the power of fresh starts, how to get motivated to tackle something when there are more pleasurable things you’d rather be doing, how to use commitment devices to stay the course, why giving advice to someone else can help you take that advice yourself, and the crucial importance of surrounding yourself with peers who are better — but not too much better — than you are.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How and why Katy made the switch from engineering to behavior change
- What makes behavior change so hard?
- What keeps us from getting started?
- Using our life’s chapter breaks to be more motivated to change
- What’s the risk of using these fresh start moments?
- The underrated power of fun when pursuing your goals
- Using temptation bundling to get stuff done
- What’s a commitment device? When is a good time to use it?
- Forming a plan so that you won’t forget it
- Why you should consider starting an advice club
- The power of our social groups to affect our behavior
- Figuring out which tactics to use in your own life
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Stick With It — The Science of Behavior Change
- Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science
- Why You Don’t Finish What You Start
- The Importance of a Good Start: Using Temporal Landmarks to Achieve Your Goals
- When — The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
- AoM’s archives on habits
- Making Unbreakable Resolutions
- The Power of Implementation Intentions
- How Forgetfulness Torpedos Your Journey to Becoming the Person You Want to Be
Connect With Katy
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, there’s no shortage of information out there on how to change, how to lose weight, exercise more, curb your anger, quit smoking, and every other kind of habit someone might wanna pick up or drop, but despite this avalanche of information, you’re probably struggling to change just as much as you ever did, what you need is an actual strategy, you need to identify what particular barrier is keeping you from a particular goal and a specific solution to that specific road block, my guest today is well positioned to help you cut through the voluminous noise around personal change and hone in on both sides of this equation, her name is Katy Milkman, and she’s a Wharton professor who’s spent her career studying Behavioral Economics, and she’s also the author of the book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
On the show today, Katy and I walk through common reasons people aren’t successful in changing and the best research-backed tools for turning uphill battles into downhill ones, we discuss the ideal time to begin a new habit and the power of fresh starts, how to get motivated to tackle something when there’s more pleasurable things you’d rather be doing, how to use commitment devices to stay the course, like giving advice to someone else can help you take that advice yourself, and the crucial importance of surrounding yourself with peers who are better, but not too much better than you are, after the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/toolsforchange.
Katy Milkman, welcome to the show.
Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called How to Change, and basically these are all the insights that you’ve gotten from your career as a behavioral economist on what works, what doesn’t work in helping people change, but I’d like to talk about your background, because you started off your academic career as a PhD in engineering, and then you made the switch to behavioral economics, and that seems like a big switch. So…
Katy Milkman: That was a weird switch.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so how did that happen and why the focus on behavior change.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, thanks for asking those questions. I was… Well, one reason that it happened, and I bet lots of people can relate to this, it’s like I started graduate school too young and I didn’t really know what I was interested in, I went straight from undergraduate where I studied engineering into an engineering graduate program, and I hadn’t really found my passion yet, I was just sort of doing the thing that seemed kind of interesting, and I was good at it, I went to this graduate degree program, it was actually joint, an Engineering and Business, Computer Science and Business, and I thought, the internet is this cool new thing, it seems like it’s reshaping business, maybe I can study something related to that and it’ll be interesting, and I ended up having to take a micro-economics graduate sequence just to get my degree, it was a requirement, and I walked into this class and I had hated Economics as an undergrad, I mean, absolutely hated it. I was like, all of the models of human behavior that I’m being forced to learn in this class make no sense, everything I’m being told is that people are optimizing machines, they’re perfectly rational, they do these cost-benefit analyses at warp speed, and they come to the right conclusion, and I was looking around at the people I knew and myself, frankly, and saying, Are you kidding me?
So in undergrad, I had hated it, but in graduate school, I was actually… I was at Harvard, and Harvard was this hotbed for a new field, which was behavioral economics, which is a field that basically says There are systematic and predictable ways in which people are imperfect, we can model them and we can capture what people do, predict what people will do much better once we understand that, so we can acknowledge that people are impulsive, that they discount things they’ll get in the future dramatically and over-weigh things that’ll happen now like, you know, I want the Cheetos. I don’t care if it’s not good for me, and I wanna sit on the couch, I don’t care if it’s not good for me, and we could model all sorts of other things and just like… My mind was blown, it was like love at first sight, once I encountered it, and then once I fell in love, I was able to convince some of the people I was working with to be supportive and find some new people to add and get involved with, and I was lucky to be in one of those PhD programs where they’re just glad to have you being productive, and they let me do my own thing, and my career has been following that path ever since of studying the peculiar ways that people make mistakes, and then I got really interested in trying to figure out how to help people change, how do we help them overcome those mistakes and make better decisions once we understand what the tripping points are.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about this book, where you talk about behavior change, and I think everyone who’s listening to this podcast has attempted at some point in their life, probably multiple times, some sort of behavior modification in their life, whether they wanted to lose weight, start exercising, quit procrastinating, stop drinking, stop smoking, you name it, but most of those attempts fail, so what do we know, what does the research say, what makes behavior change so hard?
