December 27, 2021

How to make good habits stick

Katy Milkman's new study in Nature examined over 60,000 participants to see what would motivate them to exercise regualrly at the gym. It turned out that paying people pennies when they missed a day was an incentive. She spoke with WHYY RadioTimes about the study and how we can make long-lasting changes to our habits.

Excerpt from the interview transcribed for clarity:

Tracey Matisak: Why is it so hard for us to change?

Katy Milkman: It’s hard for many reasons. One, the world isn’t always on our side, and there are lots of barriers to change that are external to our lives. Even if everything were working for us outside of our own mind, there’s lots of internal barriers to change. Ranging from the fact that we tend to be impulsive; we care more about instant gratification rather than long-term benefits; we’re forgetful; we like to take the path of least resistance; we lack confidence.

Tracey Matisak: What do you mean by “sizing up our opponent” when it comes to making meaningful change?

Katy Milkman: One of things that has frustrated me most in my career is there is a tendency to want a one size fits all solution to change. And there are lots of books like this that say this is the thing to do and you will get there. But what I have found is that it depends on what the barrier is to change which scientific tools are going to be the most useful.

If the reason someone isn’t taking their medications regularly is that they are forgetting, then reminders are going to be incredibly powerful and useful. But if it’s because they have some side effects that are unpleasant, reminders are not going to solve the problem. You need a different tool to solve a different problem.

Spend a little time diagnosing  what is the barrier to change. Is it forgetting? Is it impulsivity? Is it that you can’t find the motivation? Is it a lack of confidence? All of these barriers are very real and sometimes they operate in conjunction with each other, but, once you understand what the barrier or barriers are, you can do a much better job of using scientifically proven tactics to tackle that problem or that constellation of problems.

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