Speaking with Katy Milkman about “How to Change”

As soon as she picked up the phone for our interview, Katy Milkman was apologetic. It was the week of her book launch, and she’d been scheduled in back-to-back interviews—lunch hour be damned!—for several days. Would I mind if she nibbled on some almonds while we spoke?

I did not mind. I generally find it good practice not to forbid interview subjects from consuming food or water.

“Have you ever written a book?” Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, asked me. I told her I had not. She confessed that the experience had, so far, been an emotional roller coaster of pouring your entire self into an endeavor, and then wondering how it would be received.

It’s always refreshing when someone starts a conversation like this—by exposing their vulnerability and humanity. But it was perhaps even more refreshing coming from Milkman, whose extraordinary reputation precedes her.

Milkman is a pioneering scientist whose discoveries have become some of the most influential in the field. She found, for instance, that people are more likely to change their behaviors after a “fresh start”—think New Year’s Day, or even the first day of a new month—that offer the perception of a clean behavioral slate. And when Milkman couldn’t get herself to go to the gym as an engineering graduate student, she discovered the powerful strategy of “temptation bundling” when she realized it was much easier to exercise when she could combine a gym visit with listening to Harry Potter. Today, Milkman is the codirector of Behavior Change for Good* (BCFG), an interdisciplinary initiative that studies how to achieve sustainable behavior change at scale. Just recently, BCFG researched what works to encourage flu vaccine uptake in two mega-studies, and suggested the findings could also help in the COVID-19 vaccine quest.  

In her new book, How to Change, Milkman offers simple yet profound insights about why better understanding our own internal obstacles—such as laziness, procrastination, forgetfulness, or our tendency to favor instant gratification over long-term rewards—is key to changing ourselves for good. Too often, books deliver one-size-fits-all approaches to common goals, like getting in shape or eating healthier. But since the internal forces preventing me from starting a new habit might be different from those preventing you from starting the same one, that doesn’t really work. That’s why it’s essential to tailor the science to our own barriers, picking and choosing strategies where they fit the internal opponent we’re up against, says Milkman.

Each chapter is designed to help readers “solve” the problem of a specific internal obstacle, such as impulsivity or laziness. And each offers a cornucopia of the most effective behavior change strategies to counter it—everything from using a commitment device to make breaking a resolution more costly, to the power of giving someone advice (which can help you figure out how to handle a similar situation), to copy and pasting someone else’s tactics, to gamification (making a task or the pursuit of a goal more exciting by adding game-like elements to it).

Importantly, Milkman is also clear-eyed about the limitations of the behavioral science strategies she explores. While they are tools to make long-term, sustainable behavior change easier, they don’t necessarily make it easy. Buying a new bike to get around town might make it faster to run errands, but it doesn’t remove potential potholes in your path.

In between almond bites, Milkman talked about the role of belief in behavior change, what she’s learned about how to change from the game of tennis, and where people tend to go wrong in the quest to change behaviors. Our edited conversation is below. 

Elizabeth Weingarten: The realization that we could be better—and the desire to change our behaviors—is an ancient impulse. And, even with the many millions of self-help guides and gurus out there, it’s still, for virtually all of us, a major struggle. What do you think are people most likely to misunderstand about the path to behavior change? What are the most common mistakes people can make?

Katy Milkman: I think there’s an overemphasis on big goals. It’s not that goals aren’t useful. There’s tons of research showing that having a certain kind of goal—a clear, concrete, achievable goal, or a stretch goal—really is valuable. But it’s not solving a problem. It’s just articulating where you’re trying to get and giving you a clearer deliverable. And then there are all these barriers that get in the way. You still have to deal with the challenges of procrastination, temptation, forgetting, self-efficacy, and whether or not your peers are supporting you—all things I write about in the book.

There’s an overemphasis on big goals. It’s not that goals aren’t useful. There’s tons of research showing that having a certain kind of goal—a clear, concrete, achievable goal, or a stretch goal—really is valuable. But it’s not solving a problem.

