How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be


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Wall Street Journal bestseller

“A welcome revelation.” —The Financial Times

Award-winning Wharton Professor and Choiceology podcast host Katy Milkman has devoted her career to the study of behavior change. In this ground-breaking book, Milkman reveals a proven path that can take you from where you are to where you want to be, with a foreword from psychologist Angela Duckworth, the best-selling author of Grit.

Change comes most readily when you understand what's standing between you and success and tailor your solution to that roadblock. If you want to work out more but find exercise difficult and boring, downloading a goal-setting app probably won't help. But what if, instead, you transformed your workouts so they became a source of pleasure instead of a chore? Turning an uphill battle into a downhill one is the key to success.

Drawing on Milkman's original research and the work of her world-renowned scientific collaborators, How to Change shares strategic methods for identifying and overcoming common barriers to change, such as impulsivity, procrastination, and forgetfulness. Through case studies and engaging stories, you’ll learn:

Why timing can be everything when it comes to making a change
How to turn temptation and inertia into assets
That giving advice, even if it's about something you're struggling with, can help you achieve more

Whether you're a manager, coach, or teacher aiming to help others change for the better or are struggling to kick-start change yourself, How to Change offers an invaluable, science-based blueprint for achieving your goals, once and for all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593083758
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 70,425
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist and Professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the course of her career, she has worked with or advised dozens of organizations on how to encourage positive change, including Google, the U.S. Department of Defense, the American Red Cross, and Morningstar. Her research is regularly featured by major media outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR. She currently co-directs the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and hosts Choiceology, a popular Charles Schwab podcast about behavioral economics.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Getting Started


When I first visited Google's sprawling corporate headquarters in 2012, I felt like a kid entering Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The company's campus in Mountain View, California, boasts state-of-the-art everything, with a bit of whimsy on top. As I wound my way between office buildings, I encountered beach volleyball courts, fanciful sculptures, a gift shop stocked with branded tchotchkes, and free world-class restaurants. It was stunning.


Google had invited me and a group of other academics to its headquarters to attend a retreat for its senior human resources directors, but I couldn't help wondering what this company-one of the world's most innovative and successful-could possibly need from us. The smiling employees whizzing by on bikes painted in the primary colors of their company's logo certainly didn't look like they had any problems. Google had raked in 38 billion dollars in revenue the year before my visit.


But everyone has problems-even Google.


The company had convened the retreat to find new ways to help its employees make better decisions both at work and at home, with a particular emphasis on improving their productivity as well as their health and financial security (both of which have been linked to improved work performance). Midway through the event, Prasad Setty, a Wharton alum and Google vice president who had been in human resources for several years, asked me a seemingly innocuous question that would set me on the path to one of my most significant discoveries.


Google, he explained, offered its employees a wide range of benefits and programs designed to make their lives and jobs better and to solve such problems as undersaving for retirement, overuse of social media, physical inactivity, unhealthy eating, and smoking. But oddly enough, these programs weren't widely used. Prasad was both puzzled and frustrated that so many programs his team had created (which Google paid dearly for) went largely ignored. Why weren't employees clamoring to take advantage of free skill-building classes? Why weren't they all signing up for the company's 401(k) match and personal trainers?


Prasad had considered a few possible explanations, all of them plausible enough. Maybe the programs were being poorly advertised. Or maybe employees were just too busy to take advantage of them. But he also wondered about timing. Did I know, he asked, when Google should encourage employees to take advantage of these resources? Was there some ideal moment on the calendar or in someone's career to encourage behavior change?


I paused. Prasad's question was clearly important, and yet, to my knowledge, academics had largely overlooked it. If we hoped to effectively promote behavior change, of course we would need to understand when to begin.


Although I didn't have an easy answer for Prasad, I did have a hunch. I told him that before I could offer a reply grounded in solid evidence, I would need to review the academic literature and gather some data of my own. I started itching to get back to my research team in Philadelphia.


The Power of a Blank Slate


Prasad was hardly the first leader I'd met who was perplexed by the stubborn persistence of unhealthy or unproductive behavior. I've spent countless hours talking with frustrated public health officials about how to reduce smoking, boost physical activity, improve diets, and increase vaccinations, and that's just for starters. I often hear the same exasperated plea: If you can't persuade people to alter their behavior by telling them that change is simple, cheap, and good for them, what magical ingredient will do the trick?


