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Episode 78 — Dr. Katy Milkman — How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

"If we can set goals, then make it bite-sized to achieve the long-run objective, then that also brings forward our motivation, because we can see what we need to do today and tomorrow." - Katy Milkman


  • What inspired Katy Milkman to become a behavioral scientist?
  • How are internal and external barriers different when decision-making?
  • What is “present bias” and why is it so common?
  • How are habits maintained and built?
  • What is “temptation bundling” and what are the personal benefits of it?

Jack of All Trades: An Illustrious Career

Behavioral scientist, professor of operations, economist — Dr. Katy Milkman can do it all. She's so versatile that in addition to being a professor at Wharton School of Business, she has a secondary appointment at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine. Her research revolves around the process of decision-making and habit formation — essentially, how people change. 

With a wide range of academic interests and abilities, Dr. Milkman is one of the most reliable resources in the field today. She has won numerous awards through research, including an early career award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences. She was named as one of the top 40 under 40 business school professors in the world by Poets & Quants, alongside being a finalist for the Thinkers 50 2017 Radar Thinker Award. Katy's had her work published on platforms such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Harvard Business Review and is regularly featured on NPR.

Through her work and her writing, she's become something of a celebrity in academic circles. But it's her work translating science for ordinary people that might have the most impact. She hosts the Choiceology podcast for Charles Schwab, has a TEDx talk, and her new book “How to Change” was named one of the best of 2021 by Amazon. 

Dr. Milkman is not just researching change. She's making it available to everyone.


Gaming the System: Exploring Behavioral Economics

Throughout her career, Katy has gained insight from the decision-making process of average people. Understanding behavioral economics is no walk in the park, but the benefits can be enormous. Knowing what makes people tick and why can be life-changing. 

In this episode, we look at what motivates people, internal and external barriers, goal pursuing, and habits. We dig deep into the mechanics behind behaviorism as Katy tells us about devices such as “present bias” and “gamification.”

Gamification in particular can be a powerful force for change. By creating game-like incentives for behavior, we can make the process of goal achievement more fun. It can also provide short-term feedback to long-term goals: You won't necessarily see the effects of weight loss if you eat healthy today, but you can earn points that reflect (and reinforce) your positive choices. This strategy can be applied to individual habits or to something larger like employee performance and government programs, like vaccine adoption. The possibilities are endless.


Patience is a Virtue: Behavioral Change Takes Time

As a member of the Forbes Top 10 Behavioral Scientists of 2020 list, Katy Milkman knows a thing or two about human nature. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Milkman argued that getting people to wear masks would have been easier if people had considered them as fashion items. This thesis closely relates to a term she coined: “temptation bundling,” referring to the idea of coupling something you enjoy with something you view as a burden to invoke the willpower to get things completed. As she mentions, "If we recognize we need to make it fun to pursue our goals, we're going to be much more likely to persist."

In our discussion, Katy draws on the ways people find the motivation to pursue their goals, long and short-term gratification, self-discipline, and social influence. Want to find out more about yourself? Katy has the answers.


Key takeaways:

  • Tick tock: Behavioral and habitual change doesn't happen overnight. Take your time and understand the process.
  • Dilemma: Learn to address and overcome internal and external barriers.
  • Understand your surroundings: Recognize how your social environment impacts your decision-making.

Links and Resources