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

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


The book receives widespread acclaim from leading authors, executives, and scientists. They praise it as:

•A must-read guide for improving your habits and life.

•Packed with the latest scientific insights on behavior change.

•An engaging, actionable roadmap for overcoming obstacles and becoming your best self.

•A master class in how behavior change works.

•A highlight reel of what scientists know about creating lasting change.

•Invaluable for success and achieving your goals.

•Full of clever insights, compelling stories, and practical strategies.

•Inspiring and essential reading for positive change.

•A much-needed instruction manual for understanding what derails you and how to overcome it.

•Extraordinary, magical, and likely to leave you feeling that change is possible.

•Engaging, important, and deeply valuable.

  • Andre Agassi's tennis career was struggling in the early 1990s. Despite his obvious talent and skill, he frequently lost in early rounds of tournaments to lesser players. His coach of 10 years had recently dropped him.

  • Agassi's manager suggested he meet with Brad Gilbert, a fellow tennis pro known for his quirky and methodical style of play. Though lacking Agassi's natural talent, Gilbert had been ranked in the top 20 for years. Gilbert agreed to meet with Agassi over dinner.

  • At the dinner, Gilbert gave Agassi blunt feedback. He said that if he had Agassi's skills, he'd be dominating the pro tour. Gilbert saw that Agassi was misusing his talent by trying to hit a winner on every shot, which was damaging his confidence each time he fell short. Gilbert said Agassi needed to stop focusing on himself and instead focus on his opponents' weaknesses.

  • Gilbert's message was that Agassi's self-focused style of always going for the knockout shot was not the most effective approach. A better way was adapting his game to capitalize on his opponents' weaknesses. This might be a less flashy style but would lead to more wins.

  • Agassi hired Gilbert as his coach. A few months later, at the U.S. Open, Agassi made it to the finals unseeded, surprising many. Using Gilbert's strategy of targeting opponents' weaknesses, Agassi won several upsets.

  • In the finals against Michael Stich, Agassi won the first two sets. But Stich made a comeback, tying the third set. Noticing Stich was cramping, Agassi broke his serve and went on to win his first U.S. Open, overcoming his previous tendency to crumble under pressure.

  • Gilbert's coaching and strategy were pivotal in helping the struggling Agassi revitalize his career.

• The author was interested in behavioral science and ways to help people change their behavior, especially after learning that 40% of premature deaths are due to poor personal health choices and decisions.

• She found that while general strategies for behavior change, like setting goals, establishing habits, and visualization, can be helpful, targeted strategies tailored to overcome specific obstacles are often much more effective.

• The key is first identifying the obstacles standing in the way of the change you want to make. These obstacles are the "opponent" you need to overcome, just like Andre Agassi focused on his opponents' weaknesses to become a better tennis player.

• The author reviewed research on behavior change from many fields and found that tailoring strategies to address the specific obstacles people face led to the best outcomes. She collaborated with experts to develop tools to help people improve their health, finances, education, and more.

• This book aims to help readers identify their obstacles to change and provide proven strategies tailored to overcoming them. The chapters focus on different internal obstacles like forgetfulness, lack of confidence, laziness, temptation, and more. Readers can use the book to recognize their obstacles and get help addressing them.

• The key insight is that changing behavior is hard, but you can increase your chances of success by "sizing up your opponent" - the obstacle inside your head - and developing a customized strategy to overcome it. A one-size-fits-all approach often doesn't work. Targeted strategies tailored to the challenge can be much more effective.

  • The author visited Google’s headquarters in 2012 and was impressed by the lavish campus and resources offered to employees. However, Google’s vice president of human resources noted that many of the benefit programs were underutilized by employees. He asked the author if there was an ideal time to encourage behavior change among employees.

  • The author didn’t have an immediate answer but was intrigued by the question. She hypothesized that people may be more open to change when they perceive a “fresh start.” She cited the success of the Back to Sleep campaign, which encouraged new parents to put infants to sleep on their backs to reduce SIDS. The campaign was very effective, likely because new parents were especially receptive to advice during such a major life transition.

  • In contrast, campaigns targeting entrenched habits of adults, like diet, exercise, and vaccination, have been much less successful. People are less open to change when they have busy routines and established ways of doing things.

  • The author shared her hypothesis with two colleagues, who were also excited by the idea. They recognized that people naturally gravitate toward moments that feel like a fresh start when they want to make a change. However, true “blank slates” where people have no habits or routines to disrupt are rare. The key may be finding ways to create the feeling of a fresh start even without a completely clean slate.

  • The author and colleagues set out to empirically test whether the perception of a fresh start could motivate behavior change, even without an actual major life transition. This became known as the “fresh start effect.”

  • Hengchen, Jason, and I suspected that there were systematic and predictable moments, unrelated to actual life changes, that compel people to change themselves. We shared stories of times when “fresh starts” inspired behavioral changes, from small habit changes to major life overhauls.

  • Research shows that people perceive time in “episodes” or chapters based on major life events. The start of a new chapter, like a new year or birthday, can provide a sense of a clean slate and motivate change. For example, Ray Zahab used the new millennium to quit smoking and get in shape, inspiring him to become an ultramarathoner.

  • We found evidence of a “fresh start effect”: people are more likely to pursue change around moments that feel like a new beginning. New beginnings provide psychological distance from past failures and optimism, helping overcome obstacles to change. For example, people are more likely to visit the gym, set goals, start diets, and make resolutions around new years, Mondays, holidays, birthdays, and semester starts.

  • Surveys show that fresh start dates provide a sense of renewal and being a “new person.” This explains why Mondays and birthdays inspire goal setting and the “new year, new you” mindset.

  • However, the calendar is not the only source of fresh starts. Meaningful life events like illnesses, moves, job changes, or relationships ending can also prompt reflection and motivation for change. For example, a health scare led Bob Pass to quit law and start a successful tennis academy.

  • Other potential fresh start triggers include educational transitions, spirituality or religious milestones, natural phenomena like sunrises, and symbolic acts like cleaning, decluttering, or journaling. The possibilities for harnessing fresh starts to inspire change seem numerous.

While calendar-based moments like New Year’s are powerful for change, meaningful life events and other symbolic acts may provide an even greater sense of renewal and opportunity for fresh starts. Recognizing and utilizing these moments can help motivate changes large and small.

  • A study found that 36% of successful life changes happened after people moved to a new place. In contrast, only 13% of unsuccessful changes followed a move. This suggests that physical disruptions to our environment can trigger fresh starts that help facilitate change.

  • Disruptions introduce new possibilities and help break old habits and routines. Even small disruptions, like trying a new coffee shop, can help. We should look for opportunities in life disruptions and transitions to reevaluate our priorities and make changes.

  • However, not all disruptions are helpful. Research found that while struggling performers benefited from "resets" that wiped away their past performance, top performers actually declined after resets. Resets harmed momentum and forced top performers to start over from scratch.

  • Examples show that interruptions and breaks can disrupt productivity and undo progress on new habits or routines. While fresh starts help initiate change, they can also disrupt what is working well. Those looking to maintain good habits should be cautious of unwelcome disruptions.

  • A field study found that messages emphasizing a fresh start and encouraging people to stop waiting and start saving for retirement led to increased sign-ups for retirement accounts, showing the potential power of framing messages around new beginnings. However, fresh start messages may only work for those not already taking action. For those with good financial habits, the messages could backfire.

While fresh starts and transitions can facilitate positive change by breaking old patterns, they can also disrupt productivity, momentum and well-functioning habits. The impact of any disruption depends on a person's current state and performance. Fresh start messages should be used carefully, as they may motivate some but demotivate or annoy others.