Katy Milkman: Well, the answer is, a lot of things, that’s why we so often fail, there’s a lot of things, and I think one of the biggest mistakes we make when we’re trying to change is that we ignore the litany of things that get in the way. We don’t focus on what are the specific barriers we’re facing, and we look for sort of like bright, shiny, appealing-sounding strategies, if any at all, sometimes we’re just like, I’m just gonna do it, I won’t even look for a strategy, but when we look for strategies we often look to sort of appealing jingles like, I’m gonna set big audacious goals or I’m gonna visualize success, which offer a one-size-fits-all approach, and don’t take into account what is actually holding you back, what are the specific barriers. So the big thing that I have found in my career is that if we actually step back and try to diagnose what is specifically standing in the way of this particular change attempt, and then tailor our solution that we suggest to that barrier, we can get much further, so let me give you some examples of the kinds of barriers that have very different solutions, imagine that you’re talking about somebody who isn’t taking their medication regularly, and it’s an important prescription that will potentially prevent them from having a heart attack.
It could be that they’re not doing it because they forget, they just can’t remember, they cannot keep track, it could be they’re not doing it because it has a not so great side effect, and even though they know it’s really important to stay alive and that’s a bigger deal than this unpleasant side effect, they just… Every day, they’d rather not experience that side effect and they keep not taking it, the solutions need to be really different to those two problems, even though it’s the same fundamental problem. So some of the common barriers to change include just getting started, finding the one where you would say, Okay, I’m gonna do this, I’m taking the leap, I’m gonna actually make the change. Another barrier that’s really common is that it’s not instantly gratifying to do the things that are good for us in the long run, so we give in to temptations, we procrastinate, sometimes we forget, as I mentioned, and forgetting and flake out, I think are under-appreciated people tend to say, I’d never forget to do something that’s important to me, and yet if it’s not salient and if it’s not top of mind, if it’s not at the top of the list, we often don’t get to those goals.
Another challenge is whether or not we believe in ourselves, do we really think we can, and then finally, are our peers supporting us, are our peers showing us what’s possible and building our belief in ourself up or are they shutting it down? So all of those are really different challenges and they have different solutions that they need to tackle them.
Brett McKay: And each person is gonna have a different challenge, it’s not one size fits all.
Katy Milkman: Exactly, and each person might have a constellation of those challenges, right, and so it’s also not like, oh, you’re a forgetting person, they’re all different, some barriers, sometimes some goals, there are multiple barriers that are standing in the way, so it’s all about figuring out which are the things that are holding you back? And then, I know we’ll get into this, but then there’s a different sets of solutions that science can point us to, that will help and make it so that those things aren’t such a big obstacle, so we can surmount them.
Brett McKay: And also it isn’t… It’s not just different for each person, within a person, different goals can have different obstacles, you might have a problem…
Katy Milkman: Exactly. Exactly.
Brett McKay: Right, so it’s situational, and that’s tricky too.
Katy Milkman: Totally.
Brett McKay: It makes it trickier, ’cause you think, Oh, it works for… When I did this thing, it worked for getting up on time, but it’s not working for this other thing as well, it’s not gonna work for that thing, it’s a different obstacle.
Katy Milkman: Exactly. Exactly. And I think too often, we make that exact kind of misattribution you just described like something works in one domain, and we think we can just use that same tool somewhere else because we’re not recognizing the importance of diagnosing what’s different here. And now that I understand that obstacle, maybe I could actually figure out a solution that’s better suited to it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about some of these obstacles and like this… Potential solutions for them, and the first one you mentioned there just a minute ago, was the obstacle of just getting started. So first of all, what gets in the way of people just getting started with a behavior change, and what are some tactics that people can do to overcome that?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s such a great question. There’s a lot of things that keep us from getting started, we don’t really believe that we can, we’re not motivated to do it right now, this doesn’t feel like the right time, or we’re not even looking up from the day-to-day minutia of life and thinking big picture about a goal. So I have this amazing question about a decade ago when I was visiting Google, that led me to start thinking about this particular barrier, and the question came after I’d presented some of my research on different tactics we could use to help people change for the better. When it came to wellness and health and when it came to their financial decisions, so I had presented some of my research and an HR leader at Google raised his hand and he said, Okay, Katy, totally convinced that we should be using some of these tools to nudge changes in behavior, but when should we offer them to our employees, is there some ideal time when people are gonna be really chomping at the bit to form exercise habits and start saving in their 401k and figure out how to be more productive at work? Like, when is the best time?
And I still remember the light bulb going off, ’cause it was like one of those moments, that I was like, Oh my God, it’s such a good question, and I really didn’t think that academics had answered that question, so there was also a light bulb that went of, immediately occurred to me like I had a fast answer that might occur to you too, and that fast answer was like, maybe New Year’s, we know about New Year’s resolutions, that seems like a time when people are more motivated to pursue goals, like, 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. But what I realized as I started thinking more about that and got back to my office in Philadelphia and started talking to my amazing graduate student at the time, Hengchen Dai, who worked with me on this, and Jason Riis, another professor at the time who was at Wharton, we were all struck by the idea that maybe New Year’s is just one example of a broader category of dates or moments in our lives when we feel like we have a new beginning or a fresh start, and when we’re more motivated to pursue our goals potentially. And we started doing some reading about how memory works and how we think about time, and how we think about our lives.
