How to build lasting habits for a better life

Many of us know the kinds of habits that could make us healthier, more successful and likely happier.It might involve being more mindful, drinking mor...

Posted: May 24, 2021 8:43 AM

Many of us know the kinds of habits that could make us healthier, more successful and likely happier.

It might involve being more mindful, drinking more smoothies or training for a 5K race. And yet meditation may seem boring, cooking a healthy meal can feel like too much work, and sticking to a lazy routine of no exercise is so comfortable and familiar.

Katy Milkman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has fought through many of these same roadblocks. As co-founder and co-director of Wharton's Behavior Change for Good Initiative, she now spends her career studying habit development.

Milkman has worked with The White House, Google, the American Red Cross and Walmart, helping their people develop better habits around retirement savings, exercise and more. In her new book, "How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be," she walks readers through the latest science on behavior change, with practical tips that can help you reduce stress, improve your mental health and live a better life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: Why should I want to change? Will that make me happier?

Katy Milkman: It's the rare person I meet who isn't already looking to change in some way. There's a lot of guruism out there but not a lot of science that can help all these people who are looking to change.

We know from lots of research that people are very resistant in general to making a change. We're comfortable in our ways. Any deviation from what we're used to doing feels like a loss, and losses tend to loom larger than gains. We are likely to escalate commitment to an existing course of action beyond what's rational because we put too much weight on what economists call sunk costs, costs that are irrecoverable. And that makes us resistant to change.

All of those forces that push us against change mean we're probably changing too little. If you can convince people to change, it seems like it has a benefit.

CNN: Many of us know that we'd be happier or less stressed if we saved more money, ate better or slept more. Why is there such a difference between what we know is good for us and what we do?

Milkman: This action-intention gap is really widespread, because there are forces that are working against actually doing the thing that's good for us that make it hard to do.

Knowledge is not enough. We need tools and tactics, and, frankly, science, to point us toward what will help us overcome those barriers, rather than just the knowledge that we should do something differently in life.

CNN: I'd like to start meditating to reduce my stress levels, but the idea of it sounds stressful.

Milkman: This sounds like an information gap in terms of understanding what are tactics that can be effective for a person in my situation. One suggestion would be to use social forces as a tool to try to tackle that barrier -- what I call "copy and paste." It's really simple, it turns out, when we're surrounded by people who are achieving goals we also want to achieve.

We tell people to deliberately copy and paste their peers. If they want to achieve like someone at the gym, that improves outcomes even more. Even though we naturally copy our peers trying to figure out, we can just ask "Hey, what's working for you?" Be really deliberate about copying and pasting. Ask "How did you get started? How do you work it into your schedule?"

CNN: I'd really love to spend more time working out, but I'm addicted to binging Netflix.

Milkman: The solution in that case is really simple, which is make a "temptation bundle" -- so link those two things. You're only allowed to binge-watch Netflix while you're working out. And suddenly, (people) actually find themselves working out to see what happens in their favorite shows, and the'll probably work out for longer. The workout will be less unpleasant, because time is going to fly while they're watching, and they're going to waste less time at home on TV when they should be doing other things.

This is a technique that I've studied and proven. You link something pleasurable, like a source of entertainment, with exercise. We tested it with audio novels. They can significantly increase the rate at which people go to the gym, but of course you can "temptation bundle" in other walks of life, too.

The real principle behind it is that it's turning something that feels like a chore into a pleasure. By linking it with a temptation, it's also reducing access to that temptation. You're really solving two problems at once.

CNN: Your friend and colleague, "Grit" author Angela Duckworth, argues that a cue-based plan is by far the best tool she's found for positive behavior change. How does that work?

Milkman: A lot of us, when we make a plan, it's more like a vague intention. We say, "I want to meditate more. That's my plan." But a cue-based plan would be of a different form, as "If x happens, then I will meditate," and you fill in the blank. What is that x? A good plan might be, "If it's noon on a workday. I will pause what I'm doing for 15 minutes, and I will meditate."

The cue is noon and workday because maybe your workweek is different than your weekend, so you can make plans that have cues that are specific to those kinds of contingencies.

You're much more likely to follow through when you make these cue-based plans, and there's a few reasons for that. One is that the cue is a memory trigger. The way that we store information is based on cues, and you're less likely to forget when something is triggered at a specific time because, oh, it's noon. This means my brain is telling me this is when I'm supposed to do it.

Second, it's no longer a big intention. It's a concrete commitment. We don't like going back on our commitments, even when they're just to ourselves. That feels different than just saying, "Oh, I put it off until later." If I started meditating, and if I'm not doing it, I'm breaking a strong commitment. Between the memory and the commitment, those are two of the reasons that planning works.

CNN: You say your most important insight may be the idea that we don't have to do a new habit, such as jogging or meditating, at the same time every day. Instead, being flexible helps us stick to the habit. Why does that matter?

Milkman: It just flew in the face of what everyone studying habit, to date, believed to be true. That's part one. The other reason it feels so important to me is that, when I think about what I want to study for the next 20 years, this helped crystallize it.

Understanding what it takes to persist after a slipup, or to keep pursuing a goal, even when conditions are imperfect, is the most important thing. The best situation is rarely the situation we find ourselves in, and it's too often the situation researchers study. Circumstances normally aren't ideal.

Normally, there is a slipup. We do fall off the wagon. How do we get people back on afterward? I think this insight about the importance of elastic habits is a first glimpse at the kind of flexibility it's going to take, and the kind of robustness we need to help people develop in their plans and their habits and behaviors, if we want to create change that's really durable.

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