You, But Better

Think about the resolutions you made this year: to quit smoking, eat better, or get more exercise. If you’re like most people, you probably abandoned those resolutions within a few weeks. That’s because change is hard. Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman explains how we can use our minds to do what’s good for us.

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Additional Resources


How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You are to Where You Want to Be, Katy Milkman, Portfolio, May 4, 2021


Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, Katy Milkman, Julia Minson, Kevin Volpp, Management Science, 2013

For the Fun of It: Harnessing Immediate Rewards to Increase Persistence in Long-Term Goals, Katilin Wooley, Ayelet Fishbach, Journal of Consumer Research, 2016

Temporal Landmarks Spur Goal Initiation When They Signal New Beginnings, Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, Jason Riis, Psychological Science, 2015

The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior, Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, Jason Riis, Management Science, 2014

Using implementation Intentions Prompts to Enhance Influenza Vaccination Rates, Katy Milkman, Josh Beshears, James Choi and David Laibson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011

Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment, Dan Ariely, Klaus Wertenbroch, Psychological Science, 2002

Overcoming Salience Bias: How real-time feedback fosters resource conservation, Verena Tiefenbeck, Lorenz Goette, Kathrin Degen, Vojkan Tasic, Elgar Fleisch, Rafael Lalive, Thorsten Staake, Management Science, 2016

Grab bag: 

Odenplan, Stockholm Sweden piano stairs:

SEINFELD: George quits his job, but regrets it:

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. There are two kinds of challenges we face. One kind involves a novel problem. We don't know why we're sick. A new disease suddenly sweeps the world, and it doesn't have a cure. Novel challenges call for discovery, invention. As a species, we are very good at coming up with such discoveries, but many of the setbacks in our lives are not caused by such problems. They're caused by problems whose solutions were discovered a long time ago. Think about the leading causes of death in most countries. They are connected to smoking, diet, and sedentary lifestyles. We know what we ought to do to live better. We should eat right and exercise and get a good night's rest live, within our means. So, why is it so hard to actually do those things?

Katy Milkman: Some of us figure out that we have two selves and that they are in conflict, and this is a challenge we need to resolve, but some of us go through life without paying a lot of attention to this fact, or trying to find ways to overcome it.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, how to engineer our lives and our minds to do what we know is good for us.

New Speaker: Think about the resolutions you made this year. Did you decide to read more, work out more often, quit smoking? If you're like most people, you probably abandoned your resolutions within a few weeks. Change is hard. Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School. In her new book, How To Change, she studies how we can use the mind to combat the limitations of the mind. Katy Milkman, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Katy Milkman: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Katy, we're going to tackle some of the biggest questions facing us as individuals, communities, and nations. We'll talk about how to overcome people's hesitancy to get vaccinated and how to get around the challenges of meeting our health goals. But I want to start our conversation at a more basic level by understanding the forces within our minds that make it difficult to do the things that we know are good for us. These everyday mental limitations are the building blocks of many of the problems we confront in the world. I want to start with one of the most common problems, the problem of distraction. We walk into a room, we can't remember why we're there. We mean to make an important phone call, we get sidetracked. You once experienced a spectacular moment of distraction on a bus. Can you tell me what happened?

Katy Milkman: Yes. I take the bus to work most days, at least I did pre-pandemic, and I was going to work, my usual route, but I had a suitcase with me because I had a trip planned. I put the suitcase up on the side of the bus when I got in, the place where you can place your luggage, I took my seat. And then I got off the bus as usual at my stop and I forgot to grab my suitcase. My computer was in it, lots of things I needed for the trip I was about to take were in it. I had to go into Wharton and teach my MBA class, so I didn't really have a lot of time to deal with the disaster. I will just say, my husband is my hero. I called him, I told him what had happened. He went and stood on the bus route. It was a bus loop around the city and he intercepted every bus that stopped until he found the one with my suitcase, so I do have the world's most amazing spouse.

Shankar Vedantam: The story itself is so revealing Katy, because it describes something that I think happens to all of us. I feel like, on a routine basis, I open my email to send a note to my friend, but when I open my email, I see an urgent email from someone else. And answering that email requires me to go look up a study, and 45 minutes later, I look up and realize I haven't sent that note to my friend. There's something like that happen to you all the time, too?

Katy Milkman: All the time. Absolutely. Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: Being distracted is one pitfall. I want to talk about another, which is being impulsive. We often make decisions quickly and then regret them later on. I'm thinking of this classic scene from Seinfeld, where the character George Costanza gets upset and tells his boss exactly what he thinks of him.

Jason Alexander as George Costanza: This is it. I'm done. Through, it's over. I'm gone, finished. Over. I will never work for you again. Look at you. You think you're an important man, is that what you think? You are a laughing stock. You are a joke. These people are laughing at you. You're nothing. You have no brains, no ability, nothing. I quit.

