Maverick Life


This week we’re listening to: Time for a change

Image: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Want to change your life? This podcast is all about both navigating and inspiring change that should leave us (hopefully) better off.

The Science of Change – A Slight Change of Plans

  • Format: Single episode
  • Year: 2021
  • Listen on: Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Do you wish you were better at achieving your goals? Podcast host Dr Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist, speaks with fellow cognitive scientist Dr Katy Milkman about the science of change and how people can learn how to make better changes, better.

What if behavioural psychology, and the psychology of decision-making, was applied to health decision-making? That is the question Milkman pondered, asking further: if these decisions have such massive impacts on the health sector, they must affect other aspects of life, too, such as finance and education. It sounds relatively simple: good decisions mean good outcomes; but what actually motivates people to change and make a “good” choice? Is the outcome enough?

The Fresh Start Effect

Events like new years are often when people decide to make big changes in their lives, and there’s a good reason for that, which shouldn’t be discounted.

Milkman’s research found that “people are more likely to tackle their goals following salient temporal landmarks” – these include significant dates such as new years, school terms, birthdays, new weeks and months, anniversaries, any days that mark the passage of time but also look to the future. These dates create “many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviours”.

“At the beginning of a new chapter of your life, you are more motivated and likely to make a change,” Milkman says, and the existence of these landmarks makes it easier not only to set goals but to work towards achieving them, too.

“Moments when you leave college, shift identities, take on a new role, when you become a parent – those moments, they feel like new beginnings and chapter breaks in our lives and they free us from the baggage that we had before. A lot of people who do make big change are looking at moments that feel like breaking points and doing it,” Milkman explains.

The Fresh Start Effect is seen all the time. For example, Shankar recalls how former US president Barack Obama decided to quit smoking when the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) was passed in 2010.

“Way to next-level the Fresh Start Effect – he truly chose a once-in-a-lifetime experience to anchor his commitment on,” Shankar laughs.

Give in to the temptation, but be smart about it

A hurdle to changing behaviour for the better can be procrastination, why change when instant gratification makes us feel so good?

One technique for making meaningful change is what Milkman describes as “temptation bundling”, where “instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing ‘want’ experiences” are paired “with valuable ‘should’ behaviours providing delayed rewards”.

Milkman uses temptation bundling in her own life, explaining how she paired watching Netflix or listening to audiobooks (her “want” experience) with going to the gym (her “should” experience).

“What if I only let myself enjoy this entertainment I love so much while I’m exercising? I’d start craving trips to the gym to find out what happens next in my latest page-turner and I would stop wasting time at home on this literary garbage that normally captures my attention,” she explains.

By attaching something you love to something you see as a chore, you can be more motivated to complete the chore and actually start looking forward to it. If you can find a way to make the difficult tasks more enjoyable with positive associations, that will really help you in the long run, Milkman says.

Making a commitment

Another technique the pair discuss is called a commitment device, a way of outsourcing commitments to keep you accountable to your goals.

“They involve signing up for some kind of punishment in the future if we don’t actually do what we’ve resolved to do,” Milkman says. This is a voluntary solution that you can opt into that restricts or penalises you when you don’t do what you say you will, she explains.

Another solution: making a plan about when, where and how you will complete a task.

One study by Milkman found that simply the act of planning out a task can increase the likelihood of completing that task. Her research, based on what motivates people to get their flu vaccination, found that people followed through on getting their vaccination after they verbalised the plan. Even if it sounds simple, planning out “I’ll take the bus, text my mom, then get the vaccine, then go to the shop for groceries” motivated people to actually get their shots.

“What was astonishing to me is that [this] significantly increased the vaccination rate, despite the fact that you weren’t accountable to anyone… you were literally just planning it out for yourself, and that was enough,” Shankar says.

Even if these techniques sound simple and easy, “small tweaks to our mindset and daily behaviours can actually inspire big change within ourselves”, says Shankar. As humans, we tend to be “over-optimistic about our ability to use willpower to avoid temptation”, she says, but we should not underestimate the big impact small changes can have. DM/ML


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