Self Help

How to Change - The Science of Getting from - Katy Milkman

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Matheus Puppe

· 13 min read

The book provides practical strategies tailored to overcoming specific internal obstacles to change. The key insight is that changing behavior is challenging, but targeting your obstacles with customized solutions can increase your chances of success.

The author became interested in behavior change after learning that many health issues stem from poor choices. While general strategies like goal-setting and habit formation help, targeted strategies tailored to one’s obstacles tend to work best. The key is identifying your obstacles—your “opponent”—and addressing them.

The author reviewed research on changing behavior and worked with experts to develop tools helping people improve health, finances, education, and more. The book helps readers recognize their obstacles and provides proven solutions. Chapters focus on obstacles like forgetfulness, lack of confidence, laziness, temptation, and more.

An example illustrates the power of targeted solutions. Andre Agassi struggled in tennis until coach Brad Gilbert analyzed his specific obstacles. Gilbert saw Agassi focused too much on hitting winners, damaging confidence and focus. Gilbert’s targeted solution—focus on opponents’ weaknesses instead—helped Agassi become a champion.

The author hypothesized that “fresh starts,” like New Year’s or birthdays, prompt behavioral changes by providing a sense of renewal and optimism. Even without major life changes, fresh starts can inspire change. The author found evidence for a “fresh start effect”: people pursue change around moments feeling like new beginnings.

The calendar offers fresh starts, but life events, educational transitions, spirituality, and symbolic acts like cleaning also provide renewal and motivation for change. Fresh starts initiate change but can disrupt productivity or functioning habits. While messages emphasizing fresh starts increased some people’s retirement savings, they may demotivate others already taking action.

In summary, recognizing and utilizing fresh starts and targeted solutions can motivate change, but their impact depends on individuals and circumstances. Fresh start messages and disruptions may inspire some yet annoy or demotivate others. Targeted solutions tailored to obstacles tend to be most effective, helping turn aspirations into actions and victories. Overall, the book provides a helpful framework and practical tools for making lasting change.

  • Omar Andaya took over as CEO of Green Bank in the Philippines in the early 2000s. He wanted to help customers save more but wasn’t sure how.

  • Around 2002, academics proposed offering locked savings accounts that restrict withdrawals. Though counterintuitive, Andaya tested the idea.

  • Similarly, MIT professor Dan Ariely offered students the chance to set their own deadlines for assignments with penalties for missing them. Surprisingly, most chose deadlines, sacrificing flexibility.

  • Like Ariely’s study, 28% of Green Bank customers chose locked accounts, contradicting the notion that people always prefer more freedom over less.

  • The key insight is that sometimes constraints or reduced flexibility can motivate behavior change in a way that pure freedom does not. Giving up options can focus our decisions and strengthen our commitments to virtuous goals like saving money or completing work on time.

  • Andaya and Ariely’s stories show how a willingness to question assumptions and test unconventional ideas can lead to innovative solutions. Their openness to experiment allowed them to make surprising discoveries that challenged conventional wisdom.

The main points are:

  1. Constraints on freedom and flexibility can sometimes drive motivation and better choices.

  2. Questioning assumptions and testing counterintuitive ideas leads to innovation.

  3. Andaya and Ariely’s stories illustrate how openness to experimentation results in discoveries that challenge conventional thinking.

  4. Giving up options focuses decisions and strengthens commitment to goals like saving money or finishing work.

Does this summary accurately reflect the key ideas and conclusions from the examples? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand on any part of the summary.

  • People often fail to follow through on their intentions due to forgetting, not just lack of motivation. Forgetting is an extremely common human tendency and poses a major obstacle to accomplishing our goals.

  • On average, adults forget three things per day. Our memories fade quickly over time following an exponential decay pattern. Within a day, we forget about 70% of new information. Forgetting causes problems like lack of progress on resolutions, failure to get flu shots, and low voter turnout.

  • To counter forgetting, we need reminders and commitment devices. Reminders are most effective when timed right before we can act. Studies show reminders increase things like immunization rates, voter turnout, and savings.

  • “Implementation intentions” are very effective for overcoming forgetting. They involve linking your goals to specific cues that will prompt you to act, e.g. “When I get a raise, I’ll increase my retirement contribution.” Cue-based plans put your goals on autopilot so you don’t forget.

  • Having concrete plans and steps matter. Vague plans like “exercise more” are less helpful than specific plans like “go to the gym Tuesdays for 30 minutes.” Cue-based plans work because:

  1. Making detailed plans lodges them in your memory.
  2. Cues are closely linked to human recall. Distinctive, vivid cues are most effective.
  3. Cues trigger follow-through even when your memory fails.
  • An experiment showed people given distinctive cues (like an stuffed alien) were more likely to use a coupon (36% more) than those given ordinary cues. Distinctive cues make plans and intentions more salient, so we’re less prone to forgetting them.

