SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
And I'm Darian Woods. And it's that time of the year we all start making those resolutions.
VANEK SMITH: Resolutions - exactly. Darian Woods, what is your New Year's resolution for this year, or at least one of 'em?
WOODS: I want to take an improv class; you know, improvisation...
VANEK SMITH: OK.
WOODS: ...Theater sports, that kind of thing.
VANEK SMITH: Just for fun?
WOODS: I want to learn how to make jokes in real time.
VANEK SMITH: OK. OK. I love that.
My resolution's a little bit the other kind of resolution, which is to stop doing something. I'm trying to stop watching so much TV.
VANEK SMITH: I already feel like I'm failing at it somehow (laughter).
WOODS: The year has barely started.
VANEK SMITH: But, you know, like, keeping resolutions is really hard. But this, of course, is where behavioral economics can help.
WOODS: Katy Milkman is a professor at Wharton School of Business, and she's the author of "How To Change." She's spent years studying why we make the decisions we make and how we can make different decisions and maybe even keep our resolutions.
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VANEK SMITH: Katy Milkman, author of "How To Change," thank you for joining us. So you write in your book about something that directly relates to New Year's resolutions. It is called the fresh start effect. So what is it?
KATY MILKMAN: So the fresh start effect describes this tendency we have to see new beginnings and to feel a sense of renewal and pursue our goals with renewed vigor at those moments. So these moments are times in our lives when we feel like we have some kind of a break from the past and we can say, OK, it's a fresh start, a clean slate, a new chapter, a new beginning. And they can be really small. So it turns out Mondays are a fresh start, and they have this...
VANEK SMITH: Really (laughter)?
MILKMAN: I know. It's like every Monday...
VANEK SMITH: Take that Garfield (laughter).
MILKMAN: The general pattern is if you look at when people search for the term diet on Google, if you look at when people set goals on a popular goal-setting website, if you look at when people are most likely to visit the gym, they go back more on Mondays, the beginning of a new month. So when I talk about the fresh start effect, I'm sort of describing this general pattern in people's behavior where we see them exhibiting extra motivation to pursue their goals.
VANEK SMITH: That's so interesting. It sort of points to, like, the power of stories. Like, our own story to ourself, it's sort of a part of a narrative or something.
MILKMAN: You're hitting on it perfectly. There's this wonderful research stream on the way we think about our lives and tell ourselves stories of our lives. And the way we organize those memories is as if our life unfolds in chapters.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
MILKMAN: And this absolutely has implications for this sort of fresh start phenomenon, when we think of life in chapters, right? Like, oh, that was last year. We bracket that chapter, and I have a new beginning. Or, you know, those were the Boston years, and you moved to New York, and you bracket that and say you have a new beginning. That's what gives us the sense that there is a fresh start happening and a clean slate and that we're moving on and the past is sort of further behind us.
VANEK SMITH: You mentioned earlier that there are certain things that you can do to increase the chances of success on a fresh start. What are some of those things?
MILKMAN: First of all, my, like, No. 1 thing that I think is important is actually something that most people skip when they're thinking about achieving a goal, and that is just thinking carefully about, what are the obstacles to success? - so that you can make a plan to overcome them. Someone's goal might be exercise. In fact, that's a really popular...
VANEK SMITH: Yes.
MILKMAN: ...New Year's resolution is to get fit, right? Like, I'm going to start going to the gym. And for some people, there's a barrier that they could anticipate, which is like, I hate exercise. It's going to be miserable.
VANEK SMITH: Right.
MILKMAN: If you know what is going to be a problem, then there's different scientific tools you can use actually to try to overcome it. A really key insight, I think, from research - if you don't enjoy the pursuit of the goal, you will not persist. We're wired to care a lot about the instant gratification of our experiences, and we're not that good at focusing on the long-term goal. And that's part of why New Year's resolutions tend to fail. We're just - you know, we're like, yeah, I want to get there, but, God, it sucks.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
MILKMAN: And so if we don't find a way to make it enjoyable, we really, really quit early. So thinking about that and planning for it is really important. And it can be that you change the way you pursue the goal, right? You're like, OK, I'm going to go for walks with my good friend, and that's how I'm going to get my exercise instead of whatever painful thing I used to do.