And it turns out we tend to think about our lives as if they’re novels, and we think about the chapters in our lives, right, like, Oh, those were the college years, and the Boston years, and the consulting years, and so on, and the chapter breaks in our lives are moments when we feel like we have a fresh start and a new beginning, and we’re more likely to step back and think big picture about our goals, when we’re more open to starting something new, we feel like maybe I didn’t succeed at quitting smoking before, but this is the new me, and the new me is gonna be able to do it, so we shed some of that pessimism and we’ve shown that this can be the case in our research, even with small chapter breaks, like the start of a new week, or the start of a new month, following a birthday, following a holiday, that feels like a fresh start, Labor Day, or of course, New Year’s, even if we mention the start of spring to people, that can be motivating. So we see it both naturally occurring in our data, so people are more likely to set goals on a popular goal-setting website after those dates that I just described, they’re more likely to go to the gym, they’re more likely to search for the term diet on Google, and if we highlight dates like this for them, when they’re trying to choose a time to pursue a goal, that they find them more attractive, and that’s a time people gravitate towards.
So if we invite someone to start saving, for instance, in a 401k, and we say, Hey, if your birthday is in three months, we’d randomly assign some people and say, Do you wanna start saving in three months, another group would say, Do you wanna start saving after your birthday, and the group invited to save after their birthday turns out to say, yes, a lot more and they save significantly more over the next nine months because of that, so there’s all these different ways that we’ve found fresh starts can be motivating, and what’s really interesting about them is I just described a bunch that are purely psychological, but of course, they can be even more potent when not only do you have that psychological chapter break, but some sort of real refresh in life, like you move to a new community or a new job, and now not only do you have that psychological fresh start and sense that you can begin again, but you literally may not have routines or bad habits to trip you up, and you can start building new ones from a blank slate.
Brett McKay: So basically the idea there is, if you’re gonna start a behavior change, look for one of those fresh start days, it could be the start of… Big one, New Year’s, birthday, you know for me, I guess because I’m just been so indoctrinated since elementary school, but August, September, the start of a school year. I still…
Katy Milkman: Yeah, that can be really potent.
Brett McKay: It still is potent, like Yeah, this is… I’m gonna really hunker down and… And I don’t.
Katy Milkman: And you’re not even a professor like me…
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I don’t… Yeah for some reason, I still get…
Katy Milkman: You know, school year is a big one in our study of undergraduates gym attendants, the start of both semesters showed these huge effects, these big fresh start effects in terms of more exercise, but I share your feeling and that’s sort of also a post-Labor Day effect, we got used to that rhythm and ritual for so much of our life of going back to school and just seeing other people going back to it in lots of summer vacations or in August, it always feels like a fresh start to people.
Brett McKay: And so what’s going on there? It’s just like you just feel more motivated, that’s why you are more likely to follow through on behavior change at these fresh starts.
Katy Milkman: You feel more motivated, you feel more disconnected. Literally, you feel like a new person, like the past mistakes… Well you know that was like me, that was me before in this prior era, and like, Okay, it’s a new year, or it’s a new… I’m in a new… It’s a new week, and that label actually comes with optimism because you can shed that, those past values, you can like, you can put them in the rear view mirror and you have that sense of a clean slate.
Brett McKay: Any downsides to fresh starts?
Katy Milkman: Yes. Unfortunately, of course, right, with every bit of good news, there can be bad news, the thing about fresh starts that’s dangerous, is that if you’re really doing well, you’re on a roll, things are going well, there they are disruptions and they can disrupt a positive period, right, things are going well, you’re going to the gym regularly, or you’re achieving a lot at work, and then you have a disruption in the form of a fresh start, it can break your stride, so not only are fresh starts productive, when we’re trying to achieve more, but they can also be harmful and my favorite research on this was actually by my PhD student who I mentioned a minute ago, Hengchen Dai, she’s now a professor at UCLA, Hengchen’s dissertation work looked at the challenge of fresh starts when people have been really outperforming, and she has a number of experiments she ran in the laboratory with undergraduates where she looks at this, but my favorite study is actually of major league baseball players.
And what she did is she looked at players who had a fresh start in the form of being traded to a new team, so in the middle of the season, you’re traded to a new team, and she actually compared players who were traded across leagues to players who were traded within leagues, and the reason she did this is it’s two people who are both experiencing a change in life, but one has more of a fresh start than the other, so there’s a lot of control there, there’s more of a fresh start when you’re traded across leagues, because all of your season-to-date statistics are reset and you have literally a clean slate and you have to work to build up a record again, and in comparison, if you’re traded within league, you get to keep your season-to-date statistics.