So many people, when they interview me, are like: ‘Tell me about writing a goal down. That helps, right?’ And I’m like, who told you that? I don’t know of a study that shows that. Having a clear goal is helpful, but that’s so far from the solution. It drives me a little nuts that that myth is out there—that if you just choose your goal and focus on it and write it down, and it’s big and audacious, that you’re going to achieve it.

I wonder if the focus on “writing it down” is part of that ethos around belief as a path to self-actualization. This is an area where there’s a lot of nuance and complexity when it comes to what the science says. What does your research suggest about where belief can be powerful, and how we should think about its role in behavior change?

One of the barriers to behavior change is self-efficacy. The psychologist Al Bandura and others since have shown that if you don’t have self-efficacy you aren’t going to get very far. You need to believe it’s possible to even take the leap.

But there is a fine line. It would be useless to merely give people a bunch of confidence boosters, just as it would be useless to merely give people a bunch of goal-setting exercises. We can’t stop there. But I do think, in some cases, self-efficacy is a barrier—particularly in situations where people are subject to stereotypes. Whenever we’re getting the message in a strong way that you can’t do this, that’s going to hinder what we can achieve. There’s no question about that.

When you became a professor, you were determined to be a great mentor to your Ph.D. students. In the book, you write about a shocking statistic you discovered early on—that the average mental health metrics of students who are in leading social science Ph.D. programs look like incarcerated people in U.S. prisons. I was struck by the story you told about your academic mentor—Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman—and what you learned about his “secret” to having such a profound and positive impact on his mentees. What did you learn from him? 

Max has the Midas touch. His students all end up at top institutions with successful research careers. So when I was an assistant professor I reached out and basically said, “Max, I’m starting to mentor students and I need to know how you do it. What’s your formula?” And he wrote me this lovely email, and his key point was “It’s not me, it’s them. I get these great students and so they all succeed, of course.”

In the course of learning more about different ways people build confidence, one of the things I realized was Max had answered my question in his email when he said, “All of the students who come to me are excellent. It’s not me, it’s them.” That really was his attitude—this complete faith in his students, that they were going to succeed, and they were excellent.

He believed in his students, and he gave us that message so strongly that we came to believe in ourselves. That faith in a time when it’s so stressful and students need that support—that faith that they have what it takes to develop and thrive—it rubs off on them and is helpful. 

You write about internal forces of opposition that can prevent us from changing our behaviors, everything from procrastination to laziness to forgetfulness. In many cases, you identify behavioral science research that can help us address those internal forces. Are there any forces that behavioral design can’t solve for, or where its impact is still limited? 

The research of all of this is still kind of nascent. In writing the book, I try to synthesize and share all of the best science out there. I hope in 50 years that there will be a lot more to say about all of these topics, because I don’t think any of them are case closed. If I had to pick one that I would like to see more research done on, it would be getting up after failure.

It’s inevitable that we slip up in the course of trying to achieve anything worth achieving. We need to understand better how to deal with that falling off the wagon phenomenon.

In the book, this comes up in multiple chapters. For example, when I talk about the importance of flexible and elastic habits, and when I talk about Marissa Sharif’s work on mulligans or emergency reserves. [Her research shows that] that giving yourself a couple of emergency days off if you’re trying to do something seven days a week allows you to get back on the horse after a slip-up instead of succumbing to the “what the hell” effect, where you just say, “What the hell, I’m off track and I give up.”

It’s inevitable that we slip up in the course of trying to achieve anything worth achieving. We need to understand better how to deal with that falling off the wagon phenomenon. Fresh starts, at some level, are the brain’s psychological answer to that problem. They let us keep getting back up when we fall down. But we need more techniques and insights into how to consistently restart and begin again even if there’s not a rosy fresh start around the corner. 

Fresh starts are a particularly interesting phenomenon, since they relate to the psychology of how we think about and perceive the passage of time. What do we know about this, and how can that knowledge help us change? 

