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Small habits with huge impact: Katherine Milkman

September 4, 2019 — Written by Liz Fosslien

At Humu, our mission is to make work better, and we regularly get the chance to talk to inspiring minds in academia, business, and government. When we do, we ask questions that we hope will help everyone—everywhere—benefit and grow from the advice, routines, and practices these leaders share.

Today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Humu advisor Katherine Milkman, Wharton Professor, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and host of the Choiceology podcast (which I highly recommend). Her extensive research focuses on how consequential behaviors like saving, exercising, medication adherence, or discrimination can be changed for good.

Humu: Given unlimited resources, what question would you most want to try to answer?

Katherine Milkman: What it takes to make behavior change stick. How can we help people make better choices day in and day out? 

H: What is the most common mistake people make when it comes to serious decisions?

KM: I’d say escalation of commitment, or the tendency to stick with a previous course of action beyond the point where a rational, cost-benefit calculation would suggest you should cut and run. I’m amazed by how often escalation of commitment seems to affect my students–and corporate and world leaders.

We also tend to demean people who are rational and *don’t* exhibit escalation of commitment – we call them flip floppers! But often the right decision changes over time as you accumulate more data. We should all flip flop more.

H: What one piece of advice would you give someone struggling to make a positive change?

KM: Positive change is so hard that the best thing to do, in my opinion, is throw the kitchen sink of behavioral science knowledge at the problem and hope some of it helps. 

But if I absolutely *have* to pick one: it’s critical to plan out exactly how you’re going to make that positive change. On what day, at what time, and in what location are you going to change? What is the specific action you’ll take? How will you keep the change going? Now put it on your calendar and make sure you’ve anticipated and removed potential obstacles.

H: What is temptation bundling? What two things have you personally bundled?

KM: Temptation bundling is a term I coined for combining something that’s tempting with something that’s a bit of a chore; the idea is that the chore becomes more instantly gratifying, and the temptation can be enjoyed with less guilt. 

For example, imagine only letting yourself watch your favorite lowbrow TV show at the gym. You’ll start craving workouts and stop binge-watching trashy TV when you should be doing other things. I have personally bundled listening to lowbrow novels (like Alex Cross or Twilight) with exercise. I also bundle pedicures with meetings.

H: What is one thing you have to do every day?

KM: Drink two cups of black tea. And check my email.

H: How do you recharge?

KM: I’ve done research on the importance of giving yourself fresh starts, and I think vacations are a great way to create space to begin anew. I try to take really wonderful vacations with my family and truly unplug. I’m pretty addicted to email, but I often won’t bring electronic devices with me on a trip. 

I also enjoy walking around the city of Philadelphia (where I live)–it’s full of interesting sights and sounds, and combining that with exercise is as good as it gets. And I love eating at a great restaurant. That’s almost like taking a vacation!

H: What’s one way your work has changed the way you live?

KM: One of my favorite new projects (with Katie Mehr and Angela Duckworth) focuses on the power of looking to similar people for life hacks so you can be more successful, and I do a lot of that. I copied one colleague’s habit of using voice dictation to send emails and texts to colleagues while walking around campus between meetings. And I copied another colleague’s habit of scheduling calls during my walking commute so that time is never wasted.

H: What’s your best time-saving shortcut?

KM: See previous response! In all seriousness though, it’s having what I call a “no club”. Along with two other female senior colleagues in similar jobs (but at other institutions), I have a club that helps me say “no” to commitments. When any of us is asked to do anything that we feel a tug to do but realize will be time-consuming, we run it by the rest of the “no club.” We help each other avoid commitments that we otherwise would be suckered into tackling, and we help each other say “no” gracefullyl. It’s fantastic!

H: What do you value most in the people you work with?

KM: I’d say being on the ball. I love working with people who get things done. But obviously that alone does not make for a good colleague.

H: What book do you recommend to everyone?

KM: Well, the obvious answer is Nudge, though I also love Influence by Cialdini. I assign those two books to my Wharton MBA students every year.

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