Book Review: How to Change

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a world where self-improvement messages come at us constantly, a book labeled “How to Change” might need more than a simple title to stand out. Fortunately, behavioral economist Katy Milkman uses motivating, well-researched approaches for working through the challenges that can keep us from reaching our goals.

“How to Change” opens with the story of tennis star Andre Agassi. In 1994, Agassi was a fledgling player with raw skill but limited success. A chance dinner with an older pro player, Brad Gilbert, made Agassi realize that to become a top-rated player, he needed a different approach.

Gilbert had honed his game to play smarter than his opponents. With Gilbert’s successful career waning, Agassi asked Gilbert to coach him on the mental part of tennis he had been missing. Gilbert believed Agassi wasn’t thinking enough about practical ways to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses. He needed to be more tactical with his efforts.

The Agassi example reveals how talent and effort is not always enough to get to where you want to be. “How to Change” explores a more analytical, introspective approach. The book is presented as a series of chapters that examine the internal foes that we need to take on (i.e., impulsivity, procrastination, forgetfulness and laziness).

Milkman weaves her own interesting stories in with results of behavioral psychology projects she has been involved in. She describes how making a positive change in one’s behavior is more successful when it begins at a significant time that presents a “fresh start.” This can be at the start of a new year, birthday, anniversary or life-altering event.

Milkman references a study centered on pro baseball players traded mid-season to other teams. When a player is traded mid-season to a different league (American League to National League or vice versa), their statistics for the season reset and start over. Players not playing well prior to being traded tend to improve substantially with a fresh start.

Our impulsive behavior is another obstacle. Milkman uses her own personal example of being unmotivated to exercise when she was a student. Without the boost of a daily workout, she also put off school reading and necessary homework. Milkman discovered a method called “temptation bundling,” indulging in enjoyable audio books while working out. Soon she was looking forward to exercise. Years later, this resulted in a related study with college students where Milkman deployed tempting audio books to increase gym visits.

Milkman describes how our forgetfulness provides a barrier for reaching our accomplishments. Studies reveal how much we live in the present moment, which prevents us from remembering important tasks and appointments unless we have a prompt to help us out. She mentions research citing how attaching specific steps (time, location, mode of transportation) to voters’ memory dramatically increases election turnout.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided the reset needed for people to prioritize and change behaviors and reach new goals. “How to Change” is the perfect book to help make desired change permanent. The book provides a collection of practical techniques that readers can use for their own personal development plans or for implementing with larger group projects.

Milkman emphasizes how improving ourselves is not a topical ointment of hacks that we simply apply to accomplish change. Instead, it requires a sustained level of treatment, no different than treating heart disease or diabetes.

Milkman herself narrates the audio version of “How to Change,” which brings out her enthusiasm for her work. Each chapter ends with concise points to work from in its summary sections. Overall, “How to Change” presents pragmatic ways to roll past those forces that deter us, thus allowing us to get better and accomplish great things.

Chris Wendel works for Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at