Katy Milkman Author Interview

Portrait of Katherine Milkman

Katy Milkman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, host of Charles Schwab’s popular behavioral economics podcast Choiceology, and the former president of the international Society for Judgment and Decision Making.

She’s also the co-founder and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, a research center with the mission of advancing the science of lasting behavior change. She’s written for publications such as The Washington Post, The New York TimesUSA Today, and The Economist.

Her new book is How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You are to Where You Want to Be (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn’t wait to talk to Katy about happiness, habits, and human nature.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Katy: My morning routine involves listening to my favorite podcast – The Daily – while I get ready for work. I love that I can combine waking up in the shower, brushing my teeth, putting on lotion, and picking out clothes with a deep dive into current events. I thrive on information, so this habit ensures I start each day feeling happy, informed, and refreshed even though I rarely have time to sit down and read through a full newspaper.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was 18, I had no idea how much of my own happiness would emanate from finding meaning and purpose in my work. I feel lucky that I stumbled into a career that provides me with such a strong sense of purpose because I didn’t know to go looking for one.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Most people (myself included) tend to think that when you give advice to someone else, you’re doing them a selfless favor. But I’ve learned from working with a brilliant scientist named Lauren Eskreis-Winkler that when you give other people advice about how to achieve a goal in an area where you’d also like to improve, it helps you a lot.

Why? First, being asked for advice boosts your self-confidence. Second, it causes you to dredge up insights you might not have otherwise contemplated. Finally, once you’ve given someone else advice, it feels hypocritical not to take it yourself.

I was lucky enough to collaborate with Lauren on one experiment where we showed this. We invited high school students to spend a few minutes writing down tips for their younger peers about how to study more effectively. We found this activity improved the advisors’ own grades in the class they cared about most.

A lot of people find it surprising that when you play the role of advisor or mentor to someone else, it turns out to help you, the advice-giver. But the data is incontrovertible, and I think it’s a wonderful insight because it means helping other people is a win-win (and it feels great too!).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

When I was a first-year PhD student in engineering, I consistently struggled to get myself to the gym at the end of a long day of classes even though I knew getting regular exercise would boost my energy in the long run. And that wasn’t because I always turned straight to my problem sets and assigned readings, either—I tended to procrastinate on my schoolwork too because I needed a release at the end of a long day.

Midway through that first year of graduate school, after complaining again and again that I just couldn’t motivate myself to go to the gym, I had an idea about how I could simultaneously start exercising and stop procrastinating on schoolwork. I did something I’ve come to call “temptation bundling:” I started letting myself indulge in my guilty pleasure—novels like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code—at the end of a long day, but only during trips to the gym. I’d get the books I wanted in audio form and listen while using the elliptical.

It worked like a charm. Suddenly, I started craving trips to the gym at the end of a long day to find out what would happen next in my latest novel, and I stopped procrastinating on schoolwork when I was home because I’d already enjoyed a guilty pleasure and a bit of release. Not only that, but I enjoyed my novel and my workout more combined—I didn’t feel guilty reading the novel, and time flew at the gym.

I’ve since done research showing that this “temptation bundling” technique can be useful to other people, too. It can help anyone who is trying to find ways to make something they ought to do more alluring (and waste less time on an indulgence in the bargain). [Gretchen: I call this the “Strategy of Pairing.”]

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

Apparently I’m an Obliger. It’s certainly true that everything worth doing, I’ve found I do best when working with other people on a team. Accountability to my collaborators keeps me motivated and fulfilled.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? 

Oh yes. I’ve found that disruptions to my routines can be a real challenge. One of my former PhD students, Hengchen Dai (now a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management), did seminal research on just how troublesome disruptions can be when you’ve got a rhythm going. She showed this in controlled laboratory experiments, but she also has a wonderful study where she shows it affects the performance of Major League Baseball players when they’re traded to a new team. We’re all pretty susceptible to this. It’s funny because disruptions can be fantastic when you’re in a rut. But when you’re on a roll, they’re often a disaster.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Absolutely. I’ve had a lot of lightning bolt moments. In fact, the day I bought a new home was the day I decided I was ready for a big new adventure to go with it and decided to write my book! Observing this tendency in myself actually helped spur my research on the power of fresh starts. My collaborators and I have documented a “fresh start effect:” we proved that moments like birthdays, holidays, and even Mondays can cause us to step back and think bigger picture about our lives, which has a meaningful impact on our motivation to change. We feel more eager to take on new challenges and more disconnected from our past missteps at these kinds of fresh start moments because they give us the sense that we have a clean slate. And so we’re more likely to begin pursuing new goals, more open to setting money aside in a 401(k), and we’re even more likely to simply visit the gym. [Me again: I call this the Strategy of First Steps; also the Strategy of the Clean Slate.]

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

I know this is hokey, but I love the saying “Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars.” I remember finding that quote etched into the paint in a bathroom stall at a Chinese restaurant my family visited regularly when I was a kid, and to my 10-year-old self, the words seemed really profound. Silly as it may sound, I’ve found it’s quite a useful mantra as an adult. When you aim high, things often don’t work out exactly as hoped, but you normally do end up somewhere pretty good (even if you don’t reach your most ambitious goal).

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

Absolutely. I read a book about behavioral economics by Richard Thaler called The Winner’s Curse (Amazon, Bookshop) when I was a first year PhD student studying computer science and business, and I was so absolutely fascinated by it that I decided to change course and become a behavioral economist. The book is all about curious ways that people deviate from making optimal choices, and it made me fall in love with the field Thaler had helped found.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

I’d say there’s a common misconception that behavioral scientists have come up with a handy bag of tricks that can be used efficiently to nudge people to make better decisions and that you can just pick a trick from that bag, set it to use in your life or organization, and change will follow. What drives me crazy about this is that yes, we’ve found a lot of really effective ways to change behavior for the better, but if you just pick a tactic haphazardly, you’ll likely be disappointed. What works depends on what’s obstructing change.

Let me give you a couple of examples. If people aren’t getting flu shots in your organization because they forget to show up at the on-site clinic on the one day when it’s open and no one reminds them, making the experience of getting a flu shot more enjoyable and efficient is unlikely to change behavior much. However, a well-timed reminder campaign could have a huge impact. But reminders can also fall flat if they’re matched with the wrong obstacle. If you run a hotel chain where some customers stubbornly refuse to re-use their towels (hurting the environment and your water bill) because they think re-use must be unhygienic, a reminder probably won’t help. But telling customers that the vast majority of guests re-use their towels at this very hotel may well change behavior substantially since it will disabuse holdouts of the notion that there’s something peculiar and unsanitary about re-using your hotel’s towels.

Hopefully these examples help illustrate the point I’m trying to make: we can get a lot farther, faster using science to help people change for the better if we first take stock of the obstacle we need to overcome and make sure the behavioral science solution we’re deploying is well-suited to tackle that obstacle.



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