There’s some research from Michael Shum, who was studying autobiographical memory. A big takeaway from the literature he summarizes is that rather than think about time linearly, we think about our lives as if we’re the protagonist in a novel and chapters of our lives are unfolding. That’s how we categorize information and time. That means that life’s chapter breaks come with a sense of purpose. When you open a new chapter, you can feel like your identity is shifting. With that, comes this fresh start—the idea that I have this new clean slate on which to work toward my goals. Whatever I didn’t accomplish in the old era, this is the new me, and the new me can do it.

And that seems to be associated with positive things: people are more motivated to pursue their goals, search for the term diet, visit popular goal setting websites, or go to the gym on dates that they associate with fresh starts—the start of a new week, month, or year, start of a semester for students, or the celebration of holidays we associate with fresh starts, like New Year’s or a birthday. This is all related to these new beginnings and chapters in our lives, and the passage of time.

You’re a tennis player (so am I). Entire books have been written—for instance, the Inner Game of Tennis—about what we can learn from the sport about how to overcome internal barriers that can hold us back on the court and in life. What has your experience as a tennis player taught you about human behavior?

I discovered in writing the book that there were many more lessons than I have drawn from it than I ever would have imagined. I kept finding myself drawing back to the sport, and to things that had happened there. In the introduction, I write about the story of tennis player Andre Agassi and coach Brad Gilbert’s meeting, and the insight Brad Gilbert offered Andre Agassi about how to go from not reaching his potential to one of the most legendary players the sport has ever seen.

The story there is a story I learned from playing the sport, and it’s the same lesson now in my research, and that was the importance of strategy, the importance of recognizing your opponent. If in tennis you play a game that’s blind to your opponent, you do what feels right to you, what’s comfortable, what feels like it will be flashy. That’s a good way to lose to opponents you should be able to beat. The way you can beat people who are better than you is recognizing their weaknesses, and how to exploit those weaknesses.

The key lesson of my career studying behavior change was that the flashy shots, the big shiny goal, or one-size-fits-all thing we reach for—that’s not how you achieve it. It’s the smart, strategic, who’s your opponent, who are you up against, let’s tailor the strategy approach that really works.

The key lesson of my career studying behavior change was that the flashy shots, the big shiny goal, or one-size-fits-all thing we reach for—that’s not how you achieve it. It’s the smart, strategic, who’s your opponent, who are you up against, let’s tailor the strategy approach that really works.

You train in tennis not for the perfect situation but you hit the shot you need to hit on balance and off balance. If you just train to hit it in perfect circumstances, you’ll be a bad player. It’s the same idea in terms of training habits. If we build these rigid routines that will only work under perfect circumstances, they’ll crack under the pressure of reality.

You know most of what there is to know about how to change your behavior. But even as the author of this book, are there any habits or behaviors that you haven’t been able to start, or break?

Yes. Too many to list. I remember having a conversation with someone once who was like, there are two types of people who study people in science. There are the people who are like, “Oh, look at these peculiar creatures and the problems they have, everyone else is so weird, let me understand them better.” And then there are the people who are doing “me-search,” and they’re like, “I’m such a freaking mess, why am I such a mess? I need to figure this out! Maybe I can fix me!’

I definitely fall into the second category. I wasn’t a great student in high school. I was no superstar scholar. I got better at school as it went on. But there are many things I haven’t been good at in life, including that I still don’t think I have a perfect diet by any means. I’m often too rushed and not focused enough on eating the things that are good for me. I have a short temper and don’t manage that beautifully. I sometimes lack tact. This week has been particularly terrible. I spend too much time on social media and my phone when I should be focused on my five-year-old and husband. But I have found these these strategies help. And that’s part of why I wanted to write this book. Because I think there’s a lot more we can do than just hope or try harder, and I wanted other people to learn about those tactics. I think I’ve improved in leaps and bounds in so many aspects of my life using the science, but there’s so much room for improvement left.

Disclosure: Katy Milkman is the co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational donor in 2021. Organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.