This book will offer many answers to that question (the most important being "It depends"), but one is particularly relevant to Prasad's problem. It starts with a remarkable medical success story.


Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. Each year, tens of thousands of babies around the world die suddenly and inexplicably while sleeping. For years, SIDS has been a leading cause of death among infants in the United States between one month and one year of age. I remember being petrified when my pediatrician explained the risk factors during a checkup for my newborn son.


For decades, the medical establishment was at a loss over what to do about SIDS. But then, in the early 1990s, researchers made a major breakthrough. They discovered that infants put to sleep on their backs died of SIDS at half the rate of babies put to sleep on their stomachs. Half!


This was a discovery worthy of celebration-and fast action. It presented an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives, so naturally, the public health community wasted no time spreading the word. The U.S. government launched an ambitious "Back to Sleep" campaign to educate new parents about the importance of placing babies to sleep on their backs. The National Institutes of Health flooded the airwaves with commercials and filled hospitals and doctors' offices with brochures.


Of course, there was no guarantee of success. Many such campaigns fail, which explains my frequent phone calls with frustrated public health officials. Just consider the recent high-profile attempt to reduce obesity by requiring calorie labeling in chain restaurants. It turns out that telling people how many calories are in a Big Mac or a Frappuccino reduces calorie consumption, well . . . essentially not at all. Or consider the efforts by U.S. health authorities, starting in 2010, to persuade Americans to get annual flu shots. The effects have been minimal at best: 43 percent of Americans now get flu shots, up from 39 percent before the policy was implemented. So there was every reason to expect that the Back to Sleep campaign would be the same old story, making only a small dent in a massive problem.


Thankfully, the campaign worked wonders. Between 1993 and 2010, the percentage of infants put to sleep on their backs in the United States shot up, more than quadrupling from 17 percent to 73 percent, and deaths from SIDS plummeted. The message hasn't gone out of style. In 2016, decades after the campaign began, my doctor handed me a Back to Sleep pamphlet when I gave birth in Philadelphia.


But if Back to Sleep was unquestionably a huge success, why had so many other, similar campaigns floundered? Prasad's question about timing inspired me to formulate a hypothesis.


The moment you become a parent is unquestionably one of life's starkest turning points. Just a day before your child's arrival, there was no helpless baby to feed, clothe, protect, and soothe; then boom-all of that changes. Everything about parenthood is new and different, and as a result, you have no old habits to break, no long-standing routines to disrupt. You're truly starting fresh, for better and worse. The message of Back to Sleep arrives at this critical juncture, when you're not yet set in your ways and are motivated to try to do everything right. My hunch was that the timing couldn't be better for changing patterns in people's behavior. No matter what your parents did or their parents before that, when a doctor tells you that it's vital to put your baby to sleep on their back, you're eager to comply and don't have to fight against bad habits.


Compare this with a public health campaign that attempts to influence eating, smoking, or vaccination habits for adults. These kinds of initiatives catch us in the middle of our busy lives, with entrenched routines that limit our openness to change. Even though the information can make the difference between life and death, it's no wonder that we often ignore it.


After my visit to Google, I came to suspect that this was an incredibly important but underappreciated insight: if you want to change your behavior or someone else's, you're at a huge advantage if you begin with a blank slate-a fresh start-and no old habits working against you.


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.


But thankfully, change in the absence of a blank slate isn't hopeless-it's just hard. The hunch I had at Google was that there might be a way to harness the feeling of a blank slate, even in moments when no true tabula rasa exists.




As soon as I got back from my visit to Google in 2012, I set up a meeting with my doctoral student Hengchen Dai (now a professor at UCLA) and Jason Riis, a visiting faculty member from Harvard. I was eager to tell them about Prasad's question and my intuition that people might be more open to change when they feel they have a fresh start.


As I explained my thinking, Hengchen and Jason lit up. Like me, they immediately grasped that timing could be critically important to change. We knew that people instinctively gravitate toward moments that feel like fresh starts when they want to make change happen. Just think of New Year's resolutions. And yet economic theory has always posited that our preferences remain stable over time unless we face changing circumstances, such as new constraints, new information, or a price shock that forces an adjustment to our beliefs or budget. Hengchen, Jason, and I suspected this assumption was incorrect and that there were, in fact, systematic and predictable moments when our circumstances don't change but we still feel compelled to change ourselves. In our excitement, we began sharing stories of times when fresh starts had prompted us to behave differently, discussing what each example had in common, and searching for insights about why our motivation had shifted.