Shankar Vedantam: Katy, you once dashed off a note to a colleague because you were really upset, and you dashed off this note somewhat impulsively. Do you remember this incident, what happened, what you said, and what the fallout was?

Katy Milkman: Well, first, this has happened more than once, that I sent an impulsive email, but the one I had in mind was sent just a couple of weeks ago. I was a co-author on a team. Someone was inquiring about, whose name will come first on this paper? I wrote a hot, short email saying, obviously the doctoral student who led this project, without recognizing there were egos involved, and maybe I should write a slightly more political note to express why I think this is the right resolution. It was a huge mistake. It could have been handled so much more elegantly. It would have saved everyone time and headaches and improved relationships, but sometimes we're impulsive.

Shankar Vedantam: I have to ask, what was the fallout of it? I mean, was there any consequence to dashing off this note impulsively? Did you have to then spend time in some ways drawing back to the right answer?

Katy Milkman: Yes, so much time rolling back. So many carefully crafted apology emails to many different people explaining, I'm so sorry. I should have explained my logic. I should have said this. I should have picked up the phone. It was a mess.

Shankar Vedantam: In addition to being distracted and impulsive, many of us are also just plain forgetful. We promise to do something or be somewhere, and then it slips our mind. These self-inflicted injuries can be costly. Katy remembered one time she made an appointment with an important colleague.

Katy Milkman: Dean Karlan, a professor at Kellogg's School of Management at Northwestern University was visiting Philadelphia. We'd made a breakfast date to get together on a Monday morning. He confirmed it on Friday beforehand, "I'll see you on Monday at 7:30.” He was coming right to a coffee shop down the street from my apartment, and I got an email about 30 minutes after that date asking, “Did one of us goof or?” He was trying to figure out where I was because I completely forgot and went about my morning routine as usual, and it hadn't even occurred to me that there could be something going on that was out of the ordinary that day. It was pretty embarrassing.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at the idea of being distractible, impulsive, and forgetful. For many people, another defining problem they face is the challenge of laziness. We let the dishes pile up in the sink. We ignore the leaking faucet. We tell ourselves we'll get to the gym next week. Of course, many of us are also lazy in the workplace. I want to play your clip from the movie, Office Space. Employee Peter Gibbons is asked how he spends a typical day, and rather than come up with a usual bunk, he decides to tell the truth.

Ron Livingston as Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least 15 minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can't see me. After that, I just sort of space out for about an hour till I...

John C. McGinley as Bob Slydell: Space out?

Ron Livingston as Peter Gibbons: Yeah. I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I'd say in a given week, I probably only do about 15 minutes of real actual work.

Shankar Vedantam: Katy, you seem like an overachiever. I suspect that you are not prone to laziness, but does any of this ring true for you?

Katy Milkman: Absolutely. I think laziness isn't always spacing out when you're sitting at your desk. It can also be just, if there's some way that someone else I can hand this off to them, or I could take a shorter route to getting to my desired outcome. In fact, the work that I did originally exploring behavior change was motivated by a challenge I had, which was that I could not motivate myself to get to the gym at the end of a long day of classes and graduate school. I just couldn't. That's part of the impetus that led me to start studying this topic.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to put one last idea on the table, Katy, and this comes from the Nobel prize winning economist, Richard Thaler. Many years ago, he had some guests over for dinner and he put out a bowl of cashews as an appetizer. Even though the guests knew that eating a lot of cashews would ruin their appetite for dinner, they couldn't stop themselves. How do temptations often derail us from reaching our aspirations?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. I love that story because it's one of the things that led Richard Thaler to start studying what economists now call present bias, or the tendency we have to overweigh whatever will provide instant gratification when we're doing a calculation and choosing between options, and to undervalue anything that will give us long-term rewards. That tasty cashew is in front of me right now. I know that dinner will be better, but I just can't resist, because the instant gratification I'll get from popping one more in my mouth looms large since it's coming at this moment. It's also what leads us not to exercise and to sit on the couch, even though we know it would be good for us. It's what leads us to buy that shiny new gadget instead of setting aside the dollars we've earned for retirement. So, present bias is one of the most pernicious obstacles we face when it comes to achieving our goals, as you can see from those examples.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. What's striking to me also is that, I think a lot of us recognize these limitations. We recognize that we are easily distracted, that we're impulsive, that we're lazy, we are prone to temptations, but very often, the insight alone is insufficient to overcome the problem. So, just knowing, for example, that last week I had trouble going to the gym, or last week I was tempted by that extra large dessert, doesn't mean that when the dessert is placed before me today, I'm able to resist it. In other words, the mere insight into the problem is insufficient as a solution.

