After wrestling unsuccessfully with innumerable resolutions – ranging from New Year pledges to audacious proclamations – to kick the habit of smoking, I finally decided to change tack. My father’s 80th birthday would be the defining “fresh start effect.” As an indelible gift that would both warm the cockles of his heart, and improve my health, I resolved to go cold turkey beginning that momentous occasion. At the time of this review, it has been a full three years since I last smoked a cigarette. Katy Milkman, the American economist who is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in her brilliant best seller, “How To Change”, sets out some compelling and thought provoking insights for ushering in lasting and positive change in our living. Replete with empirical research findings and corroborated outcomes, “How To Change” is an indispensable guide to anyone looking for that elusive change in her personal life or professional career.
Milkman sets the context for her book with a thrilling story revolving around legendary tennis player Andre Agassi and his revolutionary coach Brad Gilbert. Gilbert brought in an engineer’s approach to embellish the quality of Agassi’s play. “An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first carefully accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success.” Gilbert thus steered Agassi’s focus from trying to slam winners off every shot to maintaining a focus on his opponent’s shortcomings. This tweak resulted in an incredible transformation in the game of Agassi and led to his being acknowledged as one of the greatest of his generation.
Milkman, incidentally an engineer herself, employs the same philosophy to demonstrate how we all can make simple adjustments to our routines so as to get the best outcomes from our efforts. For example, Milkman’s research indicated that building “moments engine” – a concept that identifies when the company’s employees are likely to be open to change (say, after a promotion or a move to a new office), provides a much needed ‘nudge’ for instigating positive initiatives that would spur the employees into action, such as getting them to save more or receive their flu vaccines.
As exemplified in one of the greatest psychological experiment involving little kids and marshmallows, Austrian born American psychologist, Walter Mischel demonstrated that impulsivity or present bias – a tendency to favour immediate gratification over long term rewards can be detrimental to positive change. Milkman offers a novel and fun filled method to avoid falling into the trap of such instant temptation. Her solution – ‘temptation bundling’. One can allow oneself to indulge in one’s guilty pleasures, but only when one is pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity that one usually tends to procrastinate. For example, listening to your favourite audio book only while on the treadmill or binge watching Netflix only while doing the laundry. Temptation building can also be combined with “gamification” a tactic employed by companies in transforming something that is not a game feel more engaged and less repetitious by adding game like features, such as symbolic rewards. For example, a badge of ‘featured reviewer’ and ‘auto approved’ reviewer on the Net Galley website spurs readers to post more and more reviews thereby helping emerging authors as well.
One of my favourite chapters in the book is the one on procrastination. An inveterate procrastinator, I always put off till next week what can be done today. Milkman tackles this pernicious attribute of procrastination by offering a few practical and easily implementable tools. Inspired by the works of behavioural and other economists such as Robert Strotz, Thomas Schelling and Richard Thaler, Milkman urges us to “anticipate temptation and create constraints”. These constraints termed “commitment devices” break the cycle of procrastination. Creating a “locked” savings bank account (an account where no withdrawal is permissible until a certain level of savings is achieved) or putting money on the line that one is forced to forfeit after every infraction (for example, every cigarette smoked after taking a pledge to quit smoking will result in the depositing of a pre agreed sum of money towards a charity, preferably one which the voter does not subscribe to), will spur an individual towards tightening the strings in so far resolutions are concerned. Taking “soft pledges” also act as a psychological boost in Preventing procrastination as the one taking the pledge and making it public would not want to be seen as one who does not honour his own words.
Two of the most important revelations gleaned by me in a personal capacity after reading Milkman’s engrossing book, have been those relating to laziness and the power of advice. A very power example illustrates the potential for ‘harnessing’ our inherent default setting of laziness to foster positive outcomes. “During a routine system upgrade, an IT consultant working on the software that Penn Medicine physicians used to send prescriptions to pharmacies made a small change to the user interface: he added a new checkbox to the system. From then on, unless a physician checked that box, whatever drug they prescribed would be sent to the pharmacy as a generic. Since doctors, like the rest of us, tend to be a little lazy, they only rarely checked the box: just 2 percent of the time. As a result, Penn’s generic prescription rate shot up to 98 percent.” Penn Medicine which was once notorious for prescribing branded medicines 75 percent of the time thereby contributing to ballooning costs and insurer angst, with just a single tweak became the most avowed prescriber of generic medication.
Similarly, asking a person who is going through tough times to ‘render’ advice to another who might be going through a similar adverse phase improves decision making skills immensely. “This idea—that giving advice can be more important to your success than receiving it—was echoed by the legendary drummer Mike Mangini when he appeared on my podcast in 2019. He talked about how he developed the confidence he needed to rise to stardom. Now the lead drummer for world-famous heavy metal band Dream Theater, Mike took a path to the top that was anything but straight. He spent the 1980s as a software engineer, practicing incessantly on the drums at night and on the weekends, daydreaming of a big career in music with little hope of achieving his goal. Then something changed. When other drummers in a shared practice space unexpectedly began knocking on Mike’s door and asking him to give them lessons, their requests gave Mike a newfound confidence. If so many people thought he had a special talent, maybe he did. Mike quit his day job and devoted himself full time to drumming. Today, he’s one of the best-known drummers in the business. He attributes his success, in no small part, to being asked to give other people advice.”
“How To Change” is an extremely engrossing book that spurs its readers to action. What sets it apart from other books of its genre is the element of simplicity, practicality and most critically, implementable potentiality. I am sure innumerable lives would be transformed for the good, as a result of a serious reading of this book. “Change” is imminent!