Career & Success

How to Change: Building Better Habits and Behaviors (And Getting Out of Your Own Way)

In this podcast episode, Katy Milkman shares how we can make our goals more achievable by making reaching them more enjoyable.

August 30, 2023

“We’re wired to look for the path of least resistance and efficiency, and that’s normally a good thing, but it can get in the way when we want to make a change,” says Wharton professor Katy Milkman.

Through her research on decision-making and in her recent book How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want To Be, Milkman examines the many barriers we create for ourselves when it comes to achieving goals.

“Who you surround yourself with [is important] because we have a tendency to conform to the people around us,” she says. “And if we are surrounded by people who show us our limitations, that can be a barrier.”

On this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, host Matt Abrahams sits down with Milkman to further explore her research into human behavior and decision making, motivation, and tools we can use to make real change.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: When it comes to achieving our own personal goals, sometimes the biggest impediment is ourselves. I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am really excited to speak with Katy Milkman. Katy is a professor at Wharton and co-founder and co-director of the Behavioral Change for Good Initiative. She hosts the podcast Choice and is the author of How to Change the Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where you want to be. Katy and I met a little over a year ago when she was so kind to offer advice about authoring my latest book. I’m super excited to continue our conversation here and Katy, welcome.

Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Matt Abrahams: One of the reasons I’m so excited to speak with you is that your work pulls together and synthesizes many of the topics we’ve discussed here before. We talked about habits with BJ Fogg, motivation with Szu-chi Huang and behavior change with Bob Cialdini. A lot of your work focuses on how we can change and maintain attitudes and behaviors we want to adopt. Before we get into how to do that, I’d like for you to share some of the things that get in the way of realizing these changes that we want. What are some of the barriers that you’ve identified and worked with?

Katy Milkman: Thanks for asking that question because it’s critical to think about before you can actually figure out what is the solution. You have to understand what you’re working against. Some of the key barriers that I think about are internal. I should say there’s lots of external barriers to change, but the internal ones are where my research focuses.

So the “getting started” problem is a barrier. How do I find the motivation to get going on this? We have looked at impulsivity, the fact that we focus more on the rewards we’ll get today than the rewards that will be delayed and procrastination, which is really the flip side of impulsivity. One that I think gets neglected is forgetting, but it’s really important if it’s not top of mind, we can’t get things done. I talk about laziness, which it sounds worse than it is. I actually think we’re wired to look for the path of least resistance and efficiency, and that’s normally a good thing, but it can get in the way when we want to make a change. That’s another challenge. And then two final barriers that I write about and think are important are believing in yourself. Really having the sense that you have what it takes, you have the confidence and self-efficacy that this is possible for you. And related to that is, and this is where we start to bleed a little bit from internal to external barriers: who you surround yourself with because we have a tendency to conform to the people around us. And if we are surrounded by people who show us our limitations, that can be a barrier too.

Matt Abrahams: Those barriers, there are a lot of them and as you were rattling them off, I am going in my own mind the things that have prevented me from doing some of the things that I want. And so I’m hoping in a little bit we can talk about how to reduce some of those barriers and achieve the changes that we’re looking for. One of them that I find fascinating is this notion of present versus future. And I know that you have thought a lot about this and done some research on this that we tend to be motivated by the now and not so much what’s in the future? What impact does this have and what advice do you have for managing our present versus future goals and selves?

Katy Milkman: I think the focus on instant gratification over long-term delayed rewards is one of the biggest challenges in terms of advice. I actually think there’s some really wonderful wisdom that comes from research done by Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago and Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell University. They’ve shown that most of the time when we’re focusing on pursuing a goal, we neglect this issue and we just follow the advice of Nike, which says, just do it right. We think all I have to do is want it enough and that will get me through. And we focus on finding efficient paths to our desired outcomes and we neglect thinking about whether we’ll enjoy the path and the goal pursuit. And it turns out that’s a mistake because if we aren’t finding it gratifying in the moment to pursue our goals, we tend not to persist. So they have some really nice research showing.

If you encourage people to pursue their goals in a way that they find fun as opposed to a way that’s maximally efficient, you actually end up with better results. A really concrete example would be think about going to the gym. You could either get on the maximally punishing StairMaster or you could go to Zumba class with a friend and you will of course probably get fitter faster if you’re on that StairMaster, but if you find it miserable, it’ll be a one-time only visit. Whereas if you’re doing something you enjoy, you’re going to keep it up and your results will be better in the long run. I think this is really important. I like to call it the Mary Poppins effect that she says, “put a spoonful of sugar on it.” That’s the advice for how do you get kids to do things. But actually this is true for adults too.