  • The researchers worked with university employees to help them start saving for retirement. They found that giving people the option to start saving at a "fresh start" date, like after their birthday or at the start of spring, was much more effective at getting them to start saving than offering them a random or ordinary date. This shows that tying suggestions for change to fresh start moments can make people more motivated to pursue those changes.

  • Surveys and studies with students also found that presenting a date as associated with a new beginning, like "the first day of spring," made people view it as a more attractive time to start pursuing their goals than presenting it as just an ordinary date. Follow-up research found similar results.

  • The power of fresh starts suggests that it may be possible to encourage more goal-directed behaviors by timing suggestions for change to coincide with fresh start moments. Google built a "moments engine" to detect when employees may be open to change and send them nudges at those times. Other organizations are also using fresh starts strategically.

  • While many New Year's resolutions fail, making resolutions at all puts you in the game and gives you a chance to succeed. Even if only 20% of resolutions succeed, that's still many people who changed their lives for the better by resolving to try. Fresh starts can inspire both small and transformative changes.

  • To make positive changes, look for fresh start opportunities like birthdays, the start of summer, Mondays, moving to a new place, changing routines, or breaking big goals into smaller ones. Fresh starts increase motivation, give you a clean slate, relegate past failures, and boost optimism. But don't disrupt what's already working well.

  • Once you find the right moment to start, focus on how to succeed in pursuing your goal. Fresh starts are a chance for a new beginning, but persistence and commitment are still required to achieve real change.

  • Fresh starts like new years or birthdays can prompt positive change but also interrupt progress. They are most effective for encouraging others to change.

  • Impulsivity, or favoring short-term rewards over long-term benefits, is a major barrier to change. We tend to focus on long-term goals without considering short-term discomfort.

  • An “eyes on the prize” approach to change often fails because we overestimate our willpower and ability to make good choices in the moment. We ignore our past failures and remain optimistic.

  • Recognizing this, researchers found people can tackle goals more effectively by making the process enjoyable in the short-term, not just focused on long-term benefits. Adding short-term rewards and pleasures helps overcome impulsivity and leads to greater success in achieving goals.

  • Examples: Adding enjoyment to exercise (fun workouts) and healthy eating (tastier options) helped people persist longer in these habits. The “spoonful of sugar” approach, adding short-term pleasure, can help overcome present bias.

  • Overall, the key takeaway is that we should focus not just on the benefits of goals but also on making the path to get there as enjoyable as possible in the moment. This helps overcome the tendency to favor short-term rewards over long-term benefits.

  • The author struggled to exercise as a graduate student and also had trouble avoiding procrastination in favor of reading fiction novels.

  • Her fiancé suggested she find a way to fix these problems. She came up with the idea of “temptation bundling” - only allowing herself to read while exercising. This helped motivate her to work out and avoid wasting time reading when she should be studying.

  • She applied temptation bundling to other areas of her life, like only getting pedicures while doing schoolwork or only watching TV while doing chores.

  • As a professor, she studied whether temptation bundling works for others. She ran an experiment offering people either iPods loaded with audiobooks they could only listen to at the gym or Barnes & Noble gift cards. Those with the iPods exercised 55% more.

  • Temptation bundling worked best for busy people with packed schedules. Their willpower was already depleted, so the strong temptation of the audiobooks helped motivate them to exercise.

  • A follow-up study found that just suggesting temptation bundling and offering free audiobooks increased the likelihood of people exercising by 7 percentage points for 17 weeks.

  • The key lessons are that temptation bundling is most effective when you literally have to do the activity you want to motivate (like going to the gym) to get the reward (like listening to an audiobook). But even just suggesting the strategy and providing small rewards can have a lasting impact.

  • Temptation bundling - pairing indulgences with “should” behaviors - can be an effective motivation and habit-building strategy.

  • It works best when the reward is directly tied to doing the desired behavior, but even suggestions and small rewards can help.

  • Temptation bundling is particularly useful for those with busy lives and depleted willpower.

  • The effects of temptation bundling can be long-lasting.

  • Researchers found that offering small rewards and recognition (like stars or badges) for volunteer work on Wikipedia increased participation and retention. This “gamification” strategy made the monotonous tasks more engaging and fun without actually changing the nature of the work.

  • Gamification was a popular strategy for companies to motivate employees, but it can also backfire. A study of salespeople found that adding a basketball-themed game did not actually improve sales performance or job satisfaction for most employees.

  • However, for employees who really “bought into” the game and entered the “magic circle,” gamification did lead to better outcomes. For these employees, the game made the job more intrinsically motivating and enjoyable.

  • The results suggest gamification needs to be carefully tailored to employees and the work involved. It works best when employees opt into the game and find the activities inherently rewarding, not just for external rewards. For monotonous or repetitive work, gamification may provide the extra motivation needed. But for complex or creative work, it could be distracting or demotivating if not well-designed.

  • More broadly, the studies show that motivation at work depends on more than just financial incentives. Recognition, feedback, and making tasks more engaging or meaningful are also important drivers of motivation and performance. This has implications for how companies retain employees and keep them productive.

The key takeaway is that motivation is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Both money and psychological factors drive people, so the most effective strategies tap into what specifically motivates a given individual or group. Carefully tailored “gamification” is one tool that can work, but only if implemented thoughtfully.

  • Present bias refers to our tendency to favor instantly gratifying temptations over larger long-term rewards. It is an obstacle to achieving our goals and changing our behaviors.

  • The “Mary Poppins approach” suggests making goal pursuit more fun and instantly gratifying. This helps overcome present bias by flipping the script so that instant gratification works for us rather than against us.

  • Temptation bundling combines a temptation (like watching TV) with a virtuous behavior (like exercising) that you tend to avoid. This reduces overindulgence in temptations and increases time spent on beneficial activities.

  • Gamification adds gamelike features (rewards, competition, leaderboards) to make goal pursuit more engaging and gratifying. It works well when people opt into the game but can backfire if participation seems mandatory.

  • Omar Andaya, a former president of Green Bank in the Philippines, wanted to encourage his customers to save more money. However, getting people to save more is difficult, even in wealthier countries. Andaya tried several approaches to motivate customers to save without much success.

  • Andaya’s breakthrough came when he learned about a savings program using a lottery. Customers who made regular deposits were entered into drawings for cash prizes. This program led to a ninefold increase in new accounts and savings rates jumped from less than 1% to over 6%.

  • The savings lottery appealed to people’s tendency to overvalue small probabilities, making saving feel more exciting and gratifying. It also tapped into people’s competitiveness by publicly announcing winners. This program illustrates how framing choices in the right way can motivate better decisions.

The key takeaway is that we can overcome obstacles like procrastination and present bias by making virtuous goals and behaviors instantly gratifying. Approaches like temptation bundling, gamification, and smart choice architecture can help us achieve what we want to achieve.

  • Around the early 2000s, Omar Andaya took over as CEO of Green Bank in the Philippines. At the time, 31% of Filipino families lived in poverty and 41% couldn’t afford an unexpected $2,000 expense. Omar wanted to help but wasn’t sure how.

  • In 2002, academics proposed that Green Bank offer locked savings accounts that restrict withdrawals. Many thought this was crazy since people usually prefer flexibility over constraints. But Omar saw potential and decided to test the idea.

  • Around the same time, MIT professor Dan Ariely was puzzled by how often his brilliant students procrastinated. He and a colleague ran an experiment offering students the option to set their own deadlines for assignments with grade penalties for missing them. Surprisingly, 68% chose deadlines, giving up flexibility.

