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(Fixed Audio) Katy Milkman, Author of How to Change and Host of Choiceology, Part One

Published 5/10/2021

The previous episode's audio had a bit of a hiccup - this one is fixed. Sorry about that! 

On today's episode, I interview a personal hero of mine in the podcasting world, Katy Milkman. Katy is the host of Choiceology, a podcast about why and how we make the choices we make. Katy also just released a brand new book, How To Change - be sure to check out both of these incredible resources!

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
I am very excited about today's episode because I get to invite one of my podcasting heroes to the stage of Developer Tea, the host of Choiceology, the author of a book called How to Change, which just came out last week on May 4th. Katy Milkman. I'm very excited to talk with Katy today. This will be a two part episode, so please make sure you subscribe and whatever podcasting app you're currently using to listen to this episode. Katy and I talk about all kinds of stuff, especially focusing in on the topics that are found in her book. We talk about incentives, we talk about behavioral change. It is all good stuff. And if you are a fan of Developer Tea, then you almost certainly have some pretty strong crossover to Katy show Choiceology. Go and check that out. That's just the word choice with ology on the end. I say often on the show that I don't have a degree in this stuff that most of this is my opinion, but Katy does. Katy has the credentials, the experience she has a lot of authority in this space. I'm really excited to have Katy on the show. Let's get straight into this interview with Katy Milkman. Katy, welcome to Developer Tea. Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here. So there is a distinct possibility that there are people listening to Developer Teawho have never encountered the world of behavioral science and that's that world of studies. So for those people, I'd love for you to kind of give the 30 second elevator pitch for who you are and why behavioral science matters to engineers. I know I've given you a big task here. 30 seconds to introduce myself in my entire field. Oh my God. Are you kidding? I think I've already used my 30 seconds just reacting in panic. Okay, I'm a professor at the Wharton School. I am a behavioral scientist. I have a podcast called Choiceology, a book called How to Change, the Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. What it means to study behavioral science is that you're interested in how people make choices. And specifically, the field was founded really by Danny Connam and Amos Tversky who realized that the standard economic model that said people are like optimal decision making machines who are constantly figuring out exactly what the right thing to do is based on the incentives they face. And that's just bogus that there's actually systematic and predictable ways that we make mistakes. And if we can model those and understand them, then we can become much more effective humans. So that's kind of the field of behavioral science and I study behavioral change. I think you did it. I think that was probably right. I don't think that was 30 seconds though. That was very close. It was very close. I can really hear it. I tried really hard. I'm really motivated to achieve my goals. Can you tell? That's great. So you have a new book coming out, you have an excellent podcast that has multiple seasons now, right? And the first episode of that podcast came out today. Can you tell us a little bit about choiceology and what you talked about on that show? Yeah, sure. I love choiceology. It's a podcast that I've been hosting. This is our seventh season now. It's a podcast about behavioral science and each episode focuses on a systematic and predictable deviation from the way that economic theory says people should behave. So a behavioral bias or quirk that can either help or hurt us. And we talk about how to defeat those biases. So we start with a story and then I interview a scientist who studied the topic of the day. So today's was on the IKEA effect, which is really a fascinating bias. It's about the tendency we have to overvalue things that we have helped create because, you know, that investment of time and energy in making it makes us think it's more precious, more special, more attached to it. And so actually an interesting application of that is that it's sometimes good to put sweat equity into things. If you want to feel you've accomplished something, you want that sense of satisfaction and you want to love it at the end of the day. And it's called the IKEA effect because we all struggle to make IKEA furniture. And sometimes it's like kind of ugly, but then we love it because we made it. Now, I listened to this episode. I thought it was fantastic. We spoke before the show about how it's kind of bizarre that the beginning, and I love the format, by the way, the beginning of the episode you kind of give a real world example of somebody who is kind of showing this, whatever the effect is that you're talking about, whatever those quirks are that you're talking about in the episode. And in this particular one, I believe his name is Michael Joe. Is that right? So Michael Joe is a pilot as well. He's a software engineer in Atlanta. And I just thought that was such a cool overlap. But the other thing that I really love about the format of the show, and hopefully this will encourage listeners of this show to go over because we try to do something very similar here, is that the end of the show you always give kind of these practical takes. So what? So what do I do with this information that you've laid out? It's wonderful that you've brought on all these very smart people to tell me about how my brain is broken or how it works in weird ways that I wouldn't expect. But how can I react to that? Or what can I do as a result of that? I assume that's an intentional choice with the show. Yeah, it's very intentional. It's like a hallmark. It's an intentional choice in the show. It's an intentional choice in my book. It's an intentional choice. And all the work I