Katy Milkman: That's absolutely right. It's a first step. It's useful to have some insight into yourself because then you can begin to design solutions. You can begin to look for solutions, and science has actually a lot of solutions to offer, and I know we'll talk about that, but it's absolutely insufficient. Knowing this is going to be a problem does not protect you.

Shankar Vedantam: If knowing about the challenges we face isn't enough to overcome them, what can we do to chart a path toward the outcomes we want? When we come back, how Katy and other researchers have come up with brain hacks to help us fight our flaws. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam. We all have things we want to change about ourselves, but in spite of our intentions, many of us sabotage ourselves. How? By being impulsive, forgetful, and lazy. These very human weaknesses make for great television comedy, but when they affect us, they can keep us from becoming the best version of ourselves. Katy Milkman is the author of "How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be." In the book, she explains how we can turn our weaknesses on their head, how we can get them to work for us. Katy, in Stockholm, Swedish engineers wanted to encourage pedestrians to take the stairs, overtaking the escalator in a Metro station. So, they did something interesting. Can you tell me what they did?

Katy Milkman: What they did is they created a set of piano stairs. If you walked up the stairs, suddenly you heard a musical scale. As a result of this change, people coming out of the metro, they encounter this magnificent artistic musical creation and have the opportunity to make music on their way up instead of riding on the escalator. Of course, naturally, it's much more attractive, and it was a small experiment, a short-term experiment, but the finding was that 66% more people chose to take the stairs than usual.

Shankar Vedantam: What I'm getting from this idea is that, in some ways, when we are lazy, one way to combat that laziness, in some ways, is to make things more fun. In some ways, it seems almost obvious when you say it that way, but our desire for short-term gratification, for being able to play a tune as we run up and down the stairs, in some ways, can be used to fight our tendency towards laziness.

Katy Milkman: Exactly. Even though it does sound obvious when you say it, what's so fascinating is that research shows that is not our intuition. When we think about how we're going to achieve a difficult goal, research by Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago and Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell University has shown only a small minority of people look for the most fun way to pursue their goal, but their research has shown that if we actually instruct people, if you're at the gym, for instance, pick the most fun workout you can do instead of the most effective. Or if you're trying to stick to a healthy new diet, pick the most fun way of pursuing that instead of the toughest way, the way that'll be most effective. You see better results. Giving kids also a fun way to do their math problem sets turns out to improve their persistence. The thing is that we're focused when we're making decisions on: How do we get to our end goal? And we don't think enough about this obstacle, that if we don't enjoy it, we're going to quit quickly, then we can make much more progress by looking for a fun way to pursue our goals.

Shankar Vedantam: You talked earlier in our chat about how you sometimes found it difficult to go to the gym when you were a graduate student. You came up with a technique to overcome your reluctance to go to the gym, and it involved a technique that you call temptation bundling. What do you mean by that, Katy?

Katy Milkman: I love that you asked about temptation bundling, and I should say I did this research on temptation bundling, and I did temptation bundle as a person before I knew anything about the importance of making it fun, and frankly, before that work had been done itself. The idea came to me because I had two problems. One, I was struggling to get to the gym. The other problem that I didn't tell you about is when I came home from a long day of classes, all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch with a juicy page turner or binge watch TV. I just wanted entertainment. I was wasting all this time, I wasn't getting to the gym, and I wasn't getting my work done. I had this insight, which was, what if I only let myself enjoy this indulgent entertainment that's wasting so much time while I'm exercising? It was like magic. I started craving trips to the gym to find out what would happen next. I did it with page turners. I listened to audio books. Whatever the latest Harry Potter novel or a Hunger Games novel that I was listening to, I just wanted to know what happened next. So, I'm rushing to the gym, time is flying while I'm there. I'm totally engrossed in the novel. I don't even notice the pain of the workout. And then I'm done. I come home refreshed, ready to get my work done because I've gotten my entertainment fixed, I've gotten my exercise and it was incredible. My grades improved, my spirits improved. I realized, maybe it's not just me, maybe other people could benefit. I call it temptation bundling, because it was linking a temptation with whatever chore I was dreading so that I do more of the chore. The chore would cease to feel like a chore and I do less of the tempting thing too. So, you can do this with other things in life, not just workouts, right? You can only let yourself listen to your favorite podcasts while you're doing household chores or cooking a fresh meal, or save particularly indulgent treats that you like to eat for times when you're studying or catching up on emails that you need to write, or even a favorite restaurant you only visit with a difficult relative you should see more of. There's all different ways you can temptation bundle.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that you sometimes schedule difficult meetings at your favorite, like burger restaurants? So, in other words, you're getting something even as you're giving something?

Katy Milkman: Exactly, and it means there's a reason to look forward to that meeting and make sure that it does actually get on the calendar.