And what she found is that players traded across leagues who had been doing really well, they suffered… Their batting averages declined relative to players who had been traded within league and got to hold on to their season-to-date statistics, and they didn’t have to work those back up. Now, just as I said earlier, the fresh start was positive for players who were performing poorly, so those who had been below average, well below average in the league, in their performance do well when they get traded across leagues, that’s better than when they get traded within league because they want that fresh start, but I think it’s a really nice point to highlight that these disruptions while mostly good, ’cause most of the time there’s something we’re not quite getting right and we want… We want that little jolt to give us a sense that we can… We can start afresh if we’re on a roll, they can be really harmful.
Brett McKay: Okay. So another obstacle is sometimes there’s something we know we need to do, that’s good for us, but we’d rather do something else that’s more pleasant.
Katy Milkman: You’re describing all of my goals.
Brett McKay: Right, So how do you overcome that? What’s a tactic there that can work.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, there’s two different ways we can go about it, but the carrot and the stick, and I wanna start with the carrot, ’cause I think this is so powerful and it’s so fascinating to me how often the intuition is wrong on this, my intuition used to be wrong on this too, there’s some great research by Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago and Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell, showing that most people when they have a big goal and they wanna achieve it, they start off by trying to find the most effective way to pursue that goal. So if you wanna get to the gym more regularly and get fit, you say, I’m gonna do the most efficient exercise, again, I’m gonna hop on the StairMaster that’s maximally efficient, or you wanna lose weight, they’re like, I’m gonna buy kale and carrots, I’m gonna do it the most efficient way, but a small minority of people try to do it the most fun way possible, so when they go to the gym, instead of picking the thing that will be most effective, they say, What will I enjoy the most?
Oh, I love Zumba class now, that’ll be really fun. Or if they’re trying to lose weight, they say, “You know, I’m gonna choose a diet, but I’m gonna choose one that I now really enjoy. Like I love smoothies, and I’m gonna go on a diet that’s really heavy on the smoothies.” [chuckle] I don’t know your taste.
What they found is that if they could encourage people to look for a fun way to pursue their goals, they’ll persist more. But again, most of us don’t do that naturally. So trying to find ways to actually do things that are good for us, but that are fun, is critical. And I’ve studied one specific way to make it more fun to pursue our goals, and that’s by doing what I call temptation bundling, which is you link something that you really enjoy and you actually look forward to with whatever it is that you need to do to pursue your goals, but that’s a bit of a chore in the moment.
So as an example, when I wanted to get to the gym more regularly as an Engineering graduate student but was finding it hard to motivate myself, I bundled a temptation with exercise. I’m a bit of a nerd, I love page-turner novels like James Patterson. [chuckle] Think James Patterson novels, Alex Cross series. I’d only let myself listen to audio books of Alex Cross while I was at the gym. So I would come home from a long day of classes, find all I wanted was some indulgent entertainment, and I would actually wanna go to the gym because I knew I could listen to Alex Cross guilt-free, find out what happened next. The time would fly while I was at the gym, and then I came back ready to focus on my classwork and not in need of that temptation at home anymore.
So that’s one example, but there’s lots of different ways we can temptation bundle. So you can only listen to your favorite podcast while you’re doing household chores, or cooking a healthy meal, or watch your favorite TV show in the same circumstances, or only let yourself pick up your favorite indulgent treat on the way to hit the books at the library. So there’s all different ways we can form temptation bundles, and I’ve done some research showing that when people are given the tools to temptation bundle, they do achieve more, so people exercise more regularly if they can only listen to tempting audio novels at the gym, for instance. And a study by some colleagues showed that students actually did better and persisted longer in doing math problems in school when given the tools to temptation bundle it with tasty snacks, enjoyable music and sort of colorful markers. This was kids doing this. Even though their teachers thought that would be distracting, it actually led them to persist longer. So there’s lots of different ways that we can temptation bundle effectively.
Brett McKay: Okay, so tip number one, if your… Find your goal. If your goal is to exercise more, first one is just see if you can find an exercise that you actually enjoy, right? That’s…
Katy Milkman: Exactly.
Brett McKay: That’s the first one.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, and then true of any goals. See if you can find a path to it that will be fun, whether it’s by making it social or just picking a different activity. That’s exactly right.
Brett McKay: Now, I think that’s an important point ’cause I think a lot of people, when they decide they wanna do behavior change, they pick up a book or they go to a blog and they say, “Well, here’s what you gotta do,” and they do it and like, “This sucks.” And then they stop, and then it’s like, “Well, no, you… ” You gotta think about: What’s your main goal? Keep your eye on that. And there’s different ways to reach it that doesn’t usually follow some guide on the Internet.
Katy Milkman: Absolutely, right.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Katy Milkman: And find a way to reach it that you will find gratifying in the moment, not just because it’s taking you towards your goal, that’s not enough. It needs to actually be enjoyable while you’re doing it, or you will quit.
Brett McKay: And if you can’t make… You’re trying something that’s enjoyable, then the next step is temptation bundle, like add something to that non-pleasant thing that makes it more pleasant.
Katy Milkman: Exactly. A spoonful of sugar, as Mary Poppins would say.
Brett McKay: Right. So like taxes, I don’t know anyone who enjoys doing taxes, but you can temptation bundle prepping your taxes.
