Why is change so hard? This is the first question I asked Dr. Katy Milkman, a renowned behavioral scientist and professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She hosts the popular podcast Choiceology and co-directs the Behavior Change for Good Initiative which she co-founded. Katy has worked with or advised numerous organizations on behavior change, including The White House, Google, Walmart, Humana, the U.S. Department of Defense, 24 Hour Fitness, and the American Red Cross. She is the author of the bestselling book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and has published extensively in leading academic journals. Katy also frequently writes for major media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

For the full interview, listen to our ‘Evolving with Gratitude’ podcast episode, embedded in this article (above) and also available on your favorite podcast platform.

The Emotional Resistance to Change

Katy explains that change is inherently difficult due to our evolutionary wiring and psychological barriers. “We are also generally wired to prefer instant gratification over long-term, delayed rewards,” she says, a trait that once ensured our ancestors’ survival but now complicates modern goal achievement. Additionally, any change feels like a loss, and “losses tend to loom larger than gains,” making us avoid changes that feel psychologically costly. Habits create a path of least resistance, and deviating from this path requires significant effort and motivation. “And we haven’t even touched on all the structural barriers,” Milkman adds, noting that external obstacles further complicate the process.

Change is all about losing who you were and shifting to a new path, and the fact that those kinds of adjustments are psychologically costly is an important part of why we often don’t take the leap.

—Katy Milkman

Adding Fun to Achieve Long-Term Success

Overcoming the allure of immediate gratification is crucial for achieving long-term goals. Katy highlights a counterintuitive strategy: “When we are encouraged to pursue our goals in ways that are more fun, we actually see greater results.” Instead of focusing on willpower, making the process enjoyable can lead to better outcomes. One effective technique is “temptation bundling,” where you pair a less enjoyable task with a pleasurable activity. For example, Milkman suggests, “If you find it a little bit unpleasant to prep fresh meals for your family, but you’d like to do more of it, imagine you only let yourself listen to your favorite podcast while you’re prepping those fresh meals.” By combining something enjoyable with a chore, you transform the experience, making it more appealing and increasing the likelihood of persistence and staying committed to your long-term goals.

Once we understand that part of why we don’t pursue our goals and get chores done is because they aren’t enjoyable enough and that we can engineer solutions to this by linking temptations, it opens up a whole host of possible ways to be more effective.

—Katy Milkman

The Power of Confidence and Expectations

Our expectations significantly influence our outcomes. Katy shares an insightful example from her book, How to Change. In a study, hotel housekeepers were divided into two groups. One group was informed that their daily work met the CDC’s exercise guidelines, while the other group was not given this information. “By vacuuming, by changing sheets, by scrubbing floors, they are getting healthy physical activity that’s great for them,” Milkman explains. This simple shift in perspective led to improved health outcomes, as the informed housekeepers began to see their work as beneficial exercise. “When we think about things differently, it changes our behavior and outcomes,” she adds. This example underscores the power of mindset in achieving our goals. By framing our efforts positively, we can boost our confidence and enhance our performance.

When we think about things differently, it changes our behavior and outcomes.

—Katy Milkman

Fresh Starts

Katy offers the concept of “fresh starts” as powerful motivators for change. “At the start of a new year, there’s this huge uptick in goal pursuit,” she notes, explaining that the reset of the calendar provides a psychological clean slate. However, New Year’s isn’t the only time we can harness this effect. “We’ve found that people set more goals at the start of a new week, month, or following holidays that feel like fresh starts,” Milkman explains. Research shows that identifying these natural new beginnings can boost our willingness to pursue goals and make changes. For example, “People are more willing to open and start putting money in retirement savings accounts after the start of spring or an upcoming birthday than on other arbitrary future dates,” she says. Recognizing and leveraging these moments can help us initiate and sustain positive changes in our lives.

Commitment Devices and Self-Control

We discussed the effectiveness of commitment devices as tools for maintaining self-control and achieving our goals. “Commitment devices involve imposing losses on yourself,” Katy explains. These constraints can be highly motivating. For instance, people might commit to saving money by placing it in an account they can’t access until reaching a specific goal or date. “About 30 percent realize this is a good idea and will put money in that account,” Milkman notes, leading to significant increases in savings. Additionally, public commitments leverage social pressure to reinforce adherence to goals. These tools help overcome impulsivity and ensure long-term success by creating external accountability and immediate consequences for not sticking to plans.

“Commitment devices are like the stick approach,” Milkman adds, contrasting them with the “carrot approach” of making goal pursuit enjoyable, such as through temptation bundling. While the carrot approach focuses on making the process fun to enhance persistence, the stick approach uses penalties and restrictions to ensure adherence. Both strategies can be effective, depending on the individual’s needs and challenges.

Advice Receiving and Giving

Katy highlights the surprising power of advice-giving in achieving personal goals. “When we put ourselves in the position of advice giver, it boosts our confidence,” she explains. Research by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler focused on underperforming individuals, such as students and salespeople, and found that asking them to give advice significantly improved their own performance. These individuals reported that they rarely got to offer their own insights, which was demoralizing. By giving advice, they felt valued and introspected more deeply on effective strategies. “Giving advice improves your own outcomes,” Milkman notes, as it enhances confidence and motivation. Creating an “advice club” where individuals share insights can lead to significant improvements in achieving personal goals.

Giving advice improves your own outcomes.

—Katy Milkman

Milkman Delivers So We Can Take Action

Katy Milkman’s insights provide powerful strategies for overcoming the challenges of change. By understanding the psychological barriers, adding fun to our goals, leveraging fresh starts, using commitment devices, and giving advice, we can significantly enhance our ability to achieve long-term success. We can start today by applying these strategies to our own life and witness the transformative impact.

With gratitude,

Photo Credit: Peter Murphy

Connect with and learn from Katy Milkman:

Website: KatyMilkman.com
Newsletter: Milkman Delivers
Book: How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
Podcast: Choiceology.

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