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A Behavioral Scientist's Advice For Changing Your Life

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

So much has happened in the past year and a half — our lives and livelihoods were upended by a pandemic. Change happened all around us. What if we want to change ourselves? The field of behavioral science has some answers. Author and researcher Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School is out with a new book,  How to Change, that's packed with research-backed paths to personal growth. Science has tried-and-tested methods to help us stop procrastinating, save more money and make healthier choices. She says that if we apply these lessons more widely, they have life-lengthening and even lifesaving potential. A decade ago, Milkman saw a statistic she calls "completely mind-boggling":  40% of premature deaths are due to behaviors that can be changed. That's one reason she wanted to share her findings widely, she says. Milkman shared some of the most actionable lessons from her research with Life Kit. This knowledge is for anyone who has a goal and wants to reach it — or the managers and mentors helping employees get there.

"Too much rigidity is the enemy of a good habit"

If you're trying to develop a habit like working out regularly or writing each day, letting yourself have a little leeway is the way to make that habit stick. In one of Milkman's studies, she and her colleagues tried to motivate Google employees to work out regularly at the company gym and build a lasting workout habit. The conventional wisdom was that those with a consistent routine form the stickiest habits. They tested this out with two groups. Members of both groups told the researchers they had an "ideal" workout time. One group was encouraged to go to the gym at that set time for each visit, while members of the second group got a reminder to go at their "ideal" time but were encouraged to work out whenever they could fit it in. The results? Members of the group that worked out on a strict schedule simply didn't go to the gym if they missed that window, while the more flexible group formed a more lasting workout habit. The lesson here? A key component of habit is having some flexibility.

One counterintuitive strategy to beat procrastination

Procrastination is such a beastly barrier to behavior change because of something that economists call "present bias" — we value the rewards we can get in this instant above the rewards we'll achieve in the long run. How do we solve it? "We're really used to it when other people try to set up boundaries for us — set deadlines, set restrictions on us," Milkman says. She suggests a counterintuitive idea: deploying those restrictions on ourselves. These restrictions could be deadlines: Research shows that when college students chose deadlines with actual late penalties, it improved their performance in school. They could also be financial. If you know when you might procrastinate, impose a fine on your future self and commit to paying if you don't follow through with your goals. These are called "cash commitments," and websites like Beeminder and stickK will sell you commitment devices to let you put money on the line.

Remember the power of fresh starts.

We humans tend to organize time around events or exiting one chapter in life and entering another. "You have ... this extra motivation to pursue change because you feel like, 'That was the old me. This is the new me, and the new me has a clean slate and can do it.' So it's really freeing," Milkman says. Recognizing and highlighting opportunities to create fresh starts, even if they're small, like the start of a new week, can change behavior. Research from Milkman and her colleagues shows that just flagging an upcoming birthday can encourage people to start saving more for retirement. Fresh starts occur at a high frequency. Mondays are a strong fresh start in our minds. "When we just look at when people choose to pursue healthy activities or start new goals, Mondays are a big motive," Milkman says.

Making accountability public can be a powerful motivator — for good!

We know the negative emotions associated with feeling like you're being watched by other people. But Milkman writes about ways that public accountability can be used to help us behave more generously. Just like with procrastination, you can use accountability partners as a way to enforce a "penalty" on yourself. "If you tell someone whose opinion you care about that you intend to do thing X — you know, 'I'm going to pass my CPA exam by this date' or 'I'm going to run a marathon on this date'... and then you don't do it? Well, that's basically a penalty, right? Because now you have shame and embarrassment," Milkman explains.

Change isn't one and done.

Despite all the helpful takeaways from her research, Milkman compares the process of making change or achieving tough goals to treating a chronic disease rather than curing a rash. It's an insight she credits to  her colleague Kevin Volpp. There's no quick fix if you want change to last, Milkman says. Quitting smoking or eating right for a month won't magically make you healthy — lasting change requires lasting attention. "The barriers to change — it's not like those things just go away after you work on them for a month," Milkman says. "They're not curable. They're part of the human condition."

The podcast portion of this episode was produced by  Clare Lombardo . Daniel Shukhin provided engineering support. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at  LifeKit@npr.org . For more Life Kit,  subscribe to our newsletter .