Shankar Vedantam: It also means though, that if I ever get invited to that burger restaurant, I'll know exactly what you think of me, Katy.

Katy Milkman: That's right. I've revealed the secret, so I'm not sure I can keep using it.

Shankar Vedantam: Making difficult things fun and bundling temptations together with important tasks can help us overcome laziness and distraction. These techniques take the tendency of the mind to focus on short-term goals, and cleverly turns this weakness into superpower. Another related idea that behavioral scientists have explored is about the power of breaking big targets into a series of smaller goals.

Katy Milkman: There's this wonderful research, Shlomo Benartzi and Hal Hershfield at UCLA have done showing that if we invite someone to save $5 a day and they did this with a large savings app, people say yes to that at a far higher rate than if you invite them to save $35 a week or $150 a month, which if you do the math are exactly the same opportunity, but that bite size invitation, oh $5 a day, it doesn't sound so momentous, and I can more easily accomplish that good outcome.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about a slightly related idea, which is, besides breaking things up into bite sized goals, which is about setting targets, it's also really helpful to give people feedback in the moment about how they're doing. There's something about receiving in the moment feedback that's really helpful in maintaining motivation to what our goals are. Can you talk about that idea, Katy, and are there studies that pointed that insight?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. It's really important to provide feedback because we can't say we've had a success and respond to that success by celebrating and building on that success unless we know how things are going. There's a study I love that was done by a team looking actually at the benefits of real-time feedback for water use of all things, and they gave different groups shower faucets that either displayed how much water you were using in real time or simply tracked water use. And it was an experiment to see if that real-time feedback would help people who are trying to cut back and be more environmentally conscious. As you might expect, it was incredibly valuable to be able to see in real-time just how much water you are using. Without that feedback, it's really hard to understand that you've accumulated a lot of water use while you're in the shower, but when you're seeing it in real time, it's more salient, it's more vivid, and people cut back.

Shankar Vedantam: It's really interesting that in some ways a challenge is that when we are required to do something that pays off in the distant future, the value of exercise is not something we're going to see today or tomorrow, but it pays off in the distant future, it helps in some ways to manifest that future success in the present. That's what you're really doing, right? When your treadmill tells you, you have run for miles or burned 300 calories or whatever, it's not so much that the running four miles is meaningful or the burning 300 calories is meaningful. What it's giving you is a little bit of motivation that tells you that you're on track for that longer term goal.

Katy Milkman: That's absolutely right. You can figure out I'm making progress. You can pat yourself on the back and feel better, and you can think of this as being related to "gamification" a bit, which, it's beneficial in general if we have some way to be able to say, did I achieve the goal? Can I give myself a check for today or a gold star and pat myself on the back?

Shankar Vedantam: You once conducted a study looking at how people make resolutions to go to the gym to get healthy and you found something striking about when people make these resolutions that turned out to be quite revealing as a whole body of research. Can you tell me what the initial studies were and what you found?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. The question was just, is there some ideal moment when people are particularly motivated to change? My then student, who's now a professor at UCLA, Hengchen Dai, and Jason Reese, who's a senior fellow at Wharton and I, were all really fascinated and said to ourselves, we know that New Year's is a moment when people are particularly motivated to change. I bet there are other moments that have that same sense of a fresh start, that same chapter-break feeling that you get at the beginning of a new year. So, we gathered a bunch of data sets and looked to see if there were other chapter breaks that showed similar jumps, so we looked at, as you mentioned, gym attendance, we also looked at when people search for the term diet on Google, and we looked at when people set goals on a popular goal-setting website, and all of these datasets, what we saw was the same basic pattern where we saw spikes in the frequency of pursuing these goals at chapter-breaks that include the start of a new week, the start of a new month, following people's birthdays, following holidays that we associate with new beginnings. Think more holidays like Labor Day or New Year's, and less holidays like Valentine's Day. That was really the beginning of a line of work that Hengchen and I, in particular, spent a huge amount of time on, looking at what it means to have a fresh start in life and how to use fresh starts to nudge behavior change.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk a little bit more about the idea of fresh starts because it's such an important and powerful idea and I want to start in some ways with why you think fresh starts might have this effect. I think all of us have had this experience of hitting an important milestone on your birthday, or even moving to a new city, for example, or a new country, and feeling like in some ways, you can wipe the slate clean. The past self in some ways is erased and you can begin afresh. What do you think is driving this at a psychological level?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. I think you actually just gave a beautiful account of it. What our research suggests is that there's this identity break, there's a breakpoint in our life that happens around these moments. We actually think of life in chapters. So, there might be the Boston years, the college years, the years working at Accenture. It depends on your life story, your life narrative. At those break points, including the start of a new year, the celebration of a birthday, even the start of a new week, we feel like we're further from our past self. Who I was last year, that was the old me. This is the new me. Or who I was last week, that was the old me. This is the new me. And that gives us license to say, well, their failures were sort of the failures of a different person. Yeah, last year I couldn't quit smoking or get an exercise routine going, but that was the old me. The new me can do it. So, it gives us more optimism, and we're also more likely, it seems, to step back and think big picture about our lives and our goals at those moments because they're disruptions to the day to day, and those kinds of disruptions lead to more reflection. Most of the time when we try to set a goal or try to make a change, we do fall on our face. Maybe once, maybe twice, maybe 10 times. It's rare to succeed on your first try. So, it seems really adaptive to me that we've developed these ways of setting those failures aside and feeling fresh motivation.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to add one important caveat to the fresh starts literature, because in some ways, what it's indicating really is the power of disruption in our lives. When we can come up with disruptions that actually are real disruptions, the moving to a new city or a health scare, for example, or in some ways, artificial disruptions, like the start of a new year or the start of a new season, it allows us to change things about our lives. But your work has also found that these fresh starts, in some ways, can be sometimes detrimental to people. Can you talk about when that might be?

