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How to become who you want to be
Behavioral economist Katy Milkman on how to make lasting behavioral change and reach your goals
“Sometimes things change, right? So your strategy needs to adapt. Try not to be too inelastic or narrow-minded when it comes to pursuing change.”
Behavioral economist Katy Milkman was shocked to find that 40% of premature deaths in the U.S. are the result of our daily decisions—things like what to eat or drink, and whether to buckle our seatbelts. Over time, these decisions add up, leading to fatal accidents and disease. This revelation inspired Katy’s interest in the inverse: how small decisions can accumulate and impact our health, finances, and other dimensions of life for the better. The problem is most attempts to change fail. To create lasting behavior change, Katy shares the results of her research, including six practical tips.
These notes were based on five episodes of The Next Big Idea Daily (58 minutes total). You can catch the first episode on Spotify.
Identify the biggest barrier to your goal. Then create a tailored plan to address it. Katy warns against following one-size-fits-all advice to reach your goals—suggestions like “Set reminders for yourself” and “Think positive thoughts.” Just like a doctor identifies a patient’s ailment before prescribing treatment, you should pinpoint your goal’s biggest obstacle so you can better plan how to address it. Does pursuing your goal cause misery? That could mean an issue of motivation. Or is it a confidence problem, where you don’t believe you’re actually capable of achieving something? It might even be a structural barrier, like a lack of time in your schedule. Whatever the case, naming your biggest blocker is a prerequisite to designing an effective plan of attack.
Break big goals into bite-sized pieces. Katy describes research by one of her PhD students, Aneesh Rai, who looked at volunteers for a crisis counseling organization. People had committed to 200 volunteer hours over the course of the year—but less than 5% actually reached this number. However, when the goal was reframed as “four hours every week” or “eight hours every two weeks,” people spent more time volunteering per week.
This research supports James Clear’s advice to build micro-habits. For any new lifestyle change you’re trying to make, what tiny thing can you do every day? Katy suggests using concrete numbers to set targets, like “spend 10 minutes doing X” or “read five pages daily.”
Plan around a fresh start. We often set New Year’s resolutions because of something called the “fresh start effect”—the timing makes us feel more motivated to pursue something new. But it’s not only the start of a new year that triggers this effect. So do other “new” beginnings like the first day of the week, month, season, semester, or quarter.
Make a painful task more enjoyable with “temptation bundling.” That involves pairing a “want” with a “should”—or in other words, linking an enjoyable experience with something less fun but that contributes to your goal. Katy, who came up with this concept, gives a few examples: combining guilty pleasure TV with exercise; saving your favorite snacks for study sessions; or indulging in wine only with home-cooked meals.
If we pursue change in a way that’s fun, not just effective, we persist longer. This is a reflection of present bias, our tendency to value small but immediate gratification over bigger but delayed rewards.
Form an advice club. Surprise: Giving advice—not just receiving it—can help you reach your own goals. That’s because getting asked for advice in the first place boosts our confidence. We feel clear about what we should do, but we also feel hypocritical if we don’t follow our own recommendations. To take advantage of this, Katy suggests forming an advice club, where friends with similar goals or values can consult one another for help. Whether you talk in person, by phone, or via Zoom, the idea is to use peer support to create positive change. The best part: everyone participating wins.
Create elastic habits. “We have this mental model that routines are built on consistency,” Katy says. But it turns out that being too rigid about your habits—like doing something at a specific time every day—hurts the longevity of those behaviors. Why? You’re more likely to get discouraged if you don’t reach that target.
In a month-long study of people trying to build an exercise habit, Katy and her fellow researchers looked at the difference between people who consistently went to the gym at the same time and people who mixed up the timing of their gym visits. After the program ended, the flexible group continued frequenting the gym more than those who had always gone at the same time. This doesn’t mean consistency hurts new habit formation—just that flexibility can help make change more sustainable.
You know those people who text back right away, like within minutes? I’m the opposite. My replies usually come several hours later, sometimes even after a few days. (My husband once joked that I’d be the worst person to call in case of an emergency, especially since I used to turn my phone on airplane mode before going to bed.)
I’m not totally sure why this is the case. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by message notifications. I also don’t like looking at my phone too much or even the physical act of texting on it. (I much prefer responding to messages with a full keyboard.)
But something I don’t like even more is the thought of being a bad friend, or at least, a very unresponsive one. While I don’t aspire to respond back in minutes, my goal is to become more reliably within reach—a habit I’ll be trying to build with Katy’s recommendations.
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