Another one that I think is super important - and I do feel like a lot of people know this, but maybe don't act on it enough - is simply breaking that big goal down into bite-sized chunks so it's really clear what you're going to do today as opposed to like...
VANEK SMITH: I need to save for retirement.
MILKMAN: Perfect. Yeah, let's just save for retirement. And there's this great study by Hal Hershfield of UCLA, who was the lead author on it, showing that if you invite people to save $5 a day instead of $150 a month - which you could do the multiplication, it's the same decision - people are far more likely to say yes.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
MILKMAN: And they find it much more appealing because it's bite-size. Oh, yeah, I can save $5 a day.
VANEK SMITH: So do you use this stuff yourself?
MILKMAN: Oh, my God (laughter). All of it. Honestly, probably my No. 1 moment when I realized, wow, I'm totally using behavioral science to hack my life, I was a graduate student in engineering. Life was exhausting and stressful, and I really knew I needed physical activity to, like, get through the stress...
VANEK SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
MILKMAN: ...And be productive. But at the end of a long day of classes when I had, like, so much homework looming, I would come home and I just wanted to, like, curl up on the couch...
VANEK SMITH: Yes, God.
MILKMAN: ...And binge-watch TV. I'd like...
VANEK SMITH: I mean, this is really - yeah.
MILKMAN: You resonate (laughter)?
VANEK SMITH: It's resonating, yes.
MILKMAN: But I just could not motivate myself. So I set up a rule for myself, which was, OK, I'm only allowed to indulge in entertainment if I'm at the gym. And all of a sudden, I started exercising every day 'cause all I wanted to do at the end of the long day of classes was get to the gym. And I did it with audio books. I was like, I'm going to listen to "Harry Potter" on the treadmill.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
MILKMAN: And I'm going to find out what happens to Voldemort and all these characters. And then I'd come home totally rejuvenated and ready to get my work done, and I'd already gotten my entertainment fix. So it was like everything was solved in this one fell swoop. Like, my mental health improved, my procrastination improved, my grades improved. And then I ended up deciding, OK, I should study this and, like, prove whether or not...
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
MILKMAN: ...Linking these things in this way can be helpful.
VANEK SMITH: I feel like there's often, like, a barrier to starting because there's, like, a fear of failure, where it's, like, easier to not try in a way.
MILKMAN: Yeah, that's really interesting. There's something called the what-the-hell effect, which is one of my favorite names for an effect in...
VANEK SMITH: That is...
MILKMAN: ...The world.
VANEK SMITH: ...Also one of my favorite names for an effect in the world.
MILKMAN: (Laughter) There's literally an academic finding called the what-the-hell effect. It's brilliant.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
MILKMAN: And the effect is just what it sounds like, actually. It's that, you know, you have a small goal failure. Like, you're trying to stick to a diet, but somebody brings in doughnuts in the morning for work, and you have one. And you go, what the hell? And then for the rest of the day, you, like, eat all sorts of junk because you're like, well, I blew through the goal anyway. What the hell? So like, how do you deal with that? How can you prevent it?
And there's great research by one of my colleagues at Wharton, Marissa Sharif, and Suzanne Shu of Cornell University. And what they've done is they've shown that when people set a goal in a way that gives themself a little bit of wiggle room, they actually achieve more than if they set the same goal without wiggle room or a less stringent goal.
So let me be really concrete. Like, you want to go for a run seven days a week. That's a tough goal, right? You're probably going to have some failures, but it's motivating. So they found that you can do your best, you'll get the farthest, if you don't just say seven days a week, but you say, OK, I'm going to give myself a couple emergency reserves, a little padding. So if I miss a day, I'll still say I'm on track. And this is better than just saying, I'm going to try to do it, say, five days a week. It's better to say seven days a week with two get-out-of-jail-free cards...
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
MILKMAN: ...Even though they're identical because you're going to strive for that tough goal, but you're going to have a little wiggle room.
VANEK SMITH: It feels very profound.
MILKMAN: Oh, thank you. I mean, for what it's worth, I do feel like everybody has got something they're trying to improve at. There's a reason we do this New Year's resolutions thing. And there is good science, and it really can make life better, so I'm always excited to have the chance to tell people.
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VANEK SMITH: Katy Milkman is a professor at Wharton and the author of "How To Change."
This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin, with help from Andy Huether. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le, and our editor is Kate Concannon. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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