Katy Milkman: Yes, totally. Do your taxes with your best friend, bring some wine. [chuckle] Maybe some, have a little bit of nice music on the background, whatever makes that fun for you. Intersperse a little trivia. It might take a bit longer, but that’s okay ’cause you’ll actually finish it.
Brett McKay: Okay, so another obstacle is sometimes, people, they just… They’re not sure they can do it if they decide, “Well, I wanna do this thing, but I’m not sure if I can,” or, “Maybe I’m not… I think something will get in the way of me following through on that commitment.” So you’ve actually found another tactic that’s useful, is called commitment devices. So what are some examples of commitment devices, and where have you seen them work?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, this is a great question. Commitment devices are sort of the stick approach to solving… Actually, it’s related to the temptation problem and it’s related to follow through. So there’s something that you wanna do, but you keep not actually getting it done because you give in to temptation over and over again or you procrastinate. A commitment device is a really unintuitive thing that could be super valuable. So we’re used to it when other people create constraints or reward systems to help us achieve what’s good for us in the long run, and a commitment device is doing that for ourselves. So you’re familiar with being fined or even thrown in jail if you speed on the highway, or if you do heroin. [chuckle] But a commitment device is saying like, “There’s some goal, I wanna prevent myself from falling down on the job what I’m trying to achieve it, and I’m gonna set up those constraints for myself.” So there’s a couple different ways to do it. Let me give you one example of a commitment device that’s been studied that I found really interesting, and this is a commitment savings account.
So there’s this study that was done of consumers, and they were offered different ways to save. One was just in a standard savings account like we’re all used to where you can take your money in and out. And the other was sort of like a financial chastity belt style savings account. So you put your money in and you can’t take it out until you reach your predetermined date or savings goal. And it offers the same interest rate, so there’s sort of no rational reason you would ever expect anyone to take this account and put money in it. But it turned out that 30% of consumers who were offered this account put money in it. And just having access to it increased consumer savings about 80% year-over-year because it prevented them from dipping into savings before they’d achieve their goal, and leaky savings are a really big problem. So every time there was that temptation to go grab money, “Oh, there’s a party. Oh, here’s this shiny object I wanna buy,” it’s constrained so you actually couldn’t give in to that temptation, and you can set that up for yourself.
Another commitment device that’s a little bit more flexible than that particular example is a cash commitment device, which is more of a fine rather than a constraint. So you can literally put money on the line that you agree to forfeit if you fail to achieve your goals using a website like Beeminder or stickK.com, where they lead you to find a referee after you’ve set a goal who will report to the site on whether or not you’ve achieved your goals, and you put some stakes on the line, and they’ll go to a charitable cause if you don’t achieve your goal. And you can choose a charity you like, but that might be too much of a silver lining, so they also have charities that are contentious on either side of a hot button issue like a gun control charity and the NRA. And you choose whichever one you hate, and you can put the money towards that, and then it’s gonna make it really sting, so you’ve basically increased the price of your vice. And even if you tend to overweight the present over the future, now, it’s not just a Cheetos that you’re thinking about eating; it’s giving $500 to an organization you hate that’s on the line. So you may be more likely to stick to your healthy goals or any other goals, for that matter.
Brett McKay: And then beyond that, you can do what you call a soft commitment device, which is basically you make a pledge. Like I say, “I’m willing to… I commit to doing this,” and that can work as well.
Katy Milkman: Exactly, so soft commitments tend to be less effective, but they’re also less risky. [chuckle] You don’t have to worry about giving hundreds of dollars to a cause you hate, for instance. And one of my favorite examples of a study showing that this kind of pledge can be effective did it in a really strong way, and it worked really well. It was with doctors who all wanted to prescribe fewer, unnecessary antibiotics, which are bad for their patients, and they’re bad for society because unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions increase drug-resistant bacteria, they’re able to develop more easily. But lots of people, lots of doctors give in to the temptation when somebody comes in with a runny nose and just wants a prescription. They’re hoping it’ll make them feel better. And they say like, “Oh, let me give you some antibiotics. Maybe it’ll work.”
So this experiment involved doctors who are randomly assigned to either a condition where they signed a pledge that, “I will not give unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions. I will not give them for these symptoms, which are not recommended to have antibiotics prescribed.” And they put that pledge up in their waiting rooms so that their patients and staff all saw it, and they saw it every day when they walked in. So that group is half of the people in the experiment. The other half are randomly assigned not to sign the pledge. And what they found is a dramatic reduction was caused by this in unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.
So it’s an example that I think illustrates, if it’s a really soft commitment, like you just tell your friend, “I’m hoping to exercise more regularly,” there’s not a ton of evidence that’s gonna take you very far. But if you put a little bit of teeth behind that soft commitment, ideally, maybe you tell somebody who you’ll be humiliated if you don’t achieve more about your goal and have a way of them tracking you. Your boss, for instance, you tell them, “I’m gonna do X,” and they have a way of visibility into whether or not you’ve achieved it, that is likely to be more effective, and more effective, still, is the sort of soft commitment where it’s really public and it’s somehow related to your identity, your professional identity.
