How to Change: Key takeaways

In «How to Change», Milkman describes the science of getting from where you are to where you want to be – explaining why the ideal time to pursue change is during a fresh start. Furthermore, she describes six types of obstacles that stand in the way of change and discusses how to tackle them. Lets get to it!

5 min read


By Ida Opsahl Høydal


December 18, 2022

Earlier this year, I came across a list of top 100 behavioural design books, with tips on many good reads! Here are my takeaways from the book «How to Change» by Katy Milkman.

Fresh starts

Fresh starts are ideal for pursuing change because they give a clean slate, disrupt bad habits, help leave failures in the past and bring optimism to the future. Fresh starts can be calendar dates (like a new year, season, month, or week) or important life events like birthdays, anniversaries, health scares, etc. This is also an effective time to encourage other people to pursue positive change.

Obstacles to change

Milkman describes six obstacles that can stand in the way of change and provides some tips for how you can overcome them.


“Present Bias” describes our preference for instantly gratifying temptations over long-term rewards. Ways to overcome impulsivity include:

  • Add an element of fun to the long-term goal to make it more instantly gratifying. You can add game-like features (e.g. competition, symbolic rewards and leaderboards) to make something that isn’t a game more engaging. However, gamification can backfire if imposed on someone, and should only be used when the player has “bought in” to the game.
  • Use “temptation bundling”, which means to do guilty pleasures only while doing a valuable activity you tend to dread. It reduces overindulgence in temptations and increases the time spent on long-term goals.


Present Bias can also make us procrastinate on tasks we need to do to achieve long-term goals. Ways to overcome procrastination:

  • Give yourself constraints that reduce your freedom.
  • A “hard” penalty can be handing over money if you fail, while a «soft» penalty can be announcing a goal publicly to increase the psychological cost of not meeting the goal. The latter can be surprisingly effective. Furthermore, it is also more effective to make smaller, more frequent changes. For example, saving $5 every day compared to $1825 a year. Hard commitments make you more likely to change, while softer commitments are easier to adopt.


Sometimes we fail to follow through on our intentions simply because we forgot to do it. Ways to overcome forgetfulness include:

  • Set a timed reminder right before you need to do something.
  • Plan your actions and link them to a cue; for example a specific time, location or an object you expect to encounter. The more distinctive the cue, the better it is to trigger recall. Planning helps you break the goal into smaller parts and will also increase your commitment to the goal. Nevertheless, don’t use too many cue-based plans at once.
  • Use checklists when plans are complex to remember.


Laziness is our tendency to follow the path of least resistance when it comes to changing. Ways to overcome laziness:

  • Default is the output people go for if they don’t actively choose another option. Choose defaults wisely to benefit change.
  • Our habits are the default settings for our behaviour. Put good behaviour on autopilot by repeating a wanted action in a familiar circumstance, each time giving yourself a reward. Make sure your routines are flexible, as too much rigidity is the enemy of good habits. Aim for streaks. Make sure to celebrate success and hold yourself accountable for failures.
  • Piggyback new habits on old habits by linking what you want to start doing with something you already do. For example, link push ups to morning coffee.


Self-doubt can keep you from making progress or even from setting a goal. Ways to help build your confidence:

  • Adopt a growth mindset and focus on personal experiences that make you feel successful. Self-affirmations make you more resilient.
  • Set ambitious goals, but allow several emergency passes to help you stay confident and on track through setbacks.
  • Form advice clubs with friends and colleagues who have similar goals, or consider becoming a mentor. Giving someone solicited feedback can boost your confidence and help you act so you don’t feel hypocritical for not using your own advice. Also, by asking other people for their advice, you can help them build confidence.
  • Tell people that you believe in their potential and surround yourself with people who also believe in your potential.


Decisions are heavily influenced by the norms in one's peer group. Ways to use conformity to change:

  • If you hope to achieve big goals, it is important to be in good company. It can be harmful to have peers who are low achievers.
  • A feeling of being watched can help change behaviour since most people care about peer approval. Social pressure can be used to coerce people’s moral responsibility.
  • You are more likely to be influenced by someone’s behaviour the closer you are to them and the more their situation resembles your own.
  • Copy and paste the methods of peers who have managed to achieve the goals you want to achieve. However, if their accomplishments are too difficult to copy it can feel discouraging and keep you from changing.
  • If a behaviour is growing in popularity, sharing information about the upward trend can help change people’s behaviour.
  • Use peer visibility to promote change by giving people a chance to earn public praise (or opt out) rather than public shaming them.

All these obstacles are human nature and creating change requires a lifetime of tackling these obstacles. By diagnosing which obstacles you’ve encountered and using these solutions to help overcome them, evidence and experience show that you can achieve your goals.

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