  • Similar to the MIT study, 28% of Green Bank customers chose locked accounts, sacrificing flexibility. This contradicts economic theory that people always prefer more freedom over less.

  • There are other examples of people imposing constraints on themselves to resist temptation, like Odysseus having himself tied to his ship’s mast or Victor Hugo locking up his clothes to meet a deadline. Some economists have theorized that while people usually want flexibility, sometimes they prefer less freedom because it helps achieve long-term goals.

  • The key insight is that while dangling rewards (like high interest rates) is one way to motivate good behavior, using constraints to prevent bad impulses is also effective. Locked accounts and self-imposed deadlines make it harder to procrastinate and easier to save money or get work done. Sometimes handcuffing ourselves is the best way to accomplish what really matters to us.

  • Strotz and his students studied commitment devices, self-imposed restrictions that help people achieve long-term goals by reducing short-term temptations. Examples include locked bank accounts, strict deadlines, and diet plans.

  • Studies found that commitment devices can be very effective. People offered locked bank accounts saved 80% more. Students allowed to set their own deadlines made 50% fewer errors.

  • However, most people don't have access to commitment devices provided by companies or institutions. An easy DIY option is "cash commitment devices" - putting your own money on the line, with penalties if you fail to meet your goals.

  • Nick Winter, a tech entrepreneur, used a cash commitment device to motivate a major life change. He put $14,000 on the line, to be forfeited if he didn't write a book and go skydiving within 3 months. He succeeded, writing a popular book about his experiences.

  • Cash commitment devices provide a strong incentive to succeed by introducing significant penalties for failure. They're a simple but effective option for people seeking to improve their self-control and willpower.

  • Nick's story shows how cash commitment devices can be effective in helping people achieve their goals, even though they seem counterintuitive. These devices impose a cost for unwanted behavior to discourage it.

  • Cash commitments are versatile and only require money and someone to monitor progress. However, many people are hesitant to use them because they involve imposing costs or restrictions on yourself, and there is a chance of failure outside of your control.

  • An alternative to hard cash commitments are soft commitments like pledges. A study showed doctors who signed and displayed a pledge to avoid unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions ended up prescribing fewer of them. The pledge created a psychological cost for breaking it.

  • There is a range of commitment devices from soft (public goals, small plates) to hard (locked accounts, cash penalties). Hard commitments may be too extreme for some.

  • Soft commitments like pledges rely on "cognitive dissonance," the discomfort from acting against your stated values or word. This can be harnessed to motivate behavior change.

  • For example, a student named Karen lost 40 pounds by making weekly diet and exercise commitments to her nutritionist. The desire to not let herself or the nutritionist down motivated her to follow through.

While hard cash commitments can be very effective, softer commitments like public pledges may be better alternatives for those uncomfortable with strict penalties and restrictions. Soft commitments tap into the psychological motivation to stay consistent with our stated values and commitments to others.

  • Karen lost weight through weekly soft commitments to eat healthy and exercise. Soft commitments that are small, recurring, and achievable tend to be more effective than large, lofty goals. Research shows this “bite-size” approach leads to better follow through.

  • There are two types of people: “sophisticates” who recognize their self-control problems and use commitment devices, and “naïfs” who are overly optimistic in their willpower and don’t use commitment devices. Most people are naïfs, which is why commitment devices aren’t very popular despite being useful.

  • Managers often have to impose restrictions and costs on employees to counter temptation and help them achieve long-term goals. However, too much restriction can be overly controlling. The best approach is to encourage employees to make their own commitments when possible.

  • We don’t always have managers or policymakers creating commitments for us. Fortunately, we can use commitment devices on ourselves once we become “sophisticated” enough to see their value.

  • The key takeaways are:

  1. Present bias causes procrastination and impulsivity which derail long-term goals.

  2. Commitment devices are constraints that disrupt temptation and help achieve goals. Examples are locked savings accounts.

  3. Soft, recurring, achievable commitments tend to be most effective. The “bite-size” approach works best.

  4. Most people are “naïfs” who undervalue commitment devices, but educating them can turn them into “sophisticates.”

  5. Managers should encourage employees to make their own commitments when possible, though some restrictions may also be needed.

  6. We can use commitment devices on ourselves once we understand their value.

  • People frequently fail to follow through on their intentions and commitments due to forgetting, not just laziness or lack of caring. Forgetting is an extremely common human tendency.

  • On average, adults forget three things per day. Information is hard to retain in our brains, especially if we've only thought about it briefly.

  • A classic study showed how quickly people forget. A psychologist found he could only retain about 60% of nonsense syllables after 20 minutes and just 34% after 24 hours.

  • Forgetting causes many real-world problems, like voter turnout ("flake out"), failure to get flu shots, lack of progress on New Year's resolutions, and more.

  • Even people who care about an issue, like voting, can forget due to busy schedules and the tendency for memories and intentions to fade quickly. Forgetting is often an honest reason for failure to follow through, not just an excuse.

  • To counter forgetting, we need reminders and commitment devices to prompt us and lock in our good intentions. Multiple reminders, especially just before the moment of action, are most effective.

The key takeaway is that forgetting poses a significant obstacle to accomplishing our goals and following through on intentions. With the right strategies, however, we can overcome this human tendency. Reminders and commitment devices are two of the most useful tools for combating forgetfulness.

  • According to research, we tend to forget information quickly over time following an exponential decay pattern. Within 20 minutes, we forget about half of what we've learned. After a day, we forget 70%, and after a month about 80%. Forgetting is more common when we have a lot to remember and juggle many tasks.

  • Reminders can help reduce forgetting and prompt us to take action. Studies show reminders increase things like immunization rates, voter turnout, and savings deposits. However, reminders are most effective when we can act on them immediately. Reminders given too far in advance of when we can act are often forgotten.

  • A study at a hotel and casino showed that seat belt use increased by 25 percentage points (from 55% to 80%) when patrons were reminded to buckle up right as they entered their car versus a few minutes before. This shows the importance of the timing of reminders. Morning reminders about afternoon activities are often forgotten.

  • To combat forgetting, it's helpful to form "implementation intentions" by linking your goals to specific cues that will prompt you to act. A study at the University of Munich before Christmas break showed that students who formed cue-based plans for their goals were much more successful in achieving them (62%) versus those who didn't (22%).

  • Forming an implementation intention involves filling in the blanks of "When ___ happens, I'll do ___." For example, "Whenever I get a raise, I'll increase my monthly retirement savings" or "On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5pm, I'll spend an hour working on my online master's." The more detectable the cue, the more likely you are to achieve your goal.

  • Cue-based planning helps overcome forgetting by linking your intentions to the environments and situations where you're most likely to act on them. It puts your goals and good intentions on autopilot so you don't have to constantly remind yourself and risk forgetting.

Forgetting is common but cue-based planning that links goals to specific prompts for action can help achieve your intentions even when your memory fails you. Reminders work best when timed to coincide with opportunities to act. Cue-based planning puts your goals on autopilot so you don't forget.

  • To successfully enact a plan, having specific details and steps matters. Vague plans like “exercise more” are less helpful than concrete plans like “go to the gym Tuesdays and Thursdays for 30 minutes on the elliptical.”