Most of the changes we'd initiated around fresh starts had been small-working to kick a nail-biting habit, getting back behind the steering wheel after a driving scare, or exploring new dating strategies after a romantic slump. But I'd heard stories about more momentous changes, too. Take Scott Harrison, author of the bestselling book Thirst, for example. Scott famously took inspiration from New Year's Day to abandon his profession as a hard-partying club promoter for a life of sobriety and nonprofit work. Fresh starts seemed capable of inspiring substantial change.


During our team huddle, Hengchen, Jason, and I were particularly quick to acknowledge the power of the New Year, but we had a sense that this was just one well-known example of a broader phenomenon-one of many moments when people feel especially ready to change because they have the sense that they've been given a fresh start. The challenge would be to identify other moments that provoke the same reaction and to understand how and why they can unstick us and motivate change.


To get started, Hengchen began digging into existing research on how people think about special dates such as New Year's, and she came back with an intriguing discovery. Her search led her to a literature in psychology on how people think about the passage of time. She learned that rather than perceiving time as a continuum, we tend to think about our lives in "episodes," creating story arcs from the notable incidents, or chapters, in our lives. One chapter might start the day you move into your college dorm ("the college years"), another with your first job ("the consulting era"), another on your fortieth birthday, and yet another at the start of a new year or millennium.


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. We go from "student" to "working professional"; "renter" to "homeowner"; "single" to "married"; "adult" to "parent"; "New Yorker" to "Californian"; "denizen of the 90s" to "twenty-first-century American" all in the flip of a switch. And labels matter to our behavior. When we're labeled "voters" (instead of people who vote), "carrot eaters" (instead of people who eat carrots whenever they can), and "Shakespeare readers" (instead of people who read Shakespeare a lot), it influences how we act, not just how we describe ourselves.


If you've ever made a New Year's resolution, confidently predicting that the "new you" in the "new year" would be able to make a change, the potency of labels may resonate. Probably my favorite story about the power of New Year's comes from Ray Zahab, who was a guest on a podcast I host about decision making. Ray used the arrival of a new millennium, which ended the 1990s chapter of his life and began a new chapter, to turn his life around.


Before he managed to transform his life, Ray was a heavy smoker and drinker who would sometimes eat McDonald's for every meal. But when he reached his early thirties, Ray was desperate to make a change. He was tired of being broke and out of shape.


He wondered if he could be more like his brother, a successful long-distance runner, but he knew long-distance running was out of the question for a smoker. The obvious first step would be to quit. But he just couldn't. He tried and tried, but the cravings always pulled him back. He needed something more to push him over the edge.


And then Ray had an idea. He would use the turn of the century-New Year's Eve, 1999-to quit for good. "I used that date because it had such a huge finality, it seemed, in everyone's minds," Ray explained. "I mean, it was the end of the century, right? This was a reset switch for humanity."


Shortly before midnight on December 31, Ray smoked his last cigarette. "If I can't do it now, then I'll never be able to do it," he told himself.


The next morning, Ray woke up with a strong craving for a cigarette. "But it was January 1, 2000," he recalled, and with the arrival of the new millennium, he had crossed an important threshold-he was no longer the same Ray who had been unable to kick his nicotine habit. "Something in me, a little spark, said 'I can do this.'"


And Ray did do it-he quit for good.


In 2003, he won the 100-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, one of the world's most extreme endurance races. He's quick to note that his victory started on the first day of 2000. That moment made everything else possible.


Ray is a dramatic example of someone who took inspiration from the start of a new year to make a life change. But every January 1, about 40 percent of Americans resolve to make life improvements: to get fit, save more for retirement, quit drinking, or learn a foreign language.


With the shift to a new year, it's almost as if past attempts to stay off social media, earn As in school, be a better colleague, and eat healthier can be dismissed as the failures of another person. Last year you couldn't cut it at work or failed to quit smoking, but "that was the old me," you think, "and this is the new me."

Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Introduction 1

Tackling the Obstacles to Change

Chapter 1 Getting Started 13

Chapter 2 Impulsivity 37

Chapter 3 Procrastination 61

Chapter 4 Forgetfulness 87

Chapter 5 Laziness 117

Chapter 6 Confidence 143

Chapter 7 Conformity 169


Chapter 8 Changing for Good 195

Acknowledgments 203

Notes 209

Index 239

About the Author 251

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