Brett McKay: This reminds me, we just read an article about some research that some psychologists at MacEwan University are doing about Gandhi and this Prussian prince named Pückler-Muskau, I think that’s the way you pronounce his name, about making unbreakable resolutions. Have you come across this yet?
Katy Milkman: No, I wish I could. You could see, my eyes are so big right now. [chuckle] Tell me more!
Brett McKay: No, so basically, they looked at Gandhi and this Prussian prince, 19th-century Prussian prince, and they found that they had… They did something, they can make unbreakable resolutions by making… So Gandhi did vows, right? So he says, “I’m gonna vow to abstain from X.” And because he said it like it was a vow, it became a spiritual thing, and so he’s less likely to break it. He followed through on it.
Katy Milkman: A different way of saying it. That’s so interesting.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then this Prussian guy, he called his resolutions that he decided that you can’t break it, he called them grand expedients. And it’s sorta, it’s basically, it’s very psychological. They’re basically, they said there’s a bright line boundary between just a regular type of resolution and an unbreakable resolution. It’s in your head, you say, “This is different. If I… ”
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s like self-talk strategy, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. And it’s like you actually put stakes, not just money stake, but soul stakes. “If I violate this, then I’m like destroying myself.”
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a different kind of price on your vice, if you have a strong, religious conviction. And frankly, it’s like swearing on a Bible, right? When you make up…
Brett McKay: Right, yeah.
Katy Milkman: So when it’s a meaningful pledge, it feels like it’s connected to your identity, you can see. Just like for the doctors, a pledge to their patients, they’re signing and putting in their office, it’s related to that professional identity. These identities that we care so much about, I think, are a really potent way to create stakes if it’s aligned with that.
Brett McKay: So another obstacle you mentioned is sometimes, people just forget. They’re not lazy, they don’t hate their health, but they just forget. So how do you overcome forgetting? What tactics work for that?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a great question. My favorite research that’s related to this is on something called implementation intentions, but I like to talk about it as proper planning ’cause implementation intentions are a mouthful. [chuckle] So there’s this professor at NYU named Peter Gollwitzer who studied this for his entire career, and it’s really the best way to form a plan so you won’t forget it. Most of the time, when we make a plan, it’s sort of like a vague intention. You say like, “I wanna go to the gym more. I wanna learn a foreign language. I’m gonna spend some more time on Duolingo doing that.” But if we actually make plans in a very specific form that he studied, we’re much more likely to take action, and that form is: If the following circumstances arrive, then I will take action.
So for instance, instead of saying, “I plan to spend more time on Duolingo practicing Spanish,” you’d say, “Every weekday at 5:00 PM, I’ll spend 45 minutes on Duolingo practicing Spanish.” That would be an implementation intention where you’ve linked a specific date and time queue with the intended action. And it helps with forgetting because well, one, you’re more likely to literally put it on your calendar, which helps with forgetting. You’re gonna have a reminder pop-up, and reminders are very effective. But you also, even if you didn’t put it on your calendar, the way that we store information in memory is that it’s triggered by cues. And now, you have this association, you’ve formed a very specific association. “When it’s 5:00 PM, I will, on a weekday, I will do Duolingo.” You notice that it’s 5:00, “Oh! This is when I’m supposed to do that thing.”
So if we form those kinds of if-then plans, it can be really powerful. And it helps with other things, too. It helps us think through any obstacles that might get in the way. “Oh, wait! Am I gonna be in a place where I can do Duolingo at 5:00 PM? No, I’m gonna be driving in the car, that’s not gonna work. Let me rethink that. Let me come up with a plan that’ll work.” So it helps us think through those obstacles. And it also makes us feel like we’ve made a commitment, and we like to be consistent with our commitments. We’ve talked a little bit about this already in terms of if we make a commitment that’s public, that can be powerful, but we also don’t like being internally inconsistent. So once we’ve set, “I am going to do something at a specific time,” now, we have a concrete plan, not just a vague intention, and we’re more likely to follow through on those concrete plans.
So these kinds of implementation intentions, you can form them yourself, but you can also prompt other people to form them to great effect. So for instance, I’ve done research showing that if you ask people to write down the date and time when they intend to get a flu shot, or the time and doctor with whom they plan to get a colonoscopy, you can significantly increase the rate of follow-through on those important health behaviors over and above just encouraging people to do this, and reminding them to do it. So there’s also work on voting. You may have noticed there are lots of people saying, “Hey, have you made a voting plan?” There’s research showing that if you’re asked, “When will you vote? Where will you vote? How will you get there?” That significantly increases the likelihood that someone who intends to vote actually makes it to the polls. That’s, again, the same psychology related to flake out and forgetting, getting to top of mind salience that can be important in a lot of cases.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of trying to help other people with their behavior change, so often times, you see someone who’s having a hard time. And then your natural tendency is like, “Hey, you should try this,” and that actually backfires and the person’s like, “No, I’m not gonna try that. What do you think? I don’t have a problem. Leave me alone.” So if that doesn’t work, what does work?