  • Todd discovered research by Peter Gollwitzer showing that cue-based plans, which link a plan to a specific cue you expect to encounter, are very effective at combating forgetting and flake out. Cue-based plans work because:

  1. Making detailed plans requires effort, which lodges the plans in your memory.

  2. Cues are closely linked to human recall. Hearing a song or smelling food can trigger vivid memories.

  3. Distinctive, vivid cues are the most effective at triggering recall and follow-through.

  • Todd conducted an experiment giving people coupons for a cafe along with either an ordinary cue (a picture of the cash register) or a distinctive cue (a stuffed alien next to the cash register). Those given the distinctive cue were 36% more likely to remember to use their coupon.

  • The research on memory and cues relates to the ancient “memory palace” technique, where you associate items you want to remember with a familiar place. Vivid imagery and auditory mnemonics, like rhymes, can also make information more memorable.

  • Todd applied these insights to get-out-the-vote calls. He designed a script that prompted people to specify exactly how and when they would vote, creating a cue-based plan. In a test, these “planning prompts” increased voter turnout by 9%, especially helping those less inclined to vote.

The key lessons are:

  1. Concrete plans and implementation intentions work.

  2. Vivid, distinctive cues are very powerful for reminding people to follow through.

  3. Cue-based planning prompts can be applied in many domains to combat flake-out and boost motivation.

  • Voters who live alone or with non-voters (single-voter households) benefited more from being prompted to make a concrete plan for when and how they would vote. They were less likely to have already made such plans on their own.

  • Those in households with other voters (multi-voter households) were more likely to naturally discuss and coordinate voting plans together. So prompting them to make a plan was less effective.

  • It was unclear if planning prompts for flu shots would work as well since they were delivered by mail rather than phone. But an experiment showed that simply prompting people to write down the date and time they planned to get their shot increased vaccination rates by 13%. The effects were biggest for one-day vaccine clinics where remembering the correct date was crucial.

  • Planning prompts also increased colonoscopy screening rates, especially for groups likely to struggle with remembering like older adults, parents, those with less insurance, and previous non-responders.

  • Making a concrete plan is an underappreciated way to combat forgetting and flaking out. The author now relies on planning for many personal and professional tasks and helps others do the same.

  • In addition to combating forgetting, making a plan forces you to break big goals into smaller, more manageable steps. This is key to making progress on ambitious goals. Planning to get a promotion might lead you to identify steps like improving communication, networking, and skill building. Without breaking it down, the goal can feel overwhelming and hopeless.

  • An expert identified planning and breaking down goals into subgoals as the most useful insight from behavioral science for achieving your aims. While the author initially thought other strategies might be more impactful, she came to agree that planning was paramount.

  • Steve Honeywell, an analyst at Penn Medicine, discovered that doctors' overprescribing of brand-name drugs instead of cheaper generic alternatives had cost Penn Medicine and patients $15 million per year.

  • Doctors had been frequently reminded to prescribe more generics but did not change their behavior.

  • Then, overnight, Penn Medicine went from the worst prescriber of generics to the best, saving $15 million per year.

  • It turned out a default option had been added to the electronic health record system. Doctors now had to opt out of prescribing a generic drug rather than opting in. This small change led to huge savings.

  • This demonstrated how powerful defaults can be in driving behavior change. People tend to stick with the default option due to laziness, inattention, and status quo bias.

  • The example shows that rather than continuing to pester or punish people to change their behavior, an effective solution is to make the desired behavior the default and require people to opt out. This approach harnesses laziness and inattention to drive positive change.

  • Mitesh Patel and his team were able to drive major improvements at Penn Medicine by applying behavioral insights like the power of defaults. Their work demonstrates how organizations can benefit from behavioral science.

  • Penn Medicine’s prescription rates changed dramatically after a small default was set in their electronic prescribing system. Doctors had to opt out of generic prescriptions rather than opt in. Because people tend to take the path of least resistance, the generic prescription rate shot up to 98% from 2% previously.

  • This change was the result of a "nudge" - a small alteration to the environment that takes advantage of human laziness or tendencies to encourage a desired behavior change. Nudges like default settings are very effective ways to create change without much effort. However, they only work for one-time or infrequent decisions. For repeated behaviors, habits are more important.

  • Habits are behaviors we have done so many times they have become automatic. As they develop, we rely less on conscious thinking and more on areas of the brain involved in motor control and action. First responders like firefighters drill and practice extensively to build effective habits and reflexes for emergencies.

  • In a terrifying warehouse fire, firefighter Stephen Kesting relied on habits he had built through practice. For example, he called out to find victims then paused to listen for a response, even though yelling continuously felt more natural. During one such pause, he spotted a tiny piece of a glove and found a trapped teammate who was then rescued seconds before the building collapsed. Kesting attributes the success not to heroism but habit.

The key takeaways are:

  1. Nudges like default settings harness human laziness for good and can create big behavior changes with little effort. However, they are best for one-time or infrequent decisions.

  2. For repeated behaviors, habits are more important. Practice and drilling help build habits by making some behaviors automatic and the default response in certain situations.

  3. Even in high-pressure, high-stakes situations, habits and muscle memory gained through extensive practice can lead to the right behaviors and good outcomes. Conscious reasoning is less important.

• The author and his colleague John proposed an experiment to Google to help employees develop better exercise habits by using their on-site gyms.

• They believed that habit formation depends on the consistency of people's routines. To illustrate this, they gave the example of two people, Rachel and Fernando, who start working out three times a week with personal trainers.

• Rachel's trainer believes in the importance of a strict routine and has Rachel pick a consistent workout time for her sessions. The trainer thinks this will help Rachel build an exercise habit.

• Fernando's trainer believes in flexibility and has Fernando vary the timing of his workouts. The trainer thinks this will help Fernando adapt to changes.

• The author and John hypothesized that Rachel's strict routine would lead to better habit formation than Fernando's flexible approach. They proposed an experiment to test this at Google.

• Their experiment involved two groups of Google employees. One group was given specific times to work out and rewarded for attending sessions at those times. The other group was told to work out three times a week at any time and rewarded just for any three workouts.

• As predicted, the group with a consistent routine developed a stronger exercise habit. They worked out more often even after the rewards ended. The flexible group did not sustain increased gym attendance.

• This showed that habit formation depends on consistency and repetition. While flexibility seems appealing, it does not lead to the automaticity that defines habits. Some degree of routine is needed to put good behaviors on autopilot.

• The findings suggest that to build good habits, we should identify the right cues and rewards, then drill the desired behavior with consistency. But we also need to build in flexibility to help habits adapt to changes. The author calls these "elastic habits."

That covers the key points about the experiment the author proposed, the findings that supported his hypothesis, and his conclusions about the importance of consistency and flexibility in building lasting habits.

  • The author and his collaborator John initially believed that strict, consistent routines are key to building lasting habits and habits. They predicted that a trainer who encouraged exercisers to work out at the same time every day would be more effective than one who advocated flexibility.

  • However, a study they ran with Google employees showed the opposite. Employees who were rewarded for working out at the same time did form a habit of exercising at that specific time. But if they couldn't make it then, they were unlikely to go at all. Employees rewarded for flexibility exercised more overall, showing they had learned how to get to the gym even when plans changed. This showed that too much rigidity inhibits habit formation.

  • The author now believes that while routines are important for habits, flexibility is also key. If you can exercise, meditate, or do another habit under non-ideal circumstances, your habit will become even stronger. Your autopilot will adapt to do the habit even when facing obstacles. Overall, building in flexibility leads to stickier, more lasting habits.

  • The author realized he had long known this intuitively from his experience as a competitive teen tennis player. His coach made him practice the same shots and drills every day, but also mixed in flexibility by having him practice against a variety of opponents and styles. This combination of routine and flexibility helped make high-level tennis skills second nature.