do is trying to use this new science of behavioral economics, not just to describe these quirky things humans do, but to help make us more effective and better. And so that's a big goal. And it seems like intentional choices, you seem to be good with making choices. Or you seem to know something about it at least, right? Well, I studied it. I don't know if that's the same as being good at it. But I do have expertise there. Well, I love what you said about the fact in this particular episode, you mentioned the idea that, hey, you know what, this thing that you could consider an error, a logical error, or a deviation from logic where you overvalue something based on your interaction with that thing, that it can actually be a good thing, that there's some utility in those broken things. And I think there's a reason for that. But I wonder, do you believe that our biases are by and large, good, bad, or do they have a purpose and we just need to understand it better? I think it seems like almost all of them serve some function. So there's a whole field of evolutionary psychology that is focused on this. And I am not an evolutionary psychologist. In fact, as we were just discussing, I'm an engineer by trading. My background is in computer science. And then I found my way to behavioral science accidentally in graduate school. But I do think that the evolutionary psychologists are onto something. It seems very logical and it seems to be something that can explain most of these quirky things that kind of an interversky first got onto studying that most of them have some function. So most of them somehow make us faster at reasoning and we get things right on average. And it's important to be fast or at least historically, it was important to be fast right for like being chased by a line and you're going to be dinner if you don't make a good decision. Then you'd better have the ability to make a snap judgment that's on average good. But some of those evolutionarily adaptive traits might not be perfect in every situation. So they can trip us up. And they can also be problematic in a modern context where the world is structured very differently and choices are structured very differently right now than they were when we were evolving those traits. Yeah. You mentioned choice and your book is called How to Change. And I'm interested in this idea in kind of the relationship between choices and change. I can imagine the kind of size maybe of a choice is more atomic than the kind of the larger definition of change. But I'm curious how would you say those two things relate to each other? Yeah. It's a really great question. I study choices, individual choices, but choices aggregate to change, to create change. Right. You have to make a series of good choices to change for the better. And I think ultimately that's what most of us are always striving to do. So it's been the focus of my research for the last 15 years to understand if someone has decided that they want to change. They'd like to make better choices. They'd like to be healthier. They'd like to save more for retirement, be more productive. What is it that it takes to help them achieve those goals? So the book really dives into everything I've learned over the last 15 years about change both from the individual's perspective, like what can I do if I want to change? And also from the perspective of a mentor, a coach, a manager, someone who wants to help the people they care about achieve change and tries to provide all the tools that science has to offer. Plus, I like to tell stories. So I tried to make it quite fun to read because I have no attention span and assume my reader doesn't either. So what science packaged in fun is the goal. That's the good thing about people who study behavior change. They understand the importance of story because there's so much research on it. So I do have a question here because in this maybe outside of the scope of the book, I think it still is an interesting aspect related to change. And that is the idea of developing an understanding of what needs to change in the first place. Or I guess connecting, you know, what is it that you actually want to the change that needs to be made? And I imagine there's a huge margin of error where people assume that the thing that they want is going to precipitate from a particular change, but that change is not at all, you know, the necessary thing that needs to happen. Is that something that you talk about in this book? Well, that's so interesting. It's not something I talk about at all. This book basically says, I assume you understand what your goals are and I'm going to help you achieve them. But it's a fascinating question and there's so much research showing that we miss forecast what will make us happy, for instance, and what is that we really need. And one of my favorite books on that I'll just plug, which is Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert, who's one of the people who I think is the most important research showing that we miss forecast, the things that will actually bring us joy in life. And I think that's an important error. But the focus of the book, it's on helping you achieve your goals. And I will say, my research in general is on how do we achieve better health and how do we achieve our goals in the domain of health savings? How can we save more? How can we be more productive? And also have better outcomes when it comes to education. And all of those things actually have been very robustly shown to improve life out, you know, quality of life, longevity and so on. So I feel like I'm on firm ground, even though we miss forecast systematically, the things that will make us happy. Even if it's not that thing that will bring you total fulfillment, if you get healthier, it will overall make you better off. So I'm okay with that. It's not like there's a huge downside to you going and improving your health pretty dramatically. You're not going to look back. I'm like, man, I really wish I hadn't done that, right? Exactly, exactly. Yeah, so that's, I think we're okay. We'll be right back with the rest of the first part of my interview with Katy Milkman, right after we