Three Longs & Three Shorts

Speaking with Katy Milkman about “How to Change”

Author: Elizabeth Weingarten
Source: Behavioural Scientist (

Katy Milkman – who is said to be a ‘pioneering scientist’ – “is the codirector of Behavior Change for Good (BCFG), an interdisciplinary initiative that studies how to achieve sustainable behavior change at scale.” Ms Milkman has recently published a book titled “How to Change”. As per this article, the book “offers simple yet profound insights about why better understanding our own internal obstacles—such as laziness, procrastination, forgetfulness, or our tendency to favor instant gratification over long-term rewards—is key to changing ourselves for good. Too often, books deliver one-size-fits-all approaches to common goals, like getting in shape or eating healthier. But since the internal forces preventing me from starting a new habit might be different from those preventing you from starting the same one, that doesn’t really work. That’s why it’s essential to tailor the science to our own barriers, picking and choosing strategies where they fit the internal opponent we’re up against, says Milkman.
Each chapter is designed to help readers “solve” the problem of a specific internal obstacle, such as impulsivity or laziness. And each offers a cornucopia of the most effective behavior change strategies to counter it—everything from using a commitment device to make breaking a resolution more costly, to the power of giving someone advice (which can help you figure out how to handle a similar situation), to copy and pasting someone else’s tactics, to gamification (making a task or the pursuit of a goal more exciting by adding game-like elements to it).”
In this interview with ‘Behavioural Scientist’, Milkman offers three sets of insights for insecure overachievers who tend to read 3 Longs & 3 Shorts: Firstly, people focus too much on big goals and too little on thinking through the obstacles that will hinder their progress: “I think there’s an overemphasis on big goals. It’s not that goals aren’t useful. There’s tons of research showing that having a certain kind of goal—a clear, concrete, achievable goal, or a stretch goal—really is valuable. But it’s not solving a problem. It’s just articulating where you’re trying to get and giving you a clearer deliverable. And then there are all these barriers that get in the way. You still have to deal with the challenges of procrastination, temptation, forgetting, self-efficacy, and whether or not your peers are supporting you…”
Secondly, bosses and mentors can have a massive impact on their subordinates’ mental health by doing the simple things right:
 “Max, I’m starting to mentor students and I need to know how you do it. What’s your formula?” And he wrote me this lovely email, and his key point was “It’s not me, it’s them. I get these great students and so they all succeed, of course.”
In the course of learning more about different ways people build confidence, one of the things I realized was Max had answered my question in his email when he said, “All of the students who come to me are excellent. It’s not me, it’s them.” That really was his attitude—this complete faith in his students, that they were going to succeed, and they were excellent.
He believed in his students, and he gave us that message so strongly that we came to believe in ourselves. That faith in a time when it’s so stressful and students need that support—that faith that they have what it takes to develop and thrive—it rubs off on them and is helpful.”
Thirdly, when you are pursuing a big goal, you need to see the pursuit as a series of chapters, rather than one epic dash for success: “There’s some research from Michael Shum, who was studying autobiographical memory. A big takeaway from the literature he summarizes is that rather than think about time linearly, we think about our lives as if we’re the protagonist in a novel and chapters of our lives are unfolding. That’s how we categorize information and time. That means that life’s chapter breaks come with a sense of purpose. When you open a new chapter, you can feel like your identity is shifting. With that, comes this fresh start—the idea that I have this new clean slate on which to work toward my goals. Whatever I didn’t accomplish in the old era, this is the new me, and the new me can do it.
And that seems to be associated with positive things: people are more motivated to pursue their goals, search for the term diet, visit popular goal setting websites, or go to the gym on dates that they associate with fresh starts—the start of a new week, month, or year, start of a semester for students, or the celebration of holidays we associate with fresh starts, like New Year’s or a birthday. This is all related to these new beginnings and chapters in our lives, and the passage of time.”