  • The key to lasting habit change is to establish a routine but also build in flexibility. Start with a consistent plan, but learn to adapt to life's curveballs. Too much rigidity will break your habit; the ability to be flexible will make it stick.

  • The author was devastated after her research manuscript was rejected by the journal she submitted it to. She lamented to her adviser, Max Bazerman, that she would never get it published.

  • Max Bazerman is an accomplished scholar who has mentored many successful academics. His office contains journals lining the shelves and a large poster displaying his "academic family tree."

  • Max told the author that rejection is part of the academic process. He had faced over 200 rejections in his own career. He said not to take the rejection personally but to view it as an opportunity to improve her work.

  • Max advised the author to address the reviewers' comments, strengthen the manuscript, and submit it to another journal. He encouraged her by expressing his confidence in her and her work.

  • The author followed Max's advice, made revisions, and had the manuscript accepted at a top journal. She came to see rejection as a valuable part of scholarship rather than a reflection of her abilities.

  • The key takeaway is that confidence comes not from an absence of failure or rejection but from learning to view both as a natural part of ambitious pursuits. With the right mindset, we can derive motivation from failures and use them to strengthen our resolve. Support from others also helps build confidence through challenges.

  • The author was a student of a famous professor, Max, who had an academic family tree of successful former students. Though the author had hoped to join their ranks, he faced failure in his early career. He reached out to Max for advice on advising his own PhD students, who were struggling.

  • Max claimed he did not have any special techniques and that great students simply found him. But the author realized Max did have effective strategies, like responding quickly, reading drafts fast, hosting group meetings and dinners, and teaching seminars. However, these alone did not explain his students’ extraordinary success. There had to be something more.

  • The author met a graduate student, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, who studied what separates successful people from others. She found that even struggling people often knew what they needed to do to succeed. The problem was a lack of self-efficacy—the confidence in one’s ability to achieve goals. Without it, people don’t achieve their potential or even set goals in the first place. Research shows self-efficacy is key to success in areas like weight loss, academics, and work.

  • Lauren had an insight: rather than offering unsolicited advice, which can damage confidence and imply people can’t succeed on their own, we should ask struggling people for their advice. This conveys our confidence in them and their ability to solve their own problems. Lauren tested this approach in studies.

  • In one study, Lauren asked people seeking jobs to give advice to others in their position. This significantly increased their confidence and persistence in the job search, and several people found jobs. In another study, asking salespeople to give a pep talk to struggling colleagues caused their sales to increase over 6 months.

  • The implications are that we should stop offering unsolicited advice and instead ask people for their input. This can help others believe in themselves and achieve their goals. Overall, the research suggests self-efficacy is key, and the best way to build it is expressing confidence in others rather than doubt.

  • Lauren ran surveys and experiments showing that giving advice to others tends to be more motivating for people than receiving advice.

  • Lauren teamed up with researchers to run an experiment with high school students. Students who were asked to give advice to younger peers ended up with slightly better grades than other students. Giving advice seemed to boost their confidence and motivation.

  • There are a few reasons why giving advice helps: 1) We suggest things based on our own experiences, so the advice is tailored to what we find useful. 2) After giving advice, we feel pressure to follow our own advice due to cognitive dissonance. This is known as the “saying-is-believing” effect. 3) Being asked for advice conveys that others believe in us and expect more of us, boosting our confidence.

  • Even if you are not explicitly asked for advice, you can harness the power of advice-giving to help yourself. You can form an “advice club” with others tackling similar goals, and provide advice to each other. You can also imagine what advice you would give to a friend in your situation.

  • Managers can benefit from asking underperforming employees to mentor others. Serving as a mentor helps boost confidence and commitment, just like in AA sponsor programs.

  • The researcher's advisor, Max Bazerman, seemed to intuitively understand the power of having students give advice. He provided opportunities for students to share advice with each other, which helped both the newer and more advanced students.

Giving advice to others has been shown to increase motivation and confidence in achieving one's own goals. There are several strategies for harnessing the power of advice-giving even when you are not explicitly asked for advice. Overall, it shows that we believe in them. In theory, being asked to write just a few words of guidance to someone else might give people the confidence to achieve their own objectives.

The key insight from the research is that our expectations and beliefs shape our outcomes and experiences. The study on hotel housekeepers showed that their expectations changed their perceptions and health, even without any change in their actual work. Our beliefs can influence our emotions, attention, motivation and even physiology.

The story of George Dantzig, the math student who solved unsolvable problems because he thought they were homework, shows the power of belief and expectations. Mentors and leaders who express strong belief in others' abilities and potential can have a huge influence on their success. Max Bazerman's belief in his students' ability contributed to their success. Leaders like Jack Welch and Pete Carroll are able to inspire and develop their teams through their belief and confidence in them.

However, we can't always rely on someone else to boost our confidence and motivation. Minor failures or slip-ups can lead to loss of confidence and motivation through the "what the hell effect." Marissa Sharif has an approach to maintain confidence in the face of small failures. She views them as temporary rather than permanent, focuses on her overall progress, and avoids harsh self-judgment. This approach, based on an optimistic and flexible mindset, can help in recovering confidence and motivation to continue progress toward goals.

Expectations and beliefs are powerful shapers of outcomes. But we can cultivate optimistic and flexible mindsets to maintain motivation and confidence even when facing obstacles or small failures. Belief in ourselves and our ability to grow and improve can be key to success and resilience.

  • Marissa successfully maintains an ambitious running goal by allowing herself two “emergencies” or mulligans each week in case she cannot complete a run. This flexibility helps keep her on track long-term.

  • A study found that participants with mulligans were much more likely to achieve a goal (53%) compared to those with an easy goal (26%) or strict goal (21%). Mulligans allow for small failures and prevent crises of confidence.

  • How we interpret failure impacts our future success. A “growth mindset”—believing that abilities can be improved through effort—leads to greater success. Teaching people to view failure as a learning experience can help them achieve more.

  • Self-affirmation, focusing on past successes, can also build resilience in the face of setbacks. It helps overcome self-doubt and discouragement.

  • Some overconfidence can be useful when pursuing ambitious goals. Underconfidence is problematic and stymies success. Surrounding yourself with a strong support system and encouraging mentorship builds confidence.

  • Small signals we send to others about their abilities and potential can significantly impact their confidence and success. Praising hard work over natural talent promotes a growth mindset. Asking for advice shows confidence in the other person. Stereotyping and making assumptions undermines confidence.

The key points are: allow for small failures, focus on growth and effort over perceived limitations, build a strong support system, send positive signals to others about their potential, and believe in yourself. Success is a journey, not an endpoint. With the right mindset and support, we can achieve great things.

  • Conformity refers to the act of changing one's attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to match the responses of a group. People often conform due to two reasons: 1) to feel included and avoid social discomfort, and 2) to gain information from the group.

  • A professor conducted an experiment where he told most of his students to cheer when he showed a picture of the dean. The students who were not told conformed and cheered along due to the two reasons above. They wanted to fit in and assumed the others had information they did not.

  • A study of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy found that students' GPAs were influenced by the academic achievement of those in their squadron. Cadets with higher-achieving peers earned higher GPAs, likely due to conformity motives.

  • The people around you have been shaping your behavior your whole life through conformity. For example, if your peers attend a retirement planning workshop, you become more likely to save for retirement. Your behavior is often influenced by the norms of groups you belong to.

