Insights – How To Change: Notes from the Book

20th October 2022

Posted in: Insights

Katy Milkman’s book “How To Change” looks at behavioural science around self improvement, achieving goals and habit formation.

It was a great follow up read from Atomic Habits

The book outlined various considerations when trying to make changes to different areas of life:

Identify Weaknesses:

Important to customise your strategy, isolate the weakness preventing your progress and then make appropriate changes.

Andre Agassi. In his early years his tendency to try hit a winner every point was a weakness. He was only focused on himself not his opposition and their weakness, was taking too many risks. The basis of his later success was identifying his weakness and finding ways to improve.

Making a Fresh Start:

  • Starting from a blank slate help the change process. Success often comes when starting on:
    • Dates such as New Years or birthday but even start of week or month
    • Life changing events
  • Consider labels we use to describe ourselves change as new chapters start as labels matter to our behaviour. ie I dont just run, I am a runner.
  • Resets
    • Results will depend on performance before hand (prior poor performance can be boosted but prior good performance can also be stunted)
    • Relegate failures to past, boost optimism for future, disrupt old habits and allow bigger picture thinking


Present bias is the tendency to chose instant gratification over long term reward. Doing the right thing is unsatisfying in the short term.

Adding something fun and unexpected will help with habit change eg. Piano stairs in Stockholm metro station increased use of stairs by 66%

Mary Poppins theory: Just a spoonful of sugar, makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way. In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap the jobs a game.”

Reason people fail:

  • 66% of people focus on long term benefits, rather than focusing on making the goal pursuit enjoyable in itself.
  • We tend to be over confident in how easy it is to be self disciplined.

Tools to Help:

Temptation bundling:

  • Only allow a certain behaviour when performed in conjunction with a good habit ie can only listen to audio book while at the gym or watch TV when walking on treadmill.
  • Works best for those with a busy life
  • Works for suggestion only (not just where actual limitations were imposed).
  • Unfortunately cognitive or physically demanding tasks can’t easily be paired with another demanding task.
  • Can easily cheat

Making work fun:

  • Gamification
  • Will only benefit those who fully buy in. Those that don’t enter the magic circle ( ie buy in) will actually feel worse
  • Gamification is unhelpful and can be harmful if people feel forced to participate in mandatory fun
  • Can help people acheive goals they wanted to anyway by making the process more exciting.
  • Mary Poppins approach takes things that might be a distraction and use them as a tool to act as an enticement


  • Setting limits violates a basic tenet of economic theory ie that people prefer more freedom over less
  • But binding deadlines make it easier to space time out over a period
  • Impulsivity is an obstacle, limits can be helpful ie the stick approach
  • Victor Hugo,  locked up all clothes other than a shawl to ensure he could not go out and would meet his writing deadline
  • Commitment devices– do something that reduces freedoms in order to acheive a goal ie we are essentially handcuffing ourselves
  • Cash commitment device- make a promise that you will do something and if you don’t you will have to pay money to someone
  • eg assignment deadlines, bank account that locks money away, apps to limit time usage.

Pledges and other commitments

  • Announcing goals and deadlines publicly
  • Signing a pledge- soft commitment as only involves guilt and discomfort of breaking your word ie psychological price tag only
  • Cognitive dissonance- being at odds with yourself
  • Bite sized commitments easier to keep rather than big ones

Two types of people

  • Sophisticates – those that have come to terms with Impulsivity and are willing to take steps to rein it in to create change.
  • Naïfs – overly optimistic about their ability to control problems through sheer will power


  • Intentions are only loosely predictive of our actual behaviour
  • Average adults forgets three things each day
  • We forget nearly half of info we learn within 20 mins, 70% after 24 hours and 80% in a month
  • Reminders work better when we act on them immediately

Cue based planning:

Setting an Implementation Intention involves making a plan and linking it to a specific cue to remind you to act eg floss teeth straight after cleaning your teeth.

  • Cue can be a date and time or a place you pass eg when X happens I will do Y.
  • Better cues :
    • are more distinctive
    • associate with something you know well ie something in your house
    • mnemonic, tied to sounds
  • Planning helps to break into manageable chunks
  • Having too many plans can overwhelm but checklists help


Human tendency to take the path of least resistance therefore to help implement improvements:

  • Change the default to make the desired outcome the easiest choice
  • Nudging

Habits are behaviours we have repeated so many times that they become automatic

When a given behaviour is repeated or drilled over and over in a consistent environment and when positive feedback accompanies execution, it tends to become instinctual ie autopilot

Attaching new behaviours onto old habits- ie piggybacking.

  • helps link something new to what you already do – if you have existing strong habits makes it easier to add a new behaviour.


Adding flexibility can allow a stickier habit to be created.

eg Experiment with attending the gym. Those that went at same time every time ie had a fixed found that when the routine was broken would not attend at all.

Those that attended on a more flexible schedule found they missed a session were more likely to make it up ie still go but at a different time despite changes.

Ie we learnt to roll with the punches – too much rigidity is the enemy of habit

The most versatile and robust habits are formed when we train ourselves to make the best decisions- no matter the circumstances.

Tracking behaviour is useful to facilitate habit formation ie we look for streaks – but need to make sure breaking a streak is not the end (just a temporary setback).

Building in flexibility ie give yourself permission to miss once a week etc allowance for emergencies. ie elastic habits


Self efficacy is someone’s confidence in their ability to control their own behaviour, motivation and social circumstances.

Low self efficacy can stop us from setting goals in the first place.

Prompting goal seekers to give advice led them to feel more motivated than when they were given advice. ie gave a boost of confidence

  • Saying is believing effect – after saying something to someone else your more likely to believe it yourself
  • We generally give advice on what we know through personal experience

As a manager it might seem counter intuitive to have underperforming managers in mentoring roles but it could actually boost their lagging performance.

What we think about something affects our outcomes.

  • Beliefs change emotions, can change physiological reactions,
  • Beliefs redirect attention,
  • Beliefs change motivation,
  • Beliefs affect physiology and cause our body to respond differently.

Failures can cause long term setbacks ie what the hell I’ve already failed so I’ll keep up the bad behavior%

Growth mindset- the belief that abilities are not set and that effort influences a person’s potential

ie focus on failure as a learning experience.

Excess confidence can help but also hurt, but under confidence will almost always stymie success.

Unsolicited advice may hurt, but asking for advice will help.

The way we compliment people can impact. Being praised for a natural talent they may develop a fixed mindset. Someone praised for their hard work will recognise that effort yields results.


Impact that peer groups have on people’s decisions:

  • You become the people you spend the most time with
  • Copy and paste method– watch peers who had achieved and deliberately imitate their methods
  • Social norms- we are likely to emulate those with similar circumstances to us
  • The closer we are and the more likely we are to be influenced by their behaviour
  • Grouping different people together can cause separation and cliques
  • Social accountability- knowing others are watching you can be a commitment device

Changing for good:

  • Need to treat change like a chronic illness – ie not just a short term rash.
  • Need to keep using the techniques over the long term
  • One size fits all won’t work as well as tailored plans



Author: Donna Bruce