About nine months ago I had one Eat Pray Love moment. I sold my house, my car and everything that could not fit in one, albeit large, suitcase. Grateful for the flexibility of work remotelyI set off across the country, with little to guide my journey beyond the question: How can I change my life for the better.
Over the past two years, quarantine and the ebb and flow of the severity of the pandemic have engulfed our lives. Although this has led to countless positive shifts (connects with what really matters and learn to slow down), many of us have felt stuck or as if we are not making progress towards our Goal. True, when I took stock of my life at the end of last summer, I realized I was standing still. Yes, I was comfortable, even happy and content. But I was not inspired-and it has always been my tendency to question and follow my curiosity it drives me forward.
If you feel like a change, want to form new habits and want to create space in your life for growth, you are in good company. While routines, rituals and consistent practices keep us grounded, change is not only inevitable – it is transformative. And good news: It’s within reach.
Feature image of Michelle Nash.
How to change your habits – and your life – for the better
Katy Milkman, an award-winning Wharton professor and host Valgologi podcast, by a thing or two about change. In fact, she has written the book about it. IN How to change, she sets the framework for getting out and achieving the success you are looking for. Below, she shares everything from how to navigate in hesitation as a professional, take a positive path forward – and yes, exploit laziness for the good.
What can we do when we feel lost or pointless in our lives?
Before organizational psychologist, Adam Grants, New York Times Article went viral in 2021, languishing as a concept was not yet part of the common encyclopedia. But without knowing exactly what the word meant, many of us definitely already felt it. If you feel a lack of purpose or direction, Milkman offers four steps to moving the needle forward.
- Connect with your community. Consciously dedicate quality time with those you care about.
- Move your body. Spend some time reflecting and find some kind of movement you enjoy. Remember: The best workout is the one you look forward to doing (yes, is it possible).
- Contribute. Find a way to give back to others. Research shows that behaviors such as altruism, empathy and compassion not only support the betterment of society but can also promote personal well-being.
- Spend time in nature. There is a reason forest bathing a thing.
Milkman adds, “Some people should also undoubtedly consider whether they can benefit from talking to a mental health professional.” If you are looking for a place to start, check out our guide for everything you need to know about to find a therapist.
What are the most common changes people want to make?
Ah, New Year’s sequel. Fortunately, we have reached a point where we have collectively begun to understand (and accept) the inefficiency of decisions. But looking at the most common decisions can provide insight into the goals and aspects of our lives that we most often want to change. Milkman lists the following.
- Increased exercise
- Improving weight control
- To become more organized
- Increasing productivity
- Learning new skills
- Stop smoking
- Save more or spend less money
- To give more time to family and friends
When it comes to creating positive change in our lives, what do we so often go wrong with?
Have you ever been convinced that a book, podcast or clickbait-y article will provide a quick solution to your problems? It’s tempting to think that a life hack can universally apply to any and all situations, but Milkman says it’s a common mistake that can lead us astray on our path to change. “For example, someone can fixate on the power of positive thinking or set big, bold goals.”
Although these strategies may be supportive in certain situations and used in some contexts, they will not work for everyone. Milkman notes that jumping right into a solution skips the key step of asking yourself: What are the obstacles to success? “Choosing the right, evidence-based path to achieving change actually requires some insight into what the barriers will be to change,” she emphasizes.
The second most common error is one we have dealt with before: thinking willpower is the answer. (Milkman’s thoughts go to Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan … catchy, yes, but also misleading.) Instead of focusing on results, Milkman says you need to focus on the process. “Finding ways to make persecution of the goal feels easy rather than challenging, has huge benefits. “Do you want to train more consistently? Make it fun or do a workout you love.
As we form new habits, it is common to think that we should be rigid followers. Is this true, or is there another way?
It is hard none from Milkman, who calls this approach a recipe for failure. “It makes us susceptible to what has been aptly called the ‘what the hell effect’.” This describes the phenomenon of experiencing a small failure and completely abandoning our goals.
“Persistence in the face of setbacks is crucial to change.”
Milkman cites the work of his Wharton colleague Marissa Sharif, whose research looks at the effectiveness of creating a hard goal for yourself and allowing for a few ’emergencies’ each week if things go wrong. If you stay below your emergency budget, you are still on the path to success.
How can we navigate the obstacles that try to hold us?
Impulsivity and procrastination can be some of the biggest things that hold us back from forming positive and healthy habits. To combat this, Milkman proposes to create a commitment device. This looks like:
- To identify someone who will hold you accountable.
- Connection to resources such as stickK and beeminder to set goals.
- Choosing something you are willing to give up, like cash.
- If you do not meet a deadline, then donate your money to charity.
With incentives in place, studies have shown that you will be less likely to procrastinate and more likely to succeed.
Practicing temptation bundling (the concept of connecting a pleasure you crave with something you want to do more of) can also be an effective way to keep your procrastination in check. “When you have a reason to look forward to a task,” Milkman says, “it’s no longer an uphill battle.” A good example? Set an evening spent making a fresh meal along with a bottle of your favorite wine or having a go-to podcast in the background.
In your book, How to change, you argue that laziness can be a good thing. Why?
It all comes down to efficiency, which, Milkman notes, can be synonymous with laziness. It requires a little self-reflection, but by recognizing this tendency in yourself, “you can turn it to your advantage.”
For example, if you only have healthy snacks in your pantry, Milkman says that by establishing that foundation, laziness will automatically work to your advantage. If it’s an ice cream you fancy, the effort to go out to get one will probably deter the temptation.
This design with the least resistance can work for you in countless ways, depending on your goals. “For example, if your browser’s website is set up for a reputable news site rather than social media, this can help you get more out of your time online.”
How do you pivot when you lack a positive, healthy change?
Carol Dweck (af mindset research fame) sheds important light on the concept of perceived failure when it comes to learning how to change your habits for the better. Basically, the difference between what she calls a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset” is that the latter sees failure as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. The more we can do this, Milkman says, “the more likely we are to shift to a new and better strategy. Persistence in the face of setbacks is crucial to change.”