  • Conformity is a powerful driver of human behavior. We often adopt the attitudes and actions of groups we belong to in order to gain acceptance and information. The behavior of peers and social groups can have a significant impact on individual outcomes.

  • 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.

  • A tendency to assume other people think and act the same as us, known as the “false consensus effect,” prevents us from fully learning from others. We often fail to realize how much useful knowledge and skills our peers have.

  • Deliberately observing and imitating successful peers, a strategy the authors call “copy and paste,” can be an effective way to achieve your goals and adopt new habits. Studies show this approach leads to increased exercise and better class preparation.

  • The most effective “copy and paste” strategies are ones people develop themselves by observing peers, rather than ones provided by others. Discovering strategies that suit your own lifestyle and spending more time observing role models leads to the biggest benefits.

  • When lacking confidence or unsure how to achieve a goal, observing and learning from successful peers can be more helpful than advice. We are often more influenced by observation than by what we are told.

  • To become a better “copy and paster,” look to peers who are achieving goals you want to achieve. Talk to them and observe what they do to find strategies that will work for your own situation. This approach can help you achieve more than passively being influenced by social forces.

  • An example of using social norms to influence behavior is a study where hotel guests were more likely to reuse towels when signs described what most guests do (“the majority of guests reuse their towels”) rather than appealing to environmental concerns. Social norms shape behavior even when people just read about them, rather than observe them directly.

  • Studies have shown that people are influenced by the behavior of similar others. For example, hotel guests were more likely to reuse towels when told that most guests in their room did so. And Facebook users were more likely to vote when shown photos of close friends who had voted.

  • However, social influence tactics can be used for unethical purposes as well, as evidenced by research on how the Nazis compelled Germans to cooperate in the Holocaust. So people should be cautious about blindly following social pressure.

  • Scott Carrell tried to harness the power of social influence for good by grouping low-performing students with high-performing students at the Air Force Academy, hoping the high performers would motivate the low performers. However, this backfired, as the groups polarized and the low performers’ grades dropped.

  • Similarly, attempts to motivate low-saving employees at a company to save more for retirement by telling them most coworkers were saving a high amount also backfired. Mentioning the high saving rates of others likely just made the low savers feel more hopeless and caused a “what-the-hell effect.”

  • The lesson is that social influence tactics 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. Comparisons to far superior others may be demotivating rather than motivating.

  • The theory that social influence and social norms can be used to positively change behavior needed testing, and these studies showed that the theory does not always hold true in practice. The context and how the tactics are applied matters a great deal.

• We can adopt simple goals quickly but more complex goals require sustained effort over time. Comparing ourselves to peers who are far ahead of us in long-term goals can be demotivating.

• Social influence tactics work best for concrete, short-term goals rather than abstract, long-term goals. Breaking down big goals into small, achievable steps can help bridge this gap. Repeated messaging on social norms has been shown to change behavior over the long run.

• Feeling watched and judged can drive positive behavior change. An experiment showed that informing people their voting records would be shared with neighbors increased voter turnout by over 8 percentage points. While effective, such tactics can also provoke anger. Accountability to people we know personally, like coworkers, can be an effective motivator without backlash.

• People want to seem good, hardworking and successful to others. When our actions are visible, we are pulled to do the “right” thing and avoid the “wrong” choice to protect our reputations. Opt-in social accountability, where people can choose to share choices with others, avoids blowback and can be an effective motivator. For example, allowing people to publicly sign up for a program or donate to charity.

• Information on upward trends in behavior, even if a behavior isn’t yet popular, can motivate people. We tend to follow the lead of trendsetters and early adopters. Promoting behaviors as up and coming, rather than widely common, may avoid perceptions of being judged or pressured while still harnessing social influence.

• Social forces are powerful motivators but must be applied carefully. Opt-in social accountability and focusing on trends rather than popularity are two strategies to harness social influence for positive change while avoiding negative backlash. With sustained effort over time, social norms messaging can help make long-term goals feel more achievable and change behavior for good.

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

• Achieving lasting behavior change is like treating a chronic disease, not curing a temporary ailment. The internal obstacles to change, like temptation and forgetfulness, are enduring parts of human nature and require constant management.

• As research shows, when efforts to promote change are discontinued, people’s motivation and good habits tend to decay over time. The sooner support is removed, the faster relapse occurs. But some positive effects can endure.

• To make change stick, you need to treat it as an ongoing challenge and continue using solutions to overcome internal obstacles permanently, or at least until you no longer care to sustain the change.

• Karen Herrera’s story illustrates that success comes from tackling internal barriers to change with a tailored set of solutions and sticking with them. She developed an approach to getting healthier in college that she has sustained for years.

• Although the massive study with 24 Hour Fitness found many cheap, short-term ways to increase gym attendance, almost none of the solutions had staying power after the program ended. This shows that quick fixes rarely create lasting change.

• When the Opower program stopped sending energy reports to households after two years of messages, their energy conservation declined by 10 to 20 percent per year. This significant “relapse” after two years of habit formation shows the need for ongoing support.

• There are optimistic and pessimistic ways to view what happens when efforts to encourage change are discontinued. The optimistic view is that some positive effects endure, so lasting change is possible if you treat it as a chronic problem.

• To sustain motivation and habit, use tools to overcome internal obstacles not temporarily but permanently, or at least for as long as you care to maintain the change.

  • The author struggled for years to make positive changes in her life before finding success using the strategies described in this book. Like the student Karen, who lost weight and got in shape by relying on science-based techniques to overcome obstacles, the author has achieved the best results by understanding the specific barriers in her way and tailoring solutions to overcome them.

  • Change is often easier to maintain than initiate because the obstacles shift over time. Strategies that were once working may need to be recalibrated or replaced. It’s important to revisit what’s impeding your progress and make adjustments.

  • Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t achieve a particular goal. In those cases, it’s best to reassess and consider the bigger picture. The goal itself may need to change to better suit your abilities and circumstances. There are usually many paths to the same end, so trying a new approach or setting different goals can help get you unstuck.

  • The author received support and help from many people in writing this book, including:

  • Her husband, Cullen Blake, who read chapters, provided advice, and took on extra work.

  • Her parents, Ray and Bev Milkman, who moved to help with childcare and more.

  • Her agent, Rafe Sagalyn, and editor, Niki Papadopoulos, who guided the writing and publication process.

  • Angela Duckworth, who has been an inspiration and collaborator.

  • A team of assistants, friends, and expert readers who reviewed drafts and provided feedback.

  • Colleagues and staff at the Behavior Change for Good Initiative and on the Choiceology podcast.

  • Many academic collaborators, including Max Bazerman, John Beshears, and Todd Rogers.

  • Google wanted to boost employee productivity and well-being.

  • Prasad Setty, a former student, suggested helping new parents establish a safe infant sleep routine to reduce SIDS risk. Research shows safe infant sleep practices can save lives.

  • Setty proposed an ideal moment to nudge new parents into the target behavior: sending them a “welcome kit” for new babies that includes safe sleep education and tools to establish the routine.

  • The nudge worked. Google’s program helped thousands of new parents and likely saved lives by promoting safe infant sleep practices. Setty’s idea and follow-through were key to the success.

  • The example shows how identifying an ideal moment and leveraging it with a well-designed nudge can spark enduring behavior change. Setty chose a time when new parents would be especially receptive and made the target behavior as easy as possible for them to adopt.

  • Nudging at opportune moments is a principle that applies widely and could help many people develop better habits and improve their lives. The potential impact is huge.