Katy Milkman: I love that example. This really brilliant scholar, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, she’s about to start a faculty job at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, had this insight that maybe we have the script wrong. When someone is trying to achieve a goal, instead of putting our arm around them and offering them that demotivating advice, what if we actually asked them for advice about how to achieve more? What if we put them on a pedestal? Put them in the position of advice-giver. What if we said, “Hey, high school student, how would you encourage a younger peer, or how would you advise them to do better in school? How would you tell them they could form more effective study habits, and stay away from distractions, and get better grades? What are your tips?”
It turns out that by asking someone else for advice, we get them to feel really good about themselves. “Hey, oh! Somebody thinks I know what I’m doing.” It’s a confidence boost, that I have something worthwhile to say on this topic. It also leads them to introspect and dredge up insights. You don’t wanna ask someone for advice on how to do calculus who doesn’t know how to do calculus, but Lauren found in interviews that most people actually do know how to achieve their goals if you ask them to think about it. Most of them have a few tips or tricks that they can come up with related to goal achievement, and they’ll be personalized. So when you are thinking about what might work for someone else, you think about things that would work for you. And then once you advise someone else, it feels hypocritical not to follow that advice. So all of those things make this advice-giving effect really potent.
And we’ve shown in one random assignment study with nearly 2,000 high school students that just asking students at the beginning of a semester to give some study advice to their younger peers significantly improved students’ grades over and above a control group that didn’t get asked to give advice. That improved their grades, specifically in Math and in the class they most hoped to improve in that semester. And it wasn’t like we turned C students into valedictorians; it was a small improvement. It helped them… Actually, it was the third quarter grade, specifically. So beginning of the third quarter, we do this small activity where you’re asked to give advice, and by the end of the third quarter, you score about one point higher in Math and in the class you’re most hoping to improve in. But that’s really amazing for something that takes about 10 minutes. Just putting you on a pedestal, asking you for that introspection and advice can be so powerful.
Brett McKay: So I’ve done that with my kids. My kids are 10 and seven, and if I’m like… If I know they’re having an issue with something like being patient, you know, “Hey, I’m having some trouble being patient with this guy, and you got any advice?” And they’re, “Oh, yeah, this is what do you do, blah, blah, blah.” So that, I think, it does work. But how do you get asked advice? How do you get the benefit?
Katy Milkman: Yeah. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right? So I say, “I want to get the benefit of being asked advice, but I can’t go around and start giving advice, that’s just gonna annoy people.” So how do you…
Katy Milkman: Yeah, you can, but you wanna have a lot of friends left. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right. So how do you…
Katy Milkman: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Do you have any things that work for that?
Katy Milkman: Yes, absolutely. I realized I had done this inadvertently, and now, I feel like I’m trying to convince lots of people to do this on purpose. When I was a junior faculty member, I formed an advice club with a couple of colleagues who are facing similar challenges, but had similar goals. And we decided, when we were getting invited to do things and we weren’t sure, “Is this gonna help me achieve my goals? Is this the right use of my time? Is this the wrong use of my time?” We would email each other and ask for advice. And it was amazingly valuable for so many reasons. It was really valuable to get that outsider perspective when I was soliciting advice. You want solicited advice. It’s the advice that’s unsolicited that annoys us and makes us feel bad, by the way. Solicited advice is great.
So I got all sorts of insights, but I also realized I got this huge benefit from giving advice because every time I was asked my opinion, I sort of realized, “Oh, I actually do have good ideas about what the right answer is and what the right choices to make for your career under these circumstances. Like, ‘Here’s what I think you should do.'” Built my confidence that I can make those choices for myself when I face them without having to lean as much on this group. And it also made me wanna walk the talk. So once I’d advise someone else, “Oh, no, I don’t think this is a valuable use of your time,” then when I got a similar ask, I knew the answer, and I felt confident giving that advice. So I think advice clubs are actually an underutilized tool. We should be creating them more often with peers at similar stages, with similar goals so that we both can coach each other and benefit from that, and benefit from each other’s insight and the social support that it builds. So that’s my number one piece of advice on how to become an advice-giver.
Brett McKay: So in your research, you found that our social group has a big impact on our behavior, and whether we are able to successfully change or not change. Any examples from behavioral economics that show the power of our social groups?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, so I’ve only studied this a tiny bit, but there’s a huge research literature that I’ve drawn on and learned from on this topic. And one of my favorite studies is one we can probably, a lot of us, at least, relate to, which is looking at college roommates. And it shows that the college roommate you’re randomly assigned to affects your grades. If you have a college roommate who had higher verbal SAT scores, your grades are gonna be higher. If they’re lower, if their SAT scores are lower, your grades are gonna be lower. So that’s one result that I find sort of amazing, just that person who you were plopped into a room with your first year in college has that big effect.