  • The key takeaway is that cue-based planning and reminders can help combat the human tendency to forget by putting your goals and good intentions on autopilot. When we link our goals to specific prompts in the environment, we’re more likely to achieve them even if our memories fade.

Does this summary accurately reflect the key points regarding overcoming forgetting through strategies like cue-based planning, reminders and implementation intentions? Let me know if you have any feedback or need any clarification.

  • Steve Honeywell found that doctors at Penn Medicine were prescribing expensive brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generics, costing $15 million per year.

  • Simply reminding doctors to prescribe more generics did not work. But setting generics as the default option in the electronic health record system led doctors to dramatically increase generic prescriptions, saving $15 million per year.

  • This shows how powerful default options can be in driving behavior change. People tend to stick with defaults due to laziness and habits.

  • The author and John hypothesized that strict, consistent exercise routines would help Google employees develop better exercise habits. But their experiment found the opposite.

  • Employees rewarded for consistent workout times did form a habit of exercising at that time but struggled to adapt to changes. Employees rewarded for flexibility exercised more overall, showing they had built adaptable habits.

  • The author now believes that while routines are key to habits, flexibility is also important. Building in flexibility leads to stickier, more lasting habits that can adapt to obstacles.

  • The key to habit change is establishing a routine but also flexibility. start with a plan but learn to adapt. Too much rigidity will break the habit.

  • The author realized from being a teen tennis player that his coach used a mix of routine and flexibility. This combination of consistency and variability helped make skills automatic.

The key lessons are:

  1. Default options harness laziness and can create big behavior changes. But they only work for one-time decisions.

  2. For habits, build a routine but also flexibility. Strict consistency inhibits habit formation.

  3. A mix of routine and variability is key. This helps make behaviors automatic and adaptive to changes.

  4. Too much rigidity prevents habit formation and the adaptation needed for lasting change. Some flexibility is essential.

The key insight is that being flexible and maintaining an optimistic mindset helps make good habits stick. Success comes from viewing setbacks and small failures as temporary rather than permanent. A growth mindset, focusing on progress over time rather than specific outcomes, builds resilience.

  • Marissa Sharif allows herself “mulligans” or small emergencies when training for runs to avoid crises of confidence if she cannot complete one. Studies show mulligans help people achieve goals by permitting small failures. Success is a journey, not an endpoint.

  • How we interpret failure impacts our future success. A growth mindset leads to greater achievement. Teaching people to view failure as learning helps them succeed. Self-affirmation and focusing on past wins also builds motivation.

  • Some overconfidence helps pursue ambitious goals. But underconfidence stymies success. A strong support system and mentorship build confidence. Small signals expressing belief in others’ potential significantly impact their success. Praising hard work promotes a growth mindset. Asking for advice shows confidence in the other person.

  • Conformity, changing attitudes and behaviors to match a group, drives much human behavior. We conform to feel included, gain information, and adopt group norms. Studies show students’ achievement conforms to peers’ and people save more for retirement if their peers attend planning workshops.

The ability to be flexible in the face of small failures and setbacks allows good habits and motivation to stick over the long run. An optimistic mindset focused on growth and learning, rather than judging yourself or perceived limitations, builds the resilience and confidence to achieve goals and success. But success also depends on surrounding yourself with supportive people who share this mindset and believe in your potential.

  • We are highly influenced by the people around us, even if we don’t directly interact with or observe them. This is known as social imprinting. By observing and imitating successful peers, we can achieve our goals and adopt new habits. The most effective strategies for behavior change are ones we develop ourselves based on observing role models, rather than ones provided by others.

  • Social influence tactics, like showing how most people behave, can effectively change behavior, but they must be applied carefully. They tend to only work when the groups being compared are not too far apart in ability or performance. Large differences can lead to feelings of hopelessness and cause the tactics to backfire.

  • To make change stick, we need to treat it as an ongoing challenge and continue using solutions to overcome barriers permanently. Quick fixes rarely create lasting change. When efforts to promote change end, motivation and good habits tend to decay over time. But some positive effects can endure if we develop tailored solutions to address obstacles.

  • Change is often easier to maintain than initiate because the obstacles shift over time. Strategies that were once working may need recalibration. It’s important to revisit what’s impeding progress and make adjustments. Sometimes goals themselves need to change to better suit abilities and circumstances. There are usually many paths to the same end.

  • Identifying an ideal moment and leveraging it with a well-designed nudge can spark enduring behavior change, as Google demonstrated in promoting infant safe sleep practices. Their program helped thousands of new parents and likely saved lives.

  • The author struggled for years to make positive changes before finding success using science-based techniques to overcome obstacles, tailoring solutions to barriers, and sticking with them. Like the student who lost weight by understanding her specific obstacles, the author has achieved the best results from this approach. She received support from many people in writing this book.

