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The only constant | Book Review – How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be By Katy Milkman

A compelling argument to leave the procrastination behind and simply do it

This is the crux of Katy Milkman’s book, How to Change, where she tells us how to get over the obstacles that come in our way in accomplishing these rather simple goals.
This is the crux of Katy Milkman’s book, How to Change, where she tells us how to get over the obstacles that come in our way in accomplishing these rather simple goals.

Change is something that we are always afraid of and hence prefer status quo. This can be from rudimentary things like being regular with exercise or saving for the future. While these goals sound logical and fairly straightforward, they are hard to follow. This is the crux of Katy Milkman’s book, How to Change, where she tells us how to get over the obstacles that come in our way in accomplishing these rather simple goals.

The book is based on simple principles of psychology, which the author combines with her experience with companies as well as experiments. Companies, for instance, offer several facilities as well as health schedules to keep employees in good form. This could be not just gyms but also provisions for vaccine shots. Yet the response is never encouraging. So what are the issues here? She gives seven obstacles that must be overcome for us to achieve our goals. To begin with, getting started is important. How do we break out from the routine and start a new life of dieting or saving? Often, we make New Year resolutions, which is a ‘date’ from when we decide to turn over a new leaf. It can also be one’s birthday or crossing a threshold age. It can happen when something affects you or your family and the latest can be Covid where one may suddenly get health conscious and start doing the right thing. A strike in London of the metro brought about a sea change in several lives as people walked more and this became a habit.

One hurdle that all of us can identify with is procrastination, as we prefer the present to the future. By postponing the present to the future we buy time, but at some point, it becomes too late to change when our monetary situation is weak or health fails irrevocably. She gives an example of a locked savings account which forces one to save. This is more like the provident fund which we have, which is forced savings whether or not we want it.

Another obstacle that we all encounter is forgetfulness which afflicts us at various points of time. The author recommends making a written plan preferably and following it so we do not ‘flake out’ notwithstanding our intentions. This is something that is observed during elections where people give their commitment to a party but ‘flake out’ at crunch time, which often upsets calculations. Therefore, she recommends breaking up plans into small bits sequentially so that one follows them in pieces, which is easier to adhere to.

The tendency to follow the path of least resistance is an obstacle to change. Doctors normally follow a standard procedure and never really think of closer scrutiny before giving medicines. Therefore, often during the epidemic, doctors suspect Covid and put the patient on a medicine regimen which may not be required. The so-called standard operating practice that is now a habit makes it an easy decision but has costs.

Milkman gives the example of a public hospital in USA where doctors blindly prescribed medicines that were not even required. When questioned, they accepted that they could have reduced the dosage or given cheaper alternatives that would have saved the health system a lot of money.

This way the author goes through all the hurdles that come in the way of us becoming resistant to change and exhorts the readers to make a genuine attempt. A simple experiment was carried out in a hotel where half the staff had their blood pressure and other health parameters monitored every day after being told the purpose. The other half were not. Those who were told that their health was being monitored tended to become more conscious in their attempt to remain healthy through diet and walks compared to those who were not told. Hence small signals like these can make a difference.

Peer pressure, for instance, is another technique that can be used to bring about change. Seeing others exercising in your housing complex or colleagues eating healthy meals can make one change too. One of her experiments was informing people in a locality every month about the power consumption of all homes. As long as people saw these numbers they tended to economise. Once this was stopped, people went back to their old ways.

The author warns that due to deeply ingrained mindsets, effecting change is not easy. Transformation according to the author is a slow process and it is like treating a chronic disease, which requires patience, endurance and resolve. It is not just starting the new regimen that is important. Sustaining it will make a difference and hence one must be regularly reminded of the same.

This is a useful book as it helps to bring about change in the way we live our lives. What is necessary is to identify our goals and show resolution in implementing the plan.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist of Bank of Baroda

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
Katy Milkman
Penguin Random House
Pp 249, Rs 599

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