from How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
All of us are familiar with the desire to improve our habits. Whether quitting a bad habit or starting a new one, we usually know what we want to do and why we want to change—but we often find the implementation considerably more challenging.
In her book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, behavioral scientist Katy Milkman offers advice on overcoming some of our most common obstacles to change. Milkman admirably balances an approach of “brain hacks”—old and new tips to “trick” ourselves into change—with the supporting science to explain why those tips work. With accessible writing, understandable data, and compelling stories, Milkman offers practical advice on how to change for long-term improvement.
For leaders looking to make changes, large or small, personal or professional, here are four ways to help overcome obstacles to change and make improvements for the long run:
1. Make change the default setting
Milkman acknowledges what we all know but hesitate to admit: laziness is an obstacle to change. In a perfect example, Milkman discusses how simply changing the default setting in a hospital prescription system to generic drugs vs. name brand saved the hospital $15 million overnight. No amount of reminding had accomplished such results in months of attempts. Ask yourself how you can make the change your “default” setting. For instance, if you need to reduce how often you use your phone, can you install an app to limit your time on other apps or functions?
2. Look for “fresh start” opportunities
Good news for everyone who wants to make a positive change: there’s a “fresh start” available every day—or at least every Monday! Milkman recommends taking advantage of fresh starts to implement change. “Fresh starts increase your motivation to change because they give you either a real clean slate or the impression of one,” says Milkman. “[T]hey relegate your failures more cleanly to the past, and they boost your optimism about the future.” Our lives are full of fresh starts. Aside from calendar resets at the week, month, quarter, or year, there are always birthdays, promotions, new jobs, a health scare, moves, and many other new beginnings. How can you leverage the next fresh start to make a positive change?
3. Make it fun—or at least less painful
What fun or tempting activity can you add to a less appealing activity to help promote change? Milkman recounts her own experience with trying to find time to exercise while she was in graduate school. After a busy day, the last thing she wanted to do was go to the gym; she’d rather curl up with a good novel and relax (and also avoid her studies). Milkman decided she would only allow herself to read novels while at the gym, thereby tempting herself to indulge in a preferred activity while undertaking a less appealing one. Milkman calls this “temptation bundling”—adding a tempting activity to one that’s less appealing. She likens this approach to the famous lyric from Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
4. Use conformity to your advantage
None of us want to think of ourselves as “conformists,” but in some instances, conformity can work to our advantage. Milkman calls it “copy and paste” and describes how she and her colleague, Angela Duckworth, frequently take tips from each other for improving productivity and effectiveness. “I’ve copied and pasted her strategy of handling work calls while she walks to the office, and she’s emulated my practice of drafting emails from preexisting templates,” she says. She recommends asking productive, effective colleagues what they do to accomplish so much. Can you copy and paste any behaviors that will improve your effectiveness?
Change is definitely not simple, and even with tips, tricks, and “brain hacks,” it can still be an uphill climb to the results we want to achieve. We are wired for homeostasis—that is, we want to stay exactly where we are, even if we know it’s not healthy, effective, or productive. With Milkman’s advice and approach that combines science with our natural inclinations, you can radically improve your chances of making positive changes—and becoming a more effective leader in the process.