How to Change: The Science of getting from where you are to where you want to be by Katy Milkman
There’s just one problem: true blank slates are incredibly rare. Almost all of the behaviors we want to change are everyday, customary, and baked into our hectic and well-established routines.
This research helped us develop the idea that the start of a new life chapter, no matter how small, might be able to give people the impression of a clean slate. These new chapters are moments when the labels we use to describe ourselves, who we are, and what we’re living through shift, compelling us to shift with them.
Whether it was starting a new gym habit, improving sleep hygiene, or spending less time on social media, when the date we suggested was associated with a new beginning, more students wanted to receive our reminders to change right then.
The power of the labeled fresh start was impressive. The postcards that encouraged employees to begin saving after their next birthday or at the start of spring were 20 to 30 percent more effective than the “ordinary” mailings that allowed people to begin saving at a more arbitrary future date. By reminding people of an upcoming fresh start, we were able to make the same opportunity for behavior change more appealing.
These findings show that it
may be possible to boost a wide range of goal-directed behaviors if we just get the timing of our invitations right–from enrolling in online classes to purchasing energy-efficient appliances to scheduling health checkups.
The barrier is simple: doing the right thing is often unsatisfying in the short term.
To solve my problem, I realized I would need to figure out how to make it instantly gratifying.
Ethan and Nancy believe that their study highlights a common mistake companies make with gamification. It is unhelpful and can even be harmful if people feel that their employer is forcing them to participate in “mandatory fun”. And if a game is a dud, it doesn’t do anyone any good. It works be like temptation bundling your workout with a boring lecture.
Nancy’s case isn’t unique- science suggests gamification can help many of us tackle our goals, so long as we’re choosing to use it to pursue goals we want to achieve.
Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedoms in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device.
Often when we make plans, we don’t focus on what will trigger us to act. Instead, we focus on what we intend to do. For instance, a typical plan to improve oral hygiene might be: “I’m going to start flossing more.” Peter’s work shows it’s vital to link that intention with a cue, such as a specific time, place, or action. If you want to floss more regularly, a helpful tweak to your plan would be to say, “Every night after brushing my teeth; I’m going to floss.”
Forming an implementation intention is as simple as filling in the blanks in the sentence “When ______ happens, I’ll do _____.”
Todd and I had a theory that the more distinctive the cie, the more effective it would be at driving recall, and we turned out to be right. Customers who were instructed to look out for the stuffed alien were 36 percent more likely than the others to remember to redeem their 1 dollar off.
This study and a series of follow-up experiments taught us that while any cue is better than no cue, it’s best to rely on cues that are out of the ordinary. Encountering something odd in your path (like a toy alien) captures your attention, which is, after all, a limited resource.
Todd and David designed their script so a professional call center could deliver it to tens of thousands of registered voters in the three days leading up to a major U.S. primary. First, callers would ask registered voters if they planned to vote. If the reply was yes, they would follow up with three questions: (1) “What time do you expect you’ll head to the polls?” (2) “Where do you expect you’ll be coming from?” and (3) “What do you think you’ll be doing before you head out?” These questions were selected to ensure voters had carefully considered the cues (time, location, and activity) that would remind them it was time to vote.
Together, all of this research on planning prompts has convinced me that encouraging people to make a plan, whether over the phone or in the privacy of their own homes, is an underappreciated way to combat flaking out. Naturally, thinking through the where and when of anything I want to get done is now a strategy that I rely on constantly in both my personal and professional life. I use it to make sure I get vaccinated, pay bills, exercise, and check in with students. And I use it to help other people, too. When my friend Jason told me he’d been meaning to write a letter of gratitude to a former mentor and kept flaking out, I asked him the date and time when he would write it, how he would write it (email or snail mail?), and if his plan was entered in his calendar. Then I sent him a timely reminder. Not only did Jason’s mentor get a letter of gratitude that week; I got one, too.
Just remember to consider the how, when, and where: How will you do it? When will you do it? Where will you do it?
But laziness isn’t always a vice. Instead of seeing our inherent laziness as a bug, I regard it as a feature with many upsides. White it can unquestionably get in the way of behavior change, it also prevents us from wasting oodles of time and energy.
If defaults are set wisely, you’ll still end up making the best decision even if you don’t lift a finger – an opportunity most of us relish, thanks to our efficiency-loving operating systems.
Recognizing this gave Lauren a creative idea. Too often, we assume that the obstacle to change in others is ignorance, and so we offer advice to mend that gap. But what if the problem isn’t ignorance but confidence–and our unsolicited wisdom isn’t making things better but worse?
Today would be different. The time, they were being asked for their advice. This lucky group of students was invited to offer guidance to their younger peers through a ten-minute online survey. They were peppered with questions such as “What helps you avoid procrastinating?” “Where do you go to do focused studying?” and “What genera tips would you give someone hoping to do better in school?”… Lo and behold, our strategy had worked. dents who had given just a few minutes of advice performed these classes than other students.