Katy Milkman: Yeah, this is actually work that Hengchen Dai, my former student, led. We were both really interested in whether or not fresh starts might sometimes actually be harmful, particularly if people were having a lot of success. She had this really great idea to look at this, not only in some laboratory experiments, but also in a study of major league baseball players. Players often get traded in the middle of a season, and you can think of that as a disruption, right? Or a fresh start, you move to a new city, you move to a new team, but there are some fresh starts that are a lot more dramatic than others.

Katy Milkman: There's two leagues in major league baseball, the American League and the National League. And if you were traded across leagues, all of your season to-date statistics get wiped clean, and you have to start again. If you're treated within leagues, you actually get to maintain all your season to-date statistics. Hengchen saw this really neat opportunity to look at players who were having a really good season to-date and a really weak season to-date, and wanted to see if there would be different effects of that cross league trade relative to the within league trade. What she found is really exactly what she'd hypothesized, when you're on a roll and you have that disruption, players who are performing well above average, those players actually ended up seeing their performance decline more when they're traded across leagues than within leagues. But for players who are having a weak season, the cross league trade is more helpful. Because again, you really want that reset when you've been having a tough time.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at a real life challenge that is facing people in the United States and many other countries around the world, Katy, and that's how to get people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Some people are super eager to take it, of course, but there are many people who are hesitant. I understand that you've conducted a study that actually answers this very question and comes up with techniques in some ways to get people to be more willing to get vaccinated. Can you tell me about that work?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. It was a huge team effort that we mounted about a year ago when it was clear that figuring out how to encourage people to get a vaccine was going to be important to recovering from this pandemic. We have a team of 150 scientists who we went to and we said, okay, we're going to partner on giant messaging studies with Walmart pharmacies and two local health systems, Penn Medicine and Geisinger Health, and test different communication strategies, encouraging people to get a vaccine, and see what works best. We did this test in the fall of 2020. We did it actually around flu vaccination so that we would know what changed a real vaccine decision, but we'd have the results in time to use the best tools for motivating COVID-19 vaccinations. We tested ideas like telling people, "Hey, everyone else is getting a vaccine, you should too," or "You should do this for the people you love to protect them," or sending a joke, "Have you heard the one about the flu? Don't spread it around." Maybe that would be particularly memorable and funny. There were all these different ideas, and what we found at all three sites, an urban and a rural health system, as well as Walmart pharmacies, and this test included over 700,000 Americans, we found that the best performing message everywhere was a simple message reminding you to go get the vaccine and saying it's been reserved for you, or it's waiting for you. What we think is going on there is that, when someone tells you this vaccine has your name on it, it's first, it gives you the sense of ownership. We know from research on something called the endowment effect, that when you feel like something belongs to you, you're much more likely to want it. You're less willing to give it up. You value it more. That might be part of the psychology. It also gives you the sense that this is being recommended. Why would your doctor reserve it for you or why would it be waiting for you if they didn't think it was a good idea? And it may also seem like it's going to be easier to get it. It's already set aside for me. The hassle is going to be lessened. For all those reasons we suspect, although we don't know for sure, this seems to be the best performer. It's very clearly rising to the top in all three sites, and it's what we've been recommending. Others use it. We're seeing it adopted now which has been really exciting.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about one other limitation that can be turned into a superpower, and that's the idea of ignorance. Usually, ignorance is a bad thing, but if you don't know how difficult something is, it can sometimes become easier to accomplish. Can you tell me the story of George Dantzig?

