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Q&A with Dr. Katy Milkman, Author of New Book ‘How to Change’

katy milkman
katy milkman

Katherine L. Milkman, PhD, James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania, is Co-Director of The Behavior Change for Good Initiative and a CHIBE-affiliated faculty member. Read our Q&A to learn more about Dr. Milkman’s new book called How to Change, which was released on May 4, 2021.

How might this book be helpful for those in the health care field who are trying to encourage patients to have healthier habits?
I’m optimistic that anyone who’s interested in encouraging healthy habits will find my book packed with strategic advice. How to Change covers everything from how to promote exercise, medication adherence, and healthy eating to how to nudge people toward getting flu vaccinations and colonoscopies.
The key lesson about behavior change that I hope every reader will take away is that to make the most progress, it’s important to tailor your tactics to whatever obstacles you face. If your patient never gets to the gym because she finds exercise to be a drag, helping her calls for a very different approach than nudging a patient who forgets to make time for the gym. In one case, you’re tackling temptation and in the other, you’re combating flake out. But too often, we apply a one-size fits all approach when solving for very different obstacles to change. In How to Change, I interweave stories with research to lay out the most common barriers to change and describe the most promising, science-based solutions that can help us overcome them.
One of the topics your book explores is why timing is important when you’re trying to make a change. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, absolutely! About a decade ago, I gave a talk at Google about nudging people to get vaccinated and exercise more regularly. After the presentation, I got a great question from the audience: Did I know *when* it was best to nudge people to make a positive change? Was there some ideal time? This led me to study what my collaborators and I have since dubbed “the fresh start effect.” We’ve found that there are moments in life when people are particularly motivated to make positive changes, and those moments come about whenever we feel like we’re experiencing a new beginning. That new beginning can be as small as the start of a new week or month or more momentous like the start of a new year or the celebration of a birthday. We saw spikes in gym attendance and goal-setting on a popular goal-setting website on these fresh start dates as well as extra searches on Google for the term “diet.” And we’ve found that simply labeling March 20 “the first day of spring” so it’s more obviously a fresh start has a big impact on people’s interest in enrolling in a savings program or starting some other goal on that date. This suggests that if you’re trying to make a change or help someone else do the same, a fresh start can be just the right moment to begin.
Is there any habit or change that you’re actively trying to pursue these days? What strategies are you using?
I’ve been trying to cut down on the time I spend on my phone when I’m with my family so I can be more fully present. The solution I’ve found most useful is to leave my phone in another room so I won’t be tempted to mindlessly pick it up and scroll through emails and social media. This isn’t one of the most inspired ideas you’ll hear about behavior change, but sometimes simple things work well. By leaving my phone in a different room, I increase the cost of indulging in my vice when I should be paying attention to my family, so this is a kind of “commitment device” — a tool you can choose to use that makes the thing you don’t want to do more difficult, either because there’s some penalty or some restriction.