In 1994, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a “Back to Sleep” campaign encouraging parents to place infants to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Before the campaign, 39% of Americans received the flu vaccine annually; by 2010, that number rose to 43% due to the CDC’s expanded recommendations.

The example of Charity: Water founder Scott Harrison shows that reframing our behaviors around temporal landmarks (like birthdays or New Year’s Day) can be motivating. The language we use also matters: labeling people as “Shakespeare readers” rather than “people who read Shakespeare” increased their desire to read the Bard.

Ray used January 1 as an opportunity to quit smoking. my research with Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis found that temporal landmarks inspire people to make aspirational plans and goals as people feel a “fresh start.” These effects have been found for gym attendance, savings behavior, and more.

Research by Hengchen Dai found, however, that the motivating effects of fresh starts can be double-edged swords. While they inspire goal initiation, they can reduce motivation for continuous progress. Experiments where she offered “resetting” performance metrics after the fresh start found that motivation declined. Examples like baseball players Orlando Cabrera and Jarrod Saltalamacchia show how performance can spike around a fresh start (a trade to a new team) but then regress.

Nudging increased retirement plan enrollment using fresh starts is one promising application. Google and Humu have already begun using insights about fresh starts and motivation in their companies. While 33% of resolutions fail by February, using fresh starts and understanding motivation can increase success. As David Hasselhoff said, “If you’re not in the game, you can’t win.”

Chapter 2 discusses how of our tendency toward “present bias” and valuing immediate rewards leads to self-control struggles and impulsivity. An example is how many people pay gym fees but rarely go to the gym. Using “temptation bundling” — pairing instantly gratifying rewards (like listening to audiobooks or music) with less enticing long-term goals (exercising) — can help overcome present bias and build better habits.

  • Klaus Wertenbroch found that restricting quantities of “virtue” and “vice” foods can improve self-control.

  • Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley showed that framing an activity as enjoyable and fun, rather than obligatory, can boost motivation and commitment.

  • Though adults generally have good self-control, it continues developing into our 20s.

  • Katherine Milkman, Julia Minson, and Kevin Volpp found that “temptation bundling”— pairing instantly gratifying activities with exercise—can encourage more exercise.

  • Recognizing and rewarding contributions, through mechanisms like gamification, can effectively motivate behavior change. Many companies, like Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP, use gamification and rewards to motivate employees.

  • Omar Andaya had trouble saving money due to lack of self-control and procrastination. Many face similar struggles in delaying gratification and following through on good intentions.

  • Strategies like precommitment devices, where people restrict their future choices, can help overcome procrastination and improve self-control. Examples include apps like Moment that limit phone use, self-exclusion lists for gamblers, and savings accounts that restrict withdrawals.

  • Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch found that students who set earlier deadlines for themselves turned in work earlier and received higher grades.

  • stickK uses legally-binding commitment contracts to help people achieve their goals. Over 75 percent of people who set a fitness goal with stickK achieved it.

  • Financial incentives and commitment devices can motivate behavior change for smoking cessation, exercise, weight loss, and healthier eating. However, effects may not persist long-term without habit formation.

The study examined the benefits of a reminder system to improve flu vaccination rates among employees at a large firm. The results showed that employees who received reminder letters had higher vaccination rates (49%) compared to those who did not receive any reminder (33%). This highlights the effectiveness of simple reminders in overcoming people's tendency to forget important tasks.

Forgetfulness is a common human trait. On average, adults forget three things per day. Psychological research shows that memory decays over time according to the "forgetting curve." Reminders have been shown to be effective in overcoming forgetfulness in many areas like increasing vaccination rates, voter turnout, saving money, and seat belt use.

Reminders work through two mechanisms: by bringing the task to people's "top of mind" and by helping people form implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are concrete plans about when and how to perform a task. Studies show that forming these intentions can make people follow through, even without reminders.

The use of reminders is widespread in areas like public health, education, finance, and politics. Examples include reminder letters for flu shots, reminder calls for elections, SMS reminders to save money, and phone prompts to increase seat belt use. Political campaigns also frequently use reminder phone calls to mobilize voters. The effectiveness of reminders depends on their content, timing, and frequency. Reminders that are personalized, provide a concrete plan of action, and come shortly before the target date or event tend to work best.

While people often forget important tasks due to memory decay and limited cognitive capacity, well-designed reminders can help overcome this tendency and promote follow through. Reminders are a simple but powerful tool that leverages the basic psychological principles of memory, forgetting, and implementation intentions. With the growth of communication technology, reminders will likely become an even more pervasive and potent force for behavioral change.

The study found that when physicians were shown planning prompts in the electronic health record, generic medication prescription rates went up by about 75% compared to a control group. Planning prompts are effective tools for overcoming inertia and laziness. Similar studies have found that planning prompts can increase cancer screenings and flu vaccinations. However, too many planning prompts at once can lead to alert fatigue and be counterproductive.

Checklists have been shown to effectively reduce mistakes and improve outcomes in fields like medicine and aviation. They have also been used to improve work behavior in other jobs. Checklists work by providing reminders of key steps so that people don’t forget important details, especially in complex situations.

Habits are hard to break because of a behavioral inertia called status quo bias. Making small changes to environments and systems, known as choice architecture or “nudging,” is an effective way to overcome status quo bias and prompt habit change. Examples include changing default options, using reminders or deadlines, and providing feedback or accountability. Studies show that positive habits improve health, happiness, and productivity. Establishing habits requires starting small, tracking progress, and building consistency through repetition.

A lack of self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s own abilities, often prevents people from achieving goals or performing at their best. Feeling underestimated or inadequate can be particularly damaging to self-efficacy and motivation. Mentorship, practice, and focusing on progress and small wins are effective ways to build self-efficacy over time. Both internal and external encouragement and validation are also important for motivation and confidence building. With hard work and persistence, people can achieve far more than others expect of them.

  • Scott Carrell conducted a study finding that students’ grades were influenced by the achievement levels of their dormitory cohorts. Being surrounded by higher-achieving peers increased students’ own grades. This illustrates how peer influences and social norms can have a significant impact on behavior and outcomes.

  • The “false consensus effect” refers to people's tendency to overestimate how much others agree with them. Two studies found that people were more influenced by peer behavior they observed (descriptive norms) versus peer advice (injunctive norms).

  • Social norms are an influential form of social influence that can be leveraged to motivate behavior change at a large scale. An experiment found that displaying messages about other guests’ environmental conservation efforts in hotel rooms persuaded more guests to reuse towels.

  • A 61 million-person social experiment on Facebook found that messages highlighting how many others had voted increased voter turnout by over 340,000 people. Leveraging social norms and peer influence at large scale can have meaningful impacts.

  • However, in some contexts peer influence and social norms can negatively impact behavior by promoting conformity and undermining individuality or moral reasoning. Several high-profile examples of negative peer influence include the abuse of prisoners by guards in the Stanford prison experiment and obedience to authority in Milgram’s shock experiments.

  • To benefit from social norms and peer influence while avoiding potential downsides, it is important to:

  1. Choose influential norms that promote positive behavior.

  2. Frame the desired behavior as gaining social approval (e.g. what most people do) rather than avoiding disapproval.

  3. Consider individual factors like the need to feel unique or rebellious that could undermine the influence of norms. Combine social norms with other motivators like values or incentives.

  • Social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that people will conform to the judgments of groups even when those judgments are clearly incorrect. Stanley Milgram showed that people are willing to administer what they believe are dangerous electric shocks because an authority figure told them to do so.

  • The provision of peer information has been shown to influence retirement savings decisions and voter turnout. Charitable giving also increases when people know their peers have donated. However, positive social pressure can backfire and reduce behaviors that were already common.

