Library / Personal Development | Human Psychology

Date of review: July 2021
Book author: Katy Milkman
Вook published: 2021

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Katy Milkman (2021)

Easy to read, full of practical advice that I think we should be trying to incorporate in our lives. This book combines two key ideas – about the importance of having the right habit to achieve better results and about our human biases that often lead us to take suboptimal decisions.

How to improve, change your habits and avoid your biases

Imagine combining Daniel Kahnemann's 'Thinking, fast and slow' with James Clear's 'Atomic Habit'.

Yet, it offers a very valuable insight which I lacked in both books – more practical steps to improve, change your habits and avoid your biases.

The book is based on several recent studies done by the author and her colleagues as well as uses references to previous research and personal experience of the author.

One other small bonus is that the audiobook which I listened to was read by the author herself – this makes messages more convincing.

There are 8 key steps to changing your behaviour which I summarise below.

1. Getting started

Fresh start date (Birthday, New Year, start of spring). You can get much better results in changing behaviour if you link to a specific (big) date so that people can start a new, fresh start (impression of a clean slate). You can also try to reset your environment, start working from a café, change a laptop, move a house etc. Changing targets from annual to monthly (for sales managers) could also be helpful (reset metrics to zero).

2. Impulsivity

We overweight short-term pain and underweight long-term gains from good habits and this stops us from changing. Example of going to a gym. The author came up with a solution to allow her to listen to her favourites audiobooks and podcasts only when exercising in a gym. Just like kids take a medicine with a fruit flavour focusing on pleasure and ignoring the taste of medicine. Come up with perks to reward your new behaviour.

Rather than relying on will power to force change, think how to make good behaviour more gratifying in the short-term. Gamification is one of such techniques (leaderboard, weekly score, competitions etc).

3. Procrastination

This is about how you set up the processes around restrictions and encouragement (present bias). The state often makes certain things obligatory even if they are beneficial for citizens (e.g. mandatory pension accounts, using seat belts in cars etc). Important to use self-commitment – example of students delivering better results with self-imposed deadlines.

Think about various commitment devices (apps) as well as public commitments (soft commitments) or hard commitments (monetary penalties). Make smaller, more frequent commitments rather than big and long-term (easier to save $5 a week than $275 a year).

4. Forgetfulness

Use reminders especially timely that remind you about important action just before you need to do it. Cue-based plans – a plan of actions that have cues (something that triggers your action). An example includes a rule to increase saving by 10% each time I get a 10% salary increase.

Consider using a checklist. Plans are helpful in breaking down big goals into concrete steps, do not over do it (thousands various steps will over complicate the plan and reduce your motivation to follow it).

5. Laziness

Important to be flexible with goals – no need to fix time for going to the gym, rather aim to go once a day or 4 times a week (without specifying days) – in this case if you miss a date / time – you will not be discouraged from dropping your goal.

The chapter has many useful practical pieces of advice to turn laziness into an advantage.

Track your behaviour, makes you feel more accountable.

Key solution is developing healthy habits.

6. Confidence

Many people suffer from over confidence bias, but this is almost inevitable (think who would you rather hire – a confidently looking candidate or a shy person?). Ask people for advice rather than come up with your own. In this case you will raise people's confidence in themselves. Consider becoming a mentor to someone or forming an advice club.

Do not praise for natural habit as this may lead people to develop a fixed mindset associating their results with their natural traits rather than willing to develop and learn. Better praise hard work or progress. Adopt a growth mindset (people's abilities and intelligence are not fixed but can be developed).

Confidence is key in changing habits as small failures are inevitable and we need to learn to overcome self-doubt.

Expectations shape reality. Surround yourself with mentors who believe in you.

Set ambitious goals but allow one or two slippage steps (like exercise 5 days a week, not every day during the week).

Focus on personal experiences that make you feel successful or proud as this will make you more resilient in the face of adversity.

7. Conformity

People around matter a lot. You are influenced by others, so it is important to be in a good company. It could be harmful to have peers who are low-achievers. This is exactly one of the central messages from a recent interview of Buffett and Munger which I wrote about here.

Watch people who succeeded and try to copy them.

8. Changing for Good

The main message here is that we need to constantly remind ourselves of all the key steps. 'When we diagnose a person with diabetes, we do not give them just one portion of insulin and expect them to be cured. It becomes a lifelong treatment'. Achieving better behaviour is like to treating a chronic disease, you cannot rely on just one pill.

Finally, I would like to add a story of Andre Agassi which Katy Milkman brought up in her Introduction. I don't feel it backs any of the points above, but it is such a good story that I would like to write about and refer to in the future. Around 1994 Agassi started to fail in big tennis tournaments despite having an early success and being viewed as a major new start in world's tennis.

He then met a strong tennis player – Brad Gilbert – who became his new coach. The problem identified by Gilbert was that Agassi was so talented that he wanted to play his best shot in every game. This put too much pressure on him, led to mistakes which increased his self-doubt and impacted morale which led to even worse performance.

Gilbert's advice was for Agassi to focus less on his best shots and more on mistakes that his opponents can make. Playing longer rallies would create more opportunities for his opponents to fail.
Milkman suggests that behaviour change should follow a similar strategy – focus on individual weaknesses. Breakdown big goals into more steps, visualise success, work out a plan. Customise your strategy and isolate your weakness before attacking them.

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