We need a way to make it more enjoyable to pursue our goals. And I’ve studied one tactic for that, which I call temptation bundling, which is linking something that would otherwise feel like a chore with a source of temptation and pleasure and instant gratification. So for podcast listeners, maybe you love listening to podcasts. What if you only let yourself listen to your favorite podcasts while you’re working out or doing household chores or some other activity that would otherwise be a source of pain? And we can think about other ways of temptation bundling, right? You only get to go to your favorite restaurant that has unhealthy burgers you crave when spending time with a difficult mentee. When we temptation bundle, we seem to improve the rate at which we engage in these behaviors that otherwise would feel like drudgery.

Matt Abrahams: I love this notion of finding the fun and temptation bundling. I didn’t know what I did when I’m grading actually had a name. So I love what I do, but grading, as you well know, Katy, can sometimes be burdensome. I love peanut M&Ms and I only allow myself to eat peanut M&Ms while I’m grading. And to me it helps me get through that. And in fact, it’s nice to know that you’ve done some research that it actually can help others. I’m wondering with some of these barriers, have you found that technology can help? Because I’m thinking that setting up reminders on my phone or time allotments where things go on for a certain amount of time could help. How does technology help manage some of this stuff?

Katy Milkman: Absolutely. Reminders on your phone is a great example because forgetting is a huge barrier. We underinvest actually in reminders. We have some research showing that when we offer them for sale to people, pay 10 cents and you’ll get this reminder to do this thing. And PS, if you don’t do this thing, you lose a whole bunch of money. Later in our study people are like, I don’t need to spend 10 cents. Of course I’ll remember and then they forget. We underuse reminders to our detriment. A lot of people neglect planning, which is a big issue, and technology helps with that immensely too. So there’s wonderful research by NYU’s Peter Gollwitzer that people who have goals, but that’s where they leave it, don’t end up getting the same results as people who have goals and then make detailed plans about exactly when and where will they implement those actions that are necessary in order to achieve the goals. And technology is a great planning tool, right? Keeping your calendar blocking off the exact amount of time you anticipate you’ll need. Having buffer time because we’re overly optimistic about how long things will take. Making sure you set reminders for all the key ingredients in your life.

Matt Abrahams: You highlight the notion of planning. I have a personal goal to become more physically flexible. As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder to bend down and touch my toes, for example. And so I’m taking notes that I not only have to have the intent to be more flexible, I actually have to create a plan and publicly commit or demonstrate you’re helping me with that notion and goal that I have. I’m turning this into personal therapy. I hope that’s okay, Katy.

Katy Milkman: Lots of people do. It’s funny because that’s not my specialty. I have to acknowledge what

Matt Abrahams: You’re sharing is so helpful. So I know personally when I strive for a goal, I often make mistakes or don’t follow through. I start well, but I just don’t follow through. What advice do you have to help people follow through on the things that they’re willing to try?

Katy Milkman: Well, we talked a little bit about the idea of outside accountability, right? You might make your calendar visible to other people or have support groups. One of the things that helps a lot with follow through can be something called a commitment device. Commitment devices sound counterintuitive. We’re really used to others imposing commitments on us, right? Your boss who gives you a deadline and says or else, or you think of the government that says, maintain a speed under this limit or else those are incentives essentially or constraints. A commitment device is when you do that to yourself. So for instance, you say, I will find myself X dollars if I don’t hit this deadline, and you literally put money on the line and a credit card down their website that I have no affiliation with, like Stick and Beeminder where you can do this and the money gets sent to a charitable organization if you don’t succeed and pass, if you want to make sure it’s painful, you can choose a charity you hate because they have charities on either side of contentious issues and you choose a referee, someone else who will hold you accountable.

Did you hit the deadline for the project you were working on or did you go to the gym the number of times you intended to go? One of my favorite studies on this is actually with smokers who were trying to quit and they were randomly assigned to two groups. One group got all the standard tools for quitting and the other group got the standard tools, plus they could put money into a savings account and they knew they would have to forfeit all of that money if they failed a nicotine or coating urine test six months in the future. And indeed it turned out just having a way to put that money down increased quitting. So the group that had access to an account that they could put money in and forfeit if they failed to achieve their goals, they quit at a 30% higher rate. Wow. So I think these commitment devices, tools of accountability, are really important to keep in mind for yourself. Again, we’re used to others doing it. Someone else sets the deadline and says or else or finds us, but you can do the same thing to incentivize yourself to follow through on your best intentions so that when temptation strikes there’s more skin in the game, there’s more consequence if you give into it.

Matt Abrahams: I really find that fascinating, this notion of setting up accountability for ourselves. I had not thought about the negative consequence, right? So donate to a charity that’s totally opposite your point of view would be very motivating. I’d like to look at the role communication can play in achieving our personal goals. How do framing and feedback influence our success?