  • Lasting behavior change requires understanding the forces working against you, like the “autopilot” nature of habits, and using tools to overcome them, such as commitment devices, cue-based planning, reminders, and accountability. Finding internal motivation and confidence, as opposed to relying only on willpower, is key.

  • The way we frame life’s chapters and fresh starts has a big impact on behavior. When we perceive a new beginning, it can propel change—but these effects tend to fade. We should aim for continuous progress instead of short-lived “new year, new you” transformations.

  • Beliefs and expectations have significant influence over outcomes. What we think is possible shapes what becomes possible. But confidence must be balanced with preparation and practice. Overconfidence in areas where you lack competence can be disastrous.

  • The advice and encouragement we provide to others can help or hinder their goals, depending on whether we instill confidence and realistic optimism or unrealistic expectations. Compliments should be specific and meaningful. surround

  • Using commitment devices, accountability, and environmental design, we can encourage social pressure for good—to spread positive behaviors through communities and institutions. Behavioral science insights can be applied at scale to improve health, education, energy conservation, and more. But we must consider ethics and avoid coercion.


  • Letting employees have autonomy and flexibility often leads to better outcomes. Managing with a light touch and focusing on results rather than process can motivate employees and boost productivity.

Fixed mind-set vs. growth mind-set

  • Having a fixed mind-set, where you believe abilities are innate and unchangeable, limits growth and success. A growth mind-set, where you believe abilities can be developed through effort, leads to greater success and achievement.


  • Being overly rigid limits options and the ability to adapt to change. Having flexibility and being willing to adapt plans and habits as needed leads to better outcomes. Allowing for emergencies and the unexpected is key.

Forgetting and the planning fallacy

  • We have a tendency to underestimate how much we will forget and overestimate how much we can accomplish. Checklists, reminders, and concrete planning can help overcome forgetting and avoid the planning fallacy. Repeatedly visualizing what you intend to do helps encode memories and prompts follow through.

Cue-based planning

  • Linking tasks to specific cues, especially environmental cues you will encounter, helps ensure you follow through on intentions. You can piggyback new habits onto existing cues and routines. Plan cues and prompts in advance for key tasks and priorities.


  • Applying game elements like points, badges, and leaderboards to everyday tasks and work can increase motivation and engagement. But for the effects to last, the games need to be motivational and tied to real-world outcomes. Gamification works best when participation is voluntary, not mandatory.

The Mary Poppins approach

  • Making dull or difficult tasks more fun and enjoyable, like Mary Poppins did, can increase motivation and make people more willing to do them. Adding playful and social elements to work and responsibilities is key.

Commitment devices

  • Using money, deadlines, social pressure, or apps that impose consequences can help force yourself to follow through on your intentions. They work by making the cost of not following through higher. But only resort to strong commitment devices when softer approaches have not worked.


  • Finding people ahead of you in the path you want to take can help guide you, introduce you to opportunities, and help you learn from their mistakes and successes. But mentors should be chosen carefully based on their own experience and expertise.

Saying-is-believing effect

  • What you say, especially about yourself, has a strong influence on your own beliefs and behaviors. Speaking aloud positively and confidently about yourself and your abilities, even if you don’t fully believe it yet, can help strengthen your confidence and motivation. Your words can shape your reality.

Social norms

  • We have a strong drive to conform to social norms and go along with the crowd. Tapping into this influence and encouraging people to make the “right” choice because others are doing it is an effective way to change behaviors and prompt action. But it needs to be used carefully and honestly.

Understanding your opponent

  • To achieve your goals and have the greatest success, understand what motivates the people who can influence your outcomes, whether through their support, resources, or permission. Figure out how to frame what you want in a way that appeals to them and addresses their interests. Make it a win-win.

Tailored and concrete goals

  • Set specific, concrete goals that are tailored to your own interests and motivations. Vague or generic goals are less likely to be achieved. Break down larger goals into smaller milestones to maintain momentum. And tie goals to actions within your control, not just outcomes.


  • Self-imposed constraints: Setting deadlines and precommitting to tasks help overcome procrastination. Schedules and time management techniques are useful for creating deadlines and sticking to them.

  • What-the-hell effect: The tendency to give up on goals after an initial failure or setback. To avoid this, focus on progress, not perfection. Learn from mistakes and try again. Break big goals into manageable steps.

Tennis: Several examples of overcoming procrastination and the what-the-hell effect from professional tennis players and coaches. In particular, Andre Agassi's coach Brad Gilbert helped Agassi adopt a growth mindset, focus on progress, and overcome his tendency toward procrastination and giving up easily.

Voting: Social influence and accountability can be used to encourage people to vote. Letting people know that voter turnout is increasing, and that their voting behavior is made public, are two effective techniques.

Flu vaccinations: Several studies showing how planning prompts, social influence, and accountability can increase flu vaccination rates. For example, including a prompt for people to write down the specific date and time they will get their flu shot, and letting them know vaccination rates are increasing, are two effective techniques.

Stress mindset: Viewing stress as enhancing rather than debilitating can help build resilience. Reframing stress in this way leads to physiological and behavioral changes that promote growth and overcoming challenges.

Golf: Allowing casual golfers to take 'mulligans' or penalty-free second shots helps make the game more enjoyable and encourages continued play. Understanding human imperfections and building in cushions for error helps in designing systems and policies.

The key takeaway is that human imperfections like procrastination and vulnerability to setbacks can be overcome using behavioral design techniques like precommitment, progress focus, social influence, and reframing. Building cushions for human error into systems and policies can also help achieve goals. The examples from tennis, voting, flu shots, stress research, and golf illustrate these principles in action.

  • Research shows that people of lower socioeconomic status face disadvantages due to stigma and stereotyping. Self-affirmation interventions can help reduce these effects.

  • The tales "The Ant and the Grasshopper" and "The Little Red Hen" illustrate the value of hard work and planning ahead.

  • Defaults are powerful tools for influencing behavior because people tend to stick with the preset option. Studies show defaults can increase organ donor registration and 401(k) savings rates.

  • Habits form through repetition and reward. Fresh starts like New Year's Day offer opportunities to establish new habits or break old ones.

  • A study found that paying people more money to go to the gym led to increased exercise frequency. Another study showed that prompting people to commit to a gym schedule in advance also worked.

  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs) are popular, long-lasting birth control options. Hospitals have increased IUD use by making them the default contraceptive option.

  • One hospital cut opioid prescriptions in half by defaulting to smaller quantities. They also increased cardiac rehab referrals fivefold by making that the default.

  • Dieters were more likely to start diets at the beginning of a month or on Mondays depending on whether a calendar showed days of the month or days of the week. This illustrates the power of temporal landmarks.

  • A study found that people saved more money when offered a savings account that locked funds until a goal was met. Another study showed that smokers were more likely to quit when money was at stake.

  • Exercising with a companion increases motivation and consistency. A study paid people to exercise with a partner and found higher rates of workout completion.

  • Wikipedia articles that have survived a long time without edits tend to be higher quality. This illustrates the self-correcting nature of crowdsourcing.

  • "Gamification" refers to applying game-like elements to real-world activities. It can be used to increase engagement and motivation for exercise, work, education, and more.

  • A study found that people who were paid to listen to audio books while exercising worked out more frequently. Another study concluded that accountability to an iPod partner increased exercise levels.

The drop in performance was not conclusively significant, meaning it's unclear if it was a meaningful decline or just a statistical fluctuation.


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