Ask yourself: “If a friend or colleague were struggling with the same problem, what advice would I offer?” Taking perspective can help you approach the same problem with greater confidence and insight. If you’re a manager, it might seem counter intuitive to place under-performing employees into mentoring roles. But it could boost lagging performance.
The study’s key revelation was simple, but profound: Our expectations shape our outcomes. This turns out to be a good summary of one of the most influential discoveries psychologists have made in the past fifty years–that how we think about something affects how it is… If you’re wondering how this can possibly work, scientists like Nia Crum have a lot of answers. They’ve shown that our expectations about what will happen can influence what actually happens in four key ways. First, our beliefs can change our emotions. If you have positive expectations, that often generates positive feelings, which have a host of physiological benefits such as alleviating stress and reducing blood pressure. And that can make a big difference in what happens next.
Our beliefs can also redirect our attention. Take the housekeepers described above. If they started paying closer attention to the ways in which their work was like exercise, they may have interpreted their physical exhaustion more positively throughout a long workday, helping them press on. There is also evidence that beliefs can change motivation. Again, consider the housekeepers. Their motivation to get high-quality exercise on the job likely increased once they started thinking of work as an opportunity to improve their fitness.
And finally, beliefs can affect our physiology-not just through our emotions, but directly.
Because George believed he was supposed to find a solution, he did.
I’ve since learned that many great leaders have a similar contagious belief that the people on their team will grow and flourish. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO who presided over decades of extraordinary profitability at GE, was well-known for his devotion to developing his employees’ leadership skills and his belief in their capacity to improve.
Why we soak up social norms: My students are responding exactly how I asked them to in an email I sent the night before. Each year, I reach out to all but three people enrolled in my class announcing that at the start of the next day’s lecture, I’ll show a picture of our school’s dean in my slideshow. The email provides clear instructions. When they see the photo, I want them to applaud enthusiastically. But not everyone in the class is getting this message, I explain, so please don’t forward or discuss it. The plan is to see how the three students I’ve left off my e-list will react when the rest of the room claps for the dean. Will they watch in bewilderment? Or will they join in?
Scott’s findings show just how important it is to be in good company when you hope to achieve big goals and how harmful it can be to have peers who aren’t high achievers. A growing body of evidence suggests that the people you’ve spent time with have been shaping your behavior your whole life, often without your knowledge.
In mentoring students, though, we’ve both been surprised by how often a simple suggestion-“Did you think about asking your friend who’s acing this class how she studies?” leads to a blank stare. Of course, we know that some copying and pasting occurs naturally. My MBA students copy their clapping classmates. And when Kassie lived in close quarters with vegetarians, she realized she could and should imitate their approach if she wanted to change her diet. But Angela and I suspected that many people never wake up to the opportunity to deliberately emulate their peers.
We’re more influenced by observation than by advice.
Happily, it’s easy to turn yourself into a deliberate copy-and-paster. The next time you’re falling short of a goal, look to high-achieving peers for answers. If you’d like to get more sleep, a well-rested friend with a similar lifestyle may be able to help. If you’d like to commute on public transit, don’t just look up the train schedules talk to a neighbor who’s already abandoned her car. You’re likely to go further faster if you find the person who’s already achieving what you want to achieve and copy and paste their tactics than if you simply let social forces influence you through osmosis.
Social influence tactics can add far more value when the focus is on concrete, immediately achievable goals, such as voting or spending fewer hours on social media rather than more long-term or abstract goals, like saving more for retirement.
And if you’re hoping to get more employees to participate in workplace training or mentoring programs, consider posting public sign-up lists. Social pressure to do the “right” thing will build, and as the list grows, social norms will also work in your favor – it will become clear that signing up is cool.
Your decisions are heavily influenced by the norms in your peer group, so it’s important to be in good company when you hope to achieve big goals, and it can be harmful to have peers who are low achievers.
If a behavior is merely growing in popularity, rather than an existing norm, sharing information about that upward trend can change others’ behavior.
Changing for Good
Kevin offered up some unforgettable words of wisdom: “When we diagnose someone with diabetes, we don’t put them on insulin for a month, take them off of it, and expect them to be cured.” In medicine, doctors recognize that chronic diseases require a lifetime of treatment. Why do we assume that behavior change is any different? I felt like slapping myself in the forehead. Once I got it, Kevin’s point was so obvious that I was embarrassed I’d needed it spelled out .Study after study (mine included) has shown that achieving transformative behavior change is more like treating a chronic disease than curing a rash. You can’t just slap a little ointment on it and expect it to clear up forever. The internal obstacles that stand in the way of change, which I’ve described in this book–obstacles such as temptation, forgetfulness, underconfidence, and laziness–are like the symptoms of a chronic disease. They won’t just go away once you’ve started “treating” them. They’re human nature and require constant vigilance.
If you’ve tried really hard to achieve a goal using all of the wizardry that you can muster but still aren’t seeing results, it’s a good time to consider new ways to reach the same end and give yourself a fresh start. Not only do the obstacles that you face require tailored solutions; you need tailored goals that acknowledge and match your strengths and weaknesses.