Katy Milkman: Those are great questions. They matter a lot. So feedback is important in that it helps us demarcate whether or not we are making the progress we hope to. It helps us celebrate the small wins. Framing also matters a lot. One of my favorite studies that I got to be involved in was led by one of my students named Aneesh Rai, and it was in partnership with an organization called Crisis Text Line. They were trying to figure out: how do we help motivate our volunteer workforce to follow through on getting to the 200 hours of yearly volunteering that they’ve committed to do for us? And they were already receiving reminder emails each week, “please fulfill that commitment.” And we knew something about the science of framing and the importance of making goals feel more bite-size and achievable. And what we suggested and tested was whether it might be more effective than highlighting that 200 hours yearly goal.

We said “that’s four hours a week.” Let’s just reframe that big commitment into a more bite-sized component so that it feels approachable and you know exactly what you want to check off and achieve this week or in this next two weeks. And what we found is just reframing those goals led to about an 8% increase in volunteering over and above what they were achieving normally. So I think that’s a nice example of how important it can be to communicate clearly about bite-size goals and feedback is really important in that context too, because otherwise you can’t see, am I getting there? Am I making the progress I hope to make?

Matt Abrahams: Really interesting and insightful that the way you look at the task itself and the way you frame it for others and personally help. I know that when I look at, again being very self-serving here, when I look at wanting to lose weight for example, if I reframe that as I want to be healthier, it’s much more motivational to me and I look at what I do differently. So just the way we frame things in my own life has made a big difference. I’m curious, in your own life, what have you found to be most impactful for yourself, Katy, when you’re trying to achieve something you want to achieve, what are the things you do?

Katy Milkman: One of the most important things for me is this notion of trying to make it more fun, but a big way I do that is through social connection, so I’m very careful to bring in collaborators who make it a joy and a pleasure to do the work. It creates accountability because if I’m doing something on my own, I can put it off forever, but now there’s someone else who’s waiting for a draft or waiting for a response. It also makes the work more enjoyable because I’m very careful, as I said, to choose collaborators. I choose people who make it a joy that’s absolutely critical to my productivity and happiness.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for sharing some of the work you do. The collaborators you have are amazing and, in fact, I’d like to focus now on different work that you have done and one of the things I’d like to bring up, it has to do with the collaboration you had with one of our previous guests, Jonah Berger. The two of you conducted some research that has been very, very frequently cited and it’s on how online content goes viral. Can you share the results of that work and any suggestions you have to make our ideas go viral regardless of if it’s online or not?

Katy Milkman: Thanks for asking about that work. I really love that project. It actually was motivated by a former Stanford professor, Chip Heath, who came and gave a talk when I was a graduate student at Harvard about some of the amazing work he had done on what kinds of stories we pass on. He was studying this in the lab and I thought, “gosh, it would be so interesting if we could look at what goes viral in the wild.” I was really fascinated by field data and I was an avid New York Times reader and they had this little feature on the New York Times website that showed what were the top 25 most shared articles that day, and I was like, let’s scrape that data and actually see what drives things to go viral online. What we saw is that stories that were more emotional were much more likely to go viral.

Interestingly, in the context of the New York Times more positive news was slightly more viral than negative. Now any news that was emotional is better than being not triggering that kind of reaction, but positivity was winning out. I don’t think that’s true in the necessarily social media world we inhabit today, but on the& New York Times circa 2009, 2010, which is when we did our data collection, that was a nice finding.

We also found that it was emotions evoked more of a heart raising reaction. The term in psychology is to call them arousing, but that has other meanings in common. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s emotions that just make your heart race, so think awe and anger much more than emotions like sadness that lead you to share scientific articles. Interestingly, were really commonly shared more so than many other categories of article, of course, opinion pieces, but if there’s something surprising and awe-inspiring, it does make us want to connect with others and make sense of it and discuss. And I think that’s such a positive result and something we can all think about. How do we use that for good?

Matt Abrahams: Before letting you go, I know that beyond studying goals and how we achieve them, you also do work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a very important topic to me personally, and we’ve talked about it a lot on this podcast. What has your research shown to help in this regard? What can we do to help the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Katy Milkman: Let me first say something that doesn’t work that we’ve invested way too much time and energy in. We have done some research looking at whether or not online diversity trainings add value and found that they really don’t seem to add the kind of value we all would hope. What we have seen is much more promising in our research is solutions that change the environment where decisions are made to facilitate more, I’ll say inclusive kinds of decisions. I’ll give you a very concrete example. We did one experiment where we looked at whether or not people who were making selection decisions, so think I’m hiring someone or I am choosing who will be up on a panel at a conference. We varied whether or not a decision maker was choosing a whole set of individuals to hire, right? Like five, I’m going to make five hires for different slots on a team or put five people on this panel, or they’re just making one choice.