Katy Milkman: I love this story, and I should say that Carol Dweck, who's a brilliant social psychologist at Stanford, is the person who taught me this amazing story. It's the story of a graduate student who walked into a class a little bit late, and there's a problem written on the board, actually a couple of problems written on the board. He jots them down, assumes their homework, and later goes back home. He's working on them. They're a little harder than usual, and he notices that. It takes him a little longer to solve them than a typical homework set, but he eventually solves them and he turns them in. What's so fascinating about this is that those were two unsolvable problems that had been written on the board. So, his professor discovers that George Dantzig has actually solved these unsolvable problems and comes rushing, and he tells him, "Oh my goodness, do you know what you've done?" Believing these were just his regular homework problems is a big part of what helped George solve them. He didn't treat them any differently. He expected to find a solution. He persisted until he did. If he had thought they were unsolvable problems, he might not ever have attempted them and never have had the success.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, most of us are not mathematicians trying to solve unsolvable problems, but we can still see the relevance of George's experience in our own lives. If we don't know how many people have struggled and failed at a task we're about to attempt, we can approach that task with less trepidation. We can focus on finding a solution rather than focus on the long odds that we face. When we come back, how we can employ one of the most important strengths we have as human beings: the capacity to plan years ahead to future-proof our lives. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've talked about the obstacles and challenges we face in changing our lives and habits. We are distracted and forgetful. We are lazy. We're impulsive. We've seen how we can get around some of our limitations with behavioral hacks, but this can be a constant uphill struggle. To really pull off the change we want to see, we need to do more than overcome the limitations of our present selves. We need to make things easier for the people we are going to become. We need to future-proof our lives. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, researcher, Katy Milkman, studies how to do this. Katy, you talk about the idea of "present me" versus "future me." What do those terms mean?

Katy Milkman: "Present me" is literally living in the present, all of the decisions made in the present and all of the things consumed and enjoyed in the present. That's all that exists. "Future me" doesn't get to enjoy any of the delights of the present. The bowl of ice cream that's sitting in front of you is not available to future me, but future me will have to pay the consequences if you eat that bowl of ice cream every night, and so future me has a whole different set of objectives to optimize over. Future me is worried about having enough savings for retirement, worried about having excellent health and good relationships, and so they have very different objectives. As you can see in that, is where a challenge arises.

Shankar Vedantam: The comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, has a wonderful summary of this idea, and I want to play you a clip of what he says.

Jerry Seinfeld: You ever do this like late at night, and you're watching TV, and I stay up late because I'm night guy. Getting up after a five hours sleep, that's morning guy's problem. That's not my problem. I'm night guy. Night guy always screws morning guy, because night guy has control of when you go to sleep. Morning guy has to get up.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel I do this all the time myself, Katy. I'm having so much fun doing something or I dream some new project, and I forget that I'm essentially binding future me to those very same choices.

Katy Milkman: Absolutely. It's a major challenge. I think one of the most interesting things about human nature is this is one of the challenges that we really all face, and some of us figure out that we have two selves and that they are in conflict, and this is a challenge we need to resolve, but some of us go through life without paying a lot of attention to this fact or trying to find ways to overcome it. There's really interesting psychology and economics that comes into play though, once a person recognizes that they have this conflict and need to resolve it.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about some of the ways in which we can make our lives for our future selves better than they might be otherwise, and I want to talk about some of these different ideas. The researcher, Dan Ariely once asked students to proofread the MIT newspaper, and he allowed students to choose from three options. They could choose to meet a series of deadlines throughout the course, turn in all of their assignments on a single due date, or in the most flexible option, they could choose their own deadlines. Now, it might seem obvious that we'd all want the flexibility to choose our own deadlines, but what did Dan Ariely find?

Katy Milkman: What an economist would expect is that most of those people would set the deadline at the end of the semester, because that gives them the maximum time, and a lot of the students chose deadlines that were fairly evenly spaced throughout the semester, just like a professor would do for you, but they recognize that they might need that commitment to ensure they wouldn't let all the work pile up until the very end of the semester. If you compare the three groups of students and their performance, you have a group that can turn in their assignments whenever they would like, because there's no deadlines, a group that has evenly spaced deadlines, and a group that has invented their own deadlines. The best performers on the last assignment, not hugely surprisingly, are the ones who had the most stringent rules, where the professor set evenly spaced deadlines for them throughout the semester. The second best performers were the ones who have the ability to choose deadlines that were earlier, some of whom took that opportunity, and then the worst performers were the ones who had an all at the end deadline and no constraints whatsoever, either imposed on them or available to them, because indeed they procrastinated, and that last assignment got short shrift.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk about another idea when it comes to future-proofing ourselves, Katy? That's the idea that we can set up default policies that nudge our behavior in a certain direction. Researchers have looked at this in a number of different settings. What is the power of these defaults to help us overcome our present focus tendencies and care more about our future selves?

