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Book Summary – How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

How to Change - Book summary

Making changes can be hard. In this book, Katy Milkman explains the key obstacles to change, and identifies the specific strategies you can use to counter each obstacle. By tailoring your strategies to your circumstances, you can successfully build new habits and achieve your goals. In this free How to Change summary, you’ll get an overview of the strategies to help you achieve any desired change.

How to Change with Targeted Strategies

In 1994, tennis professional Andre Agassi was feeling frustrated by his underperformance. His new coach Brad Gilbert pointed out that Agassi was trying to make every shot a perfect killer shot, but ended up losing confidence each time he failed to knock out his opponent. Under Gilbert’s coaching, Agassi adopted a different approach—to analyze and target his opponents’ specific weaknesses. This fueled his resurgence to become the first unseeded tennis player in 28 years to win a U.S. Open trophy.

When it comes to building habits and making changes, many of us make a similar mistake. We try to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, when it’s much more effective to tailor your strategies to your specific challenges and weaknesses.

In How to Change, Katy Milkman combines her engineering training with insights from behavioral economics to explain how you can overcome 7 key obstacles to make any change you desire.

How to Change summary - 7 obstacles to change

The good news is, you can address these challenges to achieve the actions or outcomes you desire.  Let’s find out how!

Overcoming the 7 Obstacles to Change

How to Change summary You can also get a more detailed breakdown of the steps and actionable tips in our complete How to Change summary.

1. NOT GETTING STARTED

Often, we fail to change or achieve our goals because we don’t even get started. We may find it hard to break our current routines/habits, or we may lack the belief that we can succeed in the first place.

The ideal time to change is just after a FRESH START…

We tend to think of time in terms of life episodes (e.g. college years, working life, new parent) instead of a continuum.

People are more likely to do something new or different at the start of new chapters or milestones. For example, in a campaign to help non-savers to save money, Milkman and her colleagues found that people were 20-30% more likely to start saving at a later milestone (e.g. after their next birthday or the start of spring), than to start saving at an arbitrary future date.

Fresh starts increase our motivation to change because we feel like we’re starting from a clean slate. Our past failures seem distant, we feel like a new person and feel more optimistic about the future. So, to begin the change process, start by looking for fresh start opportunities. These could come in the form of:

  • Calendar dates that mark new beginnings, e.g. a new year/week, birthdays, anniversaries;
  • Meaningful life events, e.g. surviving a health crisis, moving to a new country; or
  • Resets, e.g. starting again from a blank slate, or resetting your performance scores.

..But there’s an important caveat

While fresh starts can trigger positive change, they can also disrupt your progress if you’re already on the roll.

When Major League Baseball (or MLB) players are traded across leagues mid-season, their statistics for the season are reset, However, the statistics are not reset for trades within leagues. One of Milkman’s pdH students analyzed 40 years of MLB data, and found that below-average players tended to improve after a statistical reset, whereas above-average players tended to do worse after a reset (since they must rebuild their records from scratch).

Similar outcomes were found in other performance studies. Resets can help underperformers to up their game, but they can also hurt people who’re already performing well. So, be careful when you use fresh starts!

We’ll briefly outline the other 6 obstacles below. Do get our 14-page How to Change summary for a detailed breakdown of the remaining strategies.

2. IMPULSIVITY

We naturally prefer activities that are instantly gratifying (e.g. having an ice-cream) over those that yield long-term benefits (e.g. going to the gym). This is called the “present bias”.

The solution is simple: redesign the desirable tasks/activities to be instantly gratifying, so you’ll want to do them. There’re 2 specific strategies you can use: temptation bundling and gamification.  Do get the details, tips and examples from our complete How to Change summary in text, infograhic and audio formats.

3. PROCRASTINATION

Our present bias doesn’t only cause us to prioritize instant gratification. It also leads us to procrastinate on less enjoyable tasks–even if they serve our long-term goals.

To conquer procrastination, use commitment devices to restrict your freedom and force yourself to do what’s needed to reach your goal. For example, you can put yourself on a casino’s exclusion list to prevent yourself from gambling, or choose a “locked” savings account to prevent yourself from withdrawing money until you’ve reached your savings goal. In our full How to Change summary, we’ll share a range of “hard” and “soft” commitment devices you can use.

4. FORGETFULNESS

We may intend to do something but fail to follow through because we simply forget. Find out how you can use timely reminders and cue-based plans to overcome this obstacle and actually get things done in our full 14-page How to Change summary! :)

5. LAZINESS

It’s human tendency to take the path of least resistance. We may stick to a comfortable routine even though it obstructs our goals, e.g. binge-watching TV instead of completing our MBA assignments.

The great news is, you can use laziness to your advantage, by creating set-it-and-forget-it systems and building habitual shortcuts.

6. LACK OF CONFIDENCE

Self-doubt can stop people from setting a goal or taking the necessary steps to attain them. Fortunately, you can boost confidence in yourself and others through solicited advice and expectations/emotional management.

7. CONFORMITY

We feel pressured to follow what others are doing because we want to fit in or we assume they know something that we don’t. Again, you can turn this tendency to your advantage by surrounding yourself with the right people, and applying effective social influence strategies to nudge yourself and others in the right direction.

Getting the Most from How to Change

The tools in this book can help you to overcome the obstacles to change and form helpful habits. However, the only way to achieve permanent, transformative change is to continually apply the techniques. Evaluate your obstacles as your goals and circumstances change, and adjust your game plan accordingly.

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 14-page text summary, and a 28-minute audio summary.
How to Change summary - book summary bundle

The book also includes many other examples and references to help you understand and apply the concepts. You can purchase the book here or visit www.katymilkman.com for more details.

Zoom in on more tips to overcome procrastination with The Now Habit summary. Or, learn how to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

About the Author of How to Change

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be is written by Katy Milkman–a scholar, teacher and author. She’s the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, host of Charles Schwab’s popular behavioral economics podcast Choiceology, and the the co-founder and codirector of the research center Behavior Change for Good Initiative.

Milkman has advised and worked with many organizations to spur positive change, and writes frequently for media outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Economist. Katy was named one the world’s top 50 Management thinkers by Thinkers50 in 2021. She earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University (summa cum laude), and her PhD from Harvard University.

How to Change Quotes

“One-size-fits-all strategies won’t get you nearly as far as tailored attacks on what stands in your way.”

“When it comes to changing your behavior…your opponent is inside your head.”

“Planning forces you to do the critical work of breaking it down.”

“Too much rigidity is the enemy of a good habit.”

“Transformative behavior change is more like treating a chronic disease than curing a rash.”

Click here to download the How to Change summary & infographic

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