Katy Milkman played tennis at Princeton, and when she finished college, she went to the gym every day. But when she started grad school, her fitness routine went south.
"At the end of a long day of classes, I was exhausted," Milkman says. "Frankly, the last thing I wanted to do was drag myself to the gym. What I really wanted to do was watch TV or read Harry Potter."
But Milkman, who went on to study human behavior and decision-making, found a way to have her exercise and her Harry Potter, too: She resolved to only indulge her love of fantasy novels at the gym — listening to audio books through earbuds. The pairing did the trick.
"I started out working out again regularly," she says, thanks to the young wizard and other fictional series, like The Hunger Games, Alex Cross mysteries, all the vampire novels. Milkman is now a professor at the Wharton School of Business, and her research applies ideas from economics and psychology to nudge people into good habits.
Researchers like her may have insight into quirky human foibles, but they're human, too. So how do they stick to good habits, like exercise, saving money or eating well?
"We might be worse at it than other people," Milkman says. "Yes, we're better than we were before we started studying it, but we started out far worse than the average candidate."
Wendy Wood, who studies habits and behavior as a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, replied with a pithy "LOL" when asked via email about how she applies her habits expertise to her own goals.
"My father (who was a physicist) used to comment, 'scientists who study gravity still fall down,' " Wood wrote. "Understanding something is not the same as controlling it in your own life."
Still, researchers have strategies at hand for moments when they slack off. Milkman coined the term "temptation bundling" for the pairing trick — combining the healthy habit you dread with something you love — that got her back to the gym. She says it can work with a lot of guilty pleasures, like binge-watching TV or listening to your favorite true-crime podcast.
She tells of two other strategies that helped her out in tough spots:
When her son was born, Milkman and her husband used a planning technique to remember when to brush his teeth.
"You're supposed to start brushing their teeth immediately," she says. "We had a lot of trouble building that into our routine."
So they linked the chore with two routines they already did without fail: leaving the house in the morning and using his asthma inhaler at night. Adding in toothbrushing to these two tasks, made it a seamless part of their day.
She applied another method she had studied — the fresh start effect — when she wanted to restart a long-stalled-out book project. When she and her husband bought a new home, she tapped into that fresh start as new motivation to get her book-writing in gear.
"Literally, the day that we signed and purchased our house, I said, 'OK, this is a fresh start. I'm going to start on the book again,' " she says. It worked for her — the book is due for release in March 2020.
You don't need to buy a house to exploit the fresh start effect, says assistant marketing professor Marissa Sharif, who researches consumer motivation and decision-making at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Any ordinary Monday will do.
"If there is a new year or a new week, you are more likely to initiate your new goal — even the next day," Sharif says. "You can say, 'What happened today is the old me, and it doesn't affect what happens tomorrow, which is the new me.' "
One of the key ways to get on track and stay on track is to accept that failure is part of the process. So frame your long-term goals with a built-in failure system, she says — a skip day or two to use when you absolutely can't make that yoga class or a pass when you splurge on a fancy coffee that's outside your budget. Think of it as your emergency reserve and don't beat yourself up for using it.
Sharif, who's an ardent runner uses this technique for herself. "My plan is I run every day," she says. "But I plan ahead for days I can't, so going one day without running won't throw me off track."
Sharif studies the ways that small failures can trigger the what-the-hell effect — the feeling that you already blew it on a small goal, like missing one day at the gym or eating a piece of cake, so you may as well give up your exercise routine or diet for the week.
"Failures are inevitable," Sharif says. "There are so many things that we're doing — work, family.
There's no way that there's not going to be an instance where you fail at an incremental goal."
It's good to know that habit experts struggle just like the rest of us. "Just because you know about these tools doesn't mean you will always use them," Sharif admits.