  • Setty chose a time when new parents would be especially receptive to a message encouraging them to place infants to sleep on their backs. The target behavior was also made as easy as possible for parents to implement.

  • Leveraging opportune moments and simplifying desired behaviors are effective principles for nudging people towards positive change and habit formation. These techniques have the potential for huge impacts on individual and societal well-being.

  • Fresh starts like New Year’s Day or birthdays inspire people to set goals and make self-improvement plans. However, motivation from fresh starts often fades quickly without useful strategies like temptation bundling, reminders, and rewards.

  • Reminders overcome human forgetfulness and prompt task completion by keeping information at the top of mind and helping form concrete plans of action. Reminders improve outcomes in areas like health, finance, education, and politics.

  • Inertia and status quo bias are barriers to change that can be addressed through choice architecture like changing default options, using reminders, and providing feedback. Building good habits and confidence requires starting small, tracking progress, and consistent repetition.

  • Peer influence and social norms have significant impacts on behavior and motivation. Observing others’ behavior is particularly persuasive. Messages highlighting peer behavior have increased outcomes like towel reuse, voter turnout, and student achievement. However, social norms can negatively impact behavior by promoting harmful conformity.

Leveraging insights from psychology to motivate positive change at scale can lead to meaningful improvements in individual and societal well-being. Overall, the evidence suggests that nudging people towards better habits and outcomes requires opportune and strategic choices focusing on simplification, motivation, reminders, rewards, and peer influence. With creative application, these principles could help solve many complex problems.

Here is a summary of the key points from the experiments:

  • Social norms and peer influence can be used to promote positive behaviors, but it must be done carefully. It is best to focus on the benefits of positive behaviors rather than the consequences of negative ones. Need to consider individual factors that could undermine the influence of social norms.

  • Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram showed how people will conform to the majority and authority figures, even when it’s clearly wrong. But this influence can be used for good, e.g. to increase charitable giving, voter turnout, retirement savings.

  • Lasting change requires overcoming habits and obstacles. Useful tools include commitment devices, planning prompts, reminders, accountability, finding internal motivation. Framing life as new chapters can motivate change, but the effect fades. Continuous progress is better.

  • Beliefs and expectations shape outcomes. Confidence and optimism matter but must be balanced. Advice and encouragement can help or hurt others’ goals. Compliments should be meaningful. We can use social pressure at scale to spread good behaviors. But avoid coercion.

  • Giving autonomy and flexibility often improves outcomes. Growth mindset is better than fixed mindset. Rigidity limits options; build in flexibility. We underestimate forgetting and overestimate what we can do. Checklists, reminders, visualization help.

  • Linking tasks to cues helps follow through. Gamification and fun motivates. Commitment devices use consequences to bind you to intentions. Choose mentors carefully. Speaking positively about yourself shapes your reality.

  • Understand what motivates others to get their support. Tailor concrete goals to your interests and motivations. Break down big goals. Focus on your actions, not just outcomes.

  • Precommitment and deadlines overcome procrastination. Learn from mistakes and try again. Progress, not perfection. Voting and flu shot studies show the power of planning prompts, social influence, accountability.

  • Viewing stress as enhancing builds resilience. Golfers improve with ‘mulligans’. Building error cushions into systems helps achieve goals.

  • Lower socioeconomic status faces disadvantages from stigma and stereotypes. Self-affirmation helps. Hard work and planning pay off. Defaults are powerful; opt-out organ donation worked.

  • Habits need repetition and reward. Fresh starts help start/stop habits. Paying/prompting exercise frequency worked. IUDs and less opioid default worked.

The summary highlights how the key insights from behavioral science have been demonstrated through specific experiments and examples. The themes of overcoming human imperfections, using social influence and choice architecture for good, having the proper mindset and motivation, and building in cushions for error recur throughout many of the examples.

  • Dieters were more likely to start diets at the beginning of temporal landmarks like months or weeks. This shows how powerful these landmarks can be.

  • Locking money in savings accounts or putting money at stake can motivate saving and quitting smoking.

  • Exercising with a partner increases motivation and consistency. Paying people to exercise together led to higher rates of completing workouts.

  • Wikipedia articles that survive a long time without edits tend to be higher quality, showing how crowdsourcing can be self-correcting.

  • “Gamification” means applying game-like elements to real activities to motivate behavior like exercising, working, and learning.

  • Paying people to listen to audiobooks while exercising caused them to workout more often. Having an iPod partner increased exercise.

  • The performance drop was not clearly meaningful or just random. The results were inconclusive.

In summary, motivation and behavior change can often be encouraged using elements like accountability, competition, cooperation, rewards, temporal landmarks, money at stake, and gamification. Studies on dieters, savers, smokers, exercisers, and Wikipedia editors demonstrate these principles.

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About Matheus Puppe