Katy Milkman: Defaults are this amazing tool. What defaults do also is they harness our natural laziness, but actually turn it into an asset rather than a liability. The most famous study of defaults, probably, is a study that was done looking at people who were joining a new company that had a 401k plan, a retirement savings program. You could sign up for the program on your first day as a new employee, and they made it really easy to do it. For a long time, all you had to do on your first day of work was check a little box on some paperwork you're going to fill out anyway and say, yeah, why don't you go ahead and take a little bit of every paycheck and put it into this 401k. I'd be delighted.

Katy Milkman: Then they made a key change to their paperwork. I think it was in roughly 1998. Somebody said, Let's just change the checkbox and say, instead of checking a box to opt in, you can actually just check a box to opt out. We'll switch it up. That tiny change had a huge effect on people's savings decisions. So, people who joined the company just before this paperwork change and just after, you saw about a 35 percentage point increase in retirement savings signups when they were getting defaulted in, and they just had to check a box to opt out than if they joined the company before and had to check a box to opt in. Because we take the path of least resistance. If I don't have to think, I don't have to check a box, and it just happens I can be lazy and the right thing will happen naturally. There's also this sense that this must be the recommended path, or else, why would it have been set as the default, and why would they be giving the option only to opt out of what they've already set up for me? Between laziness and the implied recommendation, it's this hugely powerful effect. It's been shown to change all sorts of decisions from the prescribing of brand name drugs can be reduced by changing defaults dramatically. You can increase the number of people who agree to be organ donors, and you can of course increase retirement savings.

Shankar Vedantam: Again, just to be clear, in the case of the company, people have the same choice either way. They can elect to be part of the retirement savings plan or not. It's just that, in one case, you have to elect to join the plan. In the other case, the default is that you're enrolled in the plan automatically and you have to elect to be out of the plan. In both cases, what you find is that people are reluctant, even to take the effort to check the box, of actually changing whatever the default is.

Katy Milkman: Exactly right. It's really fascinating. It's a really powerful tool that a policymaker or employer, a benevolent government can use to try to help make it easier for citizens, or again, employees to end up with the best possible outcome, because something has to be a default in most situations. So, once you recognize the importance of them, you can try to be careful and thoughtful and choose defaults that will lead to good outcomes. It's also a powerful insight though, for an individual who wants to improve their own outcomes, that if we can set defaults in our own lives and take advantage of our own tendency to go with the default, it will help us make better decisions. You can think about the way you stock your pantry, what the default foods are that are on hand. You can think about the default website your browser goes to if you want it to be not Twitter, but the New York Times homepage, for instance, so that you get something that's full of enrichment, as opposed to something that might take you down a rabbit hole. There's lots of ways in our own lives we can set up defaults, including default savings contributions, every paycheck, you can have an automatic withdrawal that's sent straight to a savings account so that money just disappears and goes right where you want it to go forever after.

Shankar Vedantam: Another way to get defaults to work for you is to set up defaults, not for your present self, but your future self. By recognizing you have two different people inside you and planning ahead, you can take advantage of the laziness of future you to stick to the default.

Katy Milkman: There's this really interesting research that's been done by Richard Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi on a program they call the "Save More Tomorrow" program, that shows people are more willing to save for retirement and able to save more when they're offered an opportunity to save in the future. So, their future self will experience the pain, not present me, of saving, but that future moment when they can save is actually when they next get a raise. It's a moment when your income is going to increase, and so you can think, well, gosh, this isn't going to be all that painful, perhaps, because all of the savings that you're asking me to set aside will come from money that's sort of gravy on top of what I'm used to taking home.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, you can also set up defaults that punish future you for not meeting your goals. You can drop a contract with your future self. If future you fails to deliver on a promise, future you will have to pay some large penalty like giving away a large amount of money.

Katy Milkman: And these kinds of things cash commitment devices are tools that research has proven can be really valuable to prevent future me from falling prey to present me's whims, because now the price tag is too high and we persist longer, we stick to our goals at a higher rate when it's too costly to fail.

Shankar Vedantam: I remember we had a producer on Hidden Brain some years ago who was trying to kick the smoking habit, and we used a technique that Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres had come up with, where he committed, the producer committed to making a large charitable donation, but not just to any charity. In this case, he was promising to donate the money to a nonprofit group that he hated. And now, that makes it even more painful because you're not just giving away your money, but you're giving away our money to a group that you really detest, and it turned out to be a very effective commitment device.

Katy Milkman: Yes. I love that. I love the anti-charities, and this is one of the two most popular cash commitment device websites is Stickk,, and that was actually founded by Dean and Ian based on some of their research showing how effective this is. They actually have a study that shows if you give people an opportunity to put money on the line that they'll have to forfeit in six months if they fail a nicotine or cotinine urine test, and this is smokers, of course, if they put money on the line, it significantly increases their likelihood of quitting smoking over and above a control group that gets all the sort of usual bells and whistles and smoking cessation advice, but no money and no commitment device that they can put on the line if they fail. In fact, there is a 30% higher success rate among those who had access to this kind of a cash commitment device.