But it’s true in all different areas of life as well. So it affects how likely you are to, say for retirement, if you’re around other people who are savers, it affects whether or not you are more likely to be energy-efficient if you find out what your neighbors are doing. So we’re really influenced by our peers, both naturally, when we just watch what they’re doing, and also, when people communicate to us about our peers directly and say, “Hey, most people are doing X,” we tend to wanna follow the herd. And what that means, it’s actually a related message to the sort of advice club message, but it means we wanna select our peers carefully whenever we can. Find peers who are showing us what’s possible, look for role models, but look for people who also, by watching their example, you can learn from them and you can literally, and this is something I have studied, try to copy and paste really deliberately like, “Oh, here’s a life hack that I noticed is working for this other person who has a similar goal. Let me see if I can try to use that, too.”
There’s so much information in the actions of our successful peers, that there’s benefits of surrounding ourselves with people who can show us the way and make us believe it’s doable ’cause we see them doing it, and that makes us think, “Oh, this is feasible for someone like me,” but also, we can literally watch what they do and emulate it.
Brett McKay: Well, I think the caveat you made with that bit of advice, people that hear that, “Okay, surround myself with really successful people.” Well, it can’t be too successful ’cause then, they’re… What you get from them won’t be useful. Me hanging out with Bill Gates or… I lift weights. So if I hung out with a guy who can deadlift a 1,000 lbs.
Katy Milkman: I was gonna say, I bet Bill Gates can’t lift weights that well. He would be that intimidated. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right, no, so… Right, so if I said, “I’m gonna do what Eddie Hall does,” and this guy can deadlift over 1,000 lbs, that won’t be very useful because I’m not anywhere near that. So you…
Katy Milkman: Right. That’s right. You don’t wanna gulf. It needs to be people who are roughly within your… In your league. If the gulf is too large, it actually can be demotivating. So if you’re, for instance, there was this really interesting follow-up to the college roommate study I mentioned, where the same researchers tried to… Scott Carrell is leading these efforts, he’s a UCSD economist. He said, “What if I engineer roommate assignments so that we can put the top students with the bottom students and hopefully, the bottom students who are the most at risk of dropout and really having a tough semester will be pulled up… Let’s do it strategically.” And that actually backfired. That actually led students to do worse because it was polarizing. So those pairings led people to feel like they didn’t have enough in common, they didn’t socialize at all, and all of the underperforming students ended up hanging out with each other and not having good relationships with their roommates. And all of the top-performing students hung out with each other. And so it backfired. So there needs to be some relatability. You don’t wanna be hanging around with people who are so out of your league that you feel like there’s nothing in common and you can’t learn from them.
Brett McKay: Right, so find someone just a little bit better than you.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, a group of people to hang around where there’s some folks who are overachievers and you can learn from them, but yeah, exactly, they’re not too far ahead.
Brett McKay: So how do you bring all this stuff together? How do you figure out which tactic you should be using, and when you should stop using a tactic? Any insight there?
Katy Milkman: Well, there’s two parts to that question. The first part I’ll say is I think a mistake we often make is think like, “Oh, when should I stop using this tactic? Like once I’ve made some good progress, I can sorta stop using this crutch. And I’ll stop temptation bundling, I’ll just get myself to the gym naturally,” or whatever it is. And that is a common mistake because all of the barriers to change that I just mentioned are barriers that persist. They don’t go away magically. So we really do need to keep doing whatever it is that’s working, indefinitely, as long as we want the change to persist, as opposed to thinking it’s a short-term game to figure out these hacks.
In terms of understanding which tactics are likely to work for you, of course, just like anything else, there’s probably a little bit of experimentation required, just like when you are trying to figure out any solution, you need to play with it a bit. But my hope is that in my book, and hopefully also, in this podcast, I’ve laid out some of the key barriers that are most common, and that you’ll recognize yourself in them. You’ll say, “Oh, yeah, actually, I totally get it. It is that I just forget, and it’s not top of my list, and I keep not getting around to it. And so maybe, I need to make more concrete plans.” Or, “It’s not fun, I really don’t enjoy it.” Or, “It needs teeth,” or, “I have the wrong social support group and I just don’t believe that I can do it. I don’t believe in myself. I need to find a way to believe in myself.”
So once you start to understand what those barriers are, it’s easier to diagnose and match. And you don’t need an expert to help. [chuckle] That’s the nice thing about this. It’s not like you need to go to the doctor and have a diagnosis. It really is something where you’ll see yourself in it and understand, “Oh, that’s exactly what’s keeping me back in this particular case. I’m really having that challenge.” And then hopefully, there’s a solution that science has proven can help.
Brett McKay: Well, Katy, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, thank you, this has been so fun. The best resource is my website, which is katymilkman.com, and it’s Katy with a Y, like Katy Perry. And there’s more information about the book, about all my research, about the research center I run, the podcast I host called Choiceology, and even my newsletter, which is called Milkman Delivers. My students convinced me, I had to give it a funny name, so that’s what I came up with. And there’s lots more information there.
Brett McKay: Well, Katy Milkman, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Katy Milkman: Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Katy Milkman. She’s the author of the book, How to Change. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. If you would like to find out more formation about her work, check out her website at katymilkman.com. Also check out our show notes, aom.is/toolsforchange, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AoM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of here. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.