Science & Tech

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The key to making changes. Image: Eric Rothermel/Unsplash
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I don’t read self-help books — in fact, I prefer fiction. However, after hearing about one titled How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want To Be, published by a behavioural economist from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I couldn’t resist. 

With the help of Katy Milkman’s book, the Fulcrum has summarised some of the key points on how effective, science-based strategies help us make lasting changes in our lives. 

The fresh start effect

Existing research has shown that rather than perceiving time as one continuous flow of events, we instead see our lives as a series of “episodes,” such as ‘the one where I graduate from university’ or ‘the one where I get my first apartment.’ This phenomenon helped Milkman’s team conceptualize the idea that “the start of a new life chapter, no matter how small, might be able to give people the impression of a clean slate and that people might be more open to change when they feel they have a fresh start.”

Like every good researcher, Milkman had to test her ideas, beginning with collecting some data about when individuals bravely pursue change in their lives. Unsurprisingly, across multiple datasets, they found that undergraduates were more likely to visit their school gyms not only after New Year’s Eve, but also earlier in the week (Mondays), after a holiday, at the beginning of a new school year or semester, and even after their birthday. 

These fresh start dates offer a “kind of psychological do-over,” and often provide untapped optimism about the future that wasn’t otherwise there. 

As many have pointed out, including previous Fulcrum articles, one-third of Americans’ resolutions fail by the end of January. Milkman acknowledges that although clean slates are perfect for helping us take that first step towards achieving our goals, we have to take into account the other obstacles that we face along the way, such as present bias, more commonly known as impulsivity. 

Present bias

According to Milkman, one of the biggest barriers to behaviour change is the simple fact that doing the right thing — like taking the stairs instead of the escalator — is often unsatisfying in the short-term. 

We know we should be studying for our midterms, but that new show just came out. Similarly, you meant to work on your math assignment today, but scrolling through TikTok is far more rewarding. This inclination to prefer instantly gratifying temptations over larger, long-term rewards is known as present bias

All too often, we have issues with self-control while at the same time overestimate our abilities to progress in our ambitious goals. What if I told you there was a method that allows us to lean into our temptations just a little bit while also sticking to our resolutions?

This is known as temptation bundling.  

In a 2014 study looking at the gym visits of several staff and students, Milkman’s team was able to quantify just how useful this technique can be. After lending iPods preloaded with four enticing audiobooks chosen by willing study participants, they learned that if they wanted to hear the rest of the story, they would need to return to the gym. Thus, creating an environment which forces participants to satisfy their temptations (listening to their favourite book) only while working out. 

Meanwhile, a second control group of participants were encouraged to go to the gym, but instead of receiving iPods for attending, they were given Barnes and Noble gift cards. 

The results of their study showed that the individuals who were given the opportunity to temptation bundle attended the gym 55 per cent more than the control group. Milkman stresses the importance of not relying solely on willpower alone to accomplish our tasks and goals, but rather focusing on strategies like temptation bundling, which can make tough goals far more fun in the long-term. 

So, the next time a new episode of your favourite shows airs, consider only watching it while folding laundry. Make it so your gratification is working for you, not against. 

Lasting change

Most importantly, Milkman implores those who are interested in making big changes in their lives to remember that the key to success is to tackle goals with a variety of solutions and tactics that treat it as a chronic treatment rather than temporary. 


  • Emma Williams was the Fulcrum's science & tech editor for the 2021-22 publishing year. Emma is a passionate third-year environmental science student at the University of Ottawa. As a returning editor she hopes to continue sharing her love for science with the U of O community. When she isn’t studying, she can be found outdoors hiking in Gatineau Park, reading or biking with friends.