Shankar Vedantam: You're a fan of the writer, Victor Hugo, Katy, and he came up with an astonishing commitment device in order to finish writing his great novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Can you tell me what he did?

Katy Milkman: Yes, absolutely, Victor Hugo was having trouble, like all of us do, with procrastination. He was going out to parties, he was a big socialite, and he wasn't hitting his deadline. His publisher told him you've got to do it, you've got to hit this, and he realized he had a problem, so he used a clever commitment device, which is he locked up his clothes, and the punchline is, because he couldn't go out in public anymore, he's naked basically at home, all he could do was write, he's able to get this magnificent piece of literature finished.

Shankar Vedantam: It's so interesting, Katy, so many of the ideas we're talking about here have echoes in the story from ancient Greek mythology involving Ulysses and the song of the sirens. Can you tell me that story and how that idea has manifested in what are sometimes called "Ulysses contracts" today? Where people come up with ways to prevent their future selves from making boneheaded mistakes?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. Ulysses was on this adventure and knew that he and his crew were aware that they were about to go past a legendary island inhabited by sea nymphs, sirens, whose song was so tempting and so sweet that every other crew that had gone past this island had been lured closer and closer to shore to listen to the sound of the sweet sirens' voices. They'd eventually all died, because the closer you get to shore, the more likely you are to end up among these rocks that lead to shipwreck. Ulysses knows he's coming up on this temptation that no one before him has been able to resist and that's led them all to perish, and he comes up with a strategy that's going to allow him to get through it, a commitment device. What he does is he says, okay, he wants everyone in his crew to plug their ears with wax so they won't be able to hear the sounds of the sirens and they won't be tempted to go off course, but he actually wants to experience their sweet songs, so he asked this crew to bind him to the mast so he will be unable to redirect the ship, but able to enjoy the sounds of the sirens' voices without having any impact on his health and safety. This has become a famous example of a commitment device. He comes up with a way to bind himself in advance so that he can achieve his long-term goals without letting temptation get in the way of that good outcome. If we can plan an advance, present bias isn't such a problem. And if we can plan an advance knowing present bias is coming, down the line, it will try to bite us, it will try to take us off course, while planning and advances the best tactic we can use to avoid ever falling prey to that challenge.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things I've taken away from our conversation in general, Katy, is the importance, in some ways, of seeing our foibles and flaws, not in judgmental terms, but in sort of non-judgmental terms. It's striking, as I was reading your book, I discovered something that I hadn't known before, you actually studied to be an engineer at one point. In some ways, this whole approach of thinking about our minds almost as engineering problems, I think, comes across very clearly in this book, which is, you're not sort of being judgmental or wagging a finger or saying you're a bad person for being impulsive or easily distracted or lazy, you're saying these are just the ways our minds work. How do we design, in some ways, solutions to protect us from ourselves? Can you talk about that idea, that in some ways, being non-judgmental about ourselves can help us become the people we want to be?

Katy Milkman: Yeah, it really is the key premise of the book, and I do think because I learned to think like an engineer about problem solving, to recognize you can't solve a problem unless you understand the forces of opposition, and then strategically overcome them. If there's one lesson really that's come from almost 20 years of research and behavioral science and trying to change behavior for the better, it is that too often, we don't think like engineers, we just look for a one size fits all solution to problems and don't take the time to figure out what is the obstacle I need to overcome. I think being non-judgmental, but analytical about those problems is critical to allowing us to see the solution, to see the path to the best possible outcome. I hope people take one thing away from the book, from my research, even from this conversation, it would be that, the importance of thinking strategically, of recognizing once you understand what your limitations are, what's holding you back, you can be much more successful because you can work around them.

Shankar Vedantam: Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school. She's the author of "How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be." Katy, I've wanted to have you on the show for a very long time. Thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for having me. This was tremendously fun.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes, Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Noreen Alladina at Stitcher. Noreen helps us keep an eye on the metrics for our show and thinks about ways we can grow the show and launch new projects. She loves podcasts and loves numbers, which makes her a very Hidden Brain unsung hero. She's unwaveringly kind and always helpful. Thank you Noreen. If you liked this episode, please think of two people who would like our show and tell them about this episode. If they're new to podcasting, please show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth recommendations are the single most important driver of podcast listening. So, if you're a fan of the show and want to help it succeed, take a moment and think of a couple of people who might enjoy Hidden Brain. Please reach out to them right away. As you've seen in today's episode, it's all too easy to get distracted. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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