They get to hire one person to fill an empty role on a team. What we see is that people choose more women and minorities when they’re hiring in sets rather than singletons. Now you might say, “well, yeah, of course, because I got five slots,” but to be clear, we’re comparing for every five choices made, how much diversity do we see when people are choosing one at a time versus in sets, and we see much more diversity in sets, and the mechanism seems to be when we’re say hiring a group of five people all at once as opposed to one person a month for five months, we notice a lack of diversity in the choice set we come to the table with and we adjust it because most of us are not intentionally discriminating. Obviously there’s exceptions to that, but what a lot of our research points to is that when we have the opportunity to look at a whole group and say, “does this meet my goals in terms of the diversity I’d like to see on my team? Does this meet my goals in terms of who I would like to make sure is at the table?” We adjust and we do not hire five people who all look the same. We want diversity in groups, so try to hire in sets because you can’t even think about diversity if you’re just hiring one person, right? What is a diverse hire? That’s not a thing, right? No one person has diversity, so that’s my favorite result from our work.

Matt Abrahams: Well, Katy, before we end, I like to ask the same three questions of everybody, and I’m very excited to hear your answers to these questions. Are you up for that?

Katy Milkman: I’m ready. I thought about this in advance. Oh, good.

Matt Abrahams: Did my homework. You prepared. I hope you didn’t have to reward yourself. I hope this wasn’t a chore.

Katy Milkman: This was fun itself.

Matt Abrahams: Question number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Katy Milkman: Tell stories to make your point.

Matt Abrahams: Have you found in your own work that that’s benefited you personally in reporting the results that you find in the research you do?

Katy Milkman: Absolutely. I think it’s really important. I don’t think of myself as a storyteller primarily. My first love is collect and analyze data, find truth in numbers, but to communicate that truth so that it’s sticky and so that other people will understand it clearly and remember it. You have to make it come to life. We have to do the hard work of the science and collecting the data, but then to communicate it successfully and ensure that other people understand it and use it. Storytelling is so critical.

Matt Abrahams: You are a very good storyteller and your book, and you do a great job of eliciting stories as a podcast host from your guests. So question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Katy Milkman: The communicator I picked is a very dear friend Angela Duckworth. She’s one of my closest collaborators and an absolutely extraordinary communicator. She wrote a brilliant book called Grit. She has one of the most viewed Ted talks of all time. Some of the things that make her such a great storyteller and communicator are the same. She has a beautiful way with words. She understands that it is critical to make things personal and to have poignancy. In the story she tells, she opens her book Grit by talking about her father and her childhood. The fact that he used to point out that she was no genius and that motivated her to work harder and harder, and actually she did eventually win a MacArthur Genius Award and her big contribution, or she has many contributions, but one of her biggest contributions is recognizing that we overweight this idea of genius and that so much of success is really about grit. Angela communicates so clearly about the importance and the oversight in our culture. She’s so fantastic at explaining the importance of this.

Matt Abrahams: I have seen that talk a number of times, and you’re right. Her ability to be very clear and poignant are very, very powerful. Question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Katy Milkman: Clarity, brevity, and vividness. Those are my three.

Matt Abrahams: Talk to me about vividness. I think clarity and brevity makes sense to me. What is Vividness doing in that list?

Katy Milkman: I’m a judgment decision-making scholar, so my thinking is heavily influenced by the work of other judgment decision-making. Scholars, particularly, I’m thinking of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and some of their work has highlighted that one heuristic we use when we’re making judgments is how vivid something is. So we overweight the likelihood of shark attacks and homicides, for instance, because those are really overrepresented in our mind relative to other kinds of incidents because they’re splashed all over the news. We talk about them, we’re scared of them. Vividness really matters to the way we calculate frequencies and estimate the importance of things, and it’s also important for communication because if you want people to wait your message, it needs to be something that stands out in their mind, and so great advertising, great communication recognizes this bias and deploys vividness. It sticks in your mind just like a shark attack.

Matt Abrahams: Right? We’re taking advantage of the way the brain is wired to process information, and if we can do that, be vivid, but also very clear and brief. I think we’ve got the total package. Katy, this has been a true delight. I knew it would be. I have enjoyed our conversations prior to this one, and thank you very much for giving us very specific advice on things we can do as we strive for goals and change in our own life, and I appreciate expanding beyond just that, but also talking about information going viral and diversity, equity and inclusion. I encourage everybody to learn from Katy in multiple ways. Katy hosts the popular podcast choice and she has an amazing book, How to Change the Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Katy, thank you.

Katy Milkman: Thank you. Thank you so much again for having me. This was a real pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Reilly, and me Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @Stanfordgsb.

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