talk about today's sponsor, Voyage. Every successful engineering project I've ever been a part of had one thing in common. Every team that I've been a part of had the same thing in common. That is that every one of these, they all practiced iteration. And in order to iterate on a project, really what we're talking about is gathering feedback, getting everybody around to look at the work that's been done and to go back and adjust some things. And this seems like it should be easy, but you've probably felt the pain of trying to deploy all of these changes that you have locally to a staging environment. And if your team is large enough, you've got a lot of collisions happening. Sometimes people are accidentally overriding your staging environment. You have to spin up all of these extra pieces of your infrastructure in order to support that staging environment. And Voyage is here to stop that. Voyage is a tool built by and for developers and it saves hours of your time by automating all of that staging stuff, all of your staging environments for your full stack app for every poor request that you have. And it includes feedback tools, right? So it's not just the engineers that get to pull this stuff down and get it up and running and say it looks good to them. You can include all of your product folks as well. Anybody who wants to be a part of that feedback process, they can come along. This cuts out all of those extra emails and Slack messages and the shared Google docs and all the spreadsheets, all of those things that you probably are used to and that cause you headaches, all of that goes away. And instead you use the feedback mechanisms that you're used to. Everything goes back to your version control system, whatever the version control platform is that you use. For example, Gira and GitHub, all of this stuff is integrated as you would expect. You spend a lot of time building your app and you don't just build the front end. So why would you deploy just the front end for these staging environments with voyage, you can deploy the whole thing. Even if you have multiple repositories, multiple services, none of that is a problem. Voyage deploys your complex applications the way you built it to be deployed. You need deployments for every PR that you have no matter how long running it is. So you can have a long running PR that has an open environment that gets a lot of feedback and voyage supports all of it. And the most important part for a lot of people is that this is all safe and secure. Nobody ever sees your code but you, not even voyage. So on top of that, you can password protect your deployments. Every subscription plan also includes the ability to password protect. Let's sail with voyage and save time and headaches with voyages automated staging environments. Head over to voyageapp.io to get started today. Thanks so much to voyage for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. That's voyageapp.io. Now let's get back to the interview with Katy Mubman. I talk about this concept on this show kind of bit. I call it useful defaults. I assume it has a much more well established name in academia. But the idea is whenever I don't know what to do, I have these kind of background things that I can always pick from. It's like my list of favorites. If I go and do that thing, then it will have been a good use of my time. So for me, it might be spend a little bit of time with my children or it might be go and work out or straighten up my room, straighten up my desk. Those are the kinds of things. So I'm interested in, first of all, does that ring true with any of your research on making choices with your behaviors as it relates to health or as it relates to productivity? That's really interesting. I will say that the book is more about, I have a goal, how do I get there than how should I optimally fill my time? But I think if your goal was to be happy than planning and having a series of fallback options that would help you decide how to fill your time would make a lot of sense. So the way the book is written is very intentional. One of the things that frustrates me about the giant self-help section at every bookstore is that most of the books are sort of hawking a particular strategy that they're saying is going to help for a seven-step plan. They're very universal. The big message of my book is that my research and others research and just watching practitioners implement has taught me that that's actually not the right approach, that the right approach is to first figure out what is the obstacle to change and then to design your strategies and sort of pick from the science to solve that problem. So the book is organized around different problems because sometimes change is prevented because we have bad habits. Sometimes it's because we're forgetful. Sometimes it's we give into temptation. Sometimes we lack confidence. Somehow we don't know how to get off the ground, get motivated to begin. So there's all these different challenges. Sometimes it's our social environment, our peers. What you just described, which is sort of having a plan, is actually a focus of a chapter I wrote about forgetting. One of the reasons we often fail to make progress on goals is we forget or we don't have a plan and we don't enact the right behavior at the right moment. And by planning an advance, it's a way to counter that. Obviously there's a lot more to it we could dig into. So my book does talk about kind of what you just said, but in a very roundabout way. Yeah, in a more structured way than just this kind of random idea I guess that I threw out. I want to talk about that kind of process of identifying the obstacle and then going forward and saying, okay. What exactly is causing this obstacle to sit here in my path? Because I'm sure that there is, I've looked at the research on, for example, selling. I know that's a very broad category, but convincing somebody else to buy a thing, there's a lot of research around the idea that, hey, you know what, actually it's not convincing them of the value, it's removing all of the reasons why they won't. There's some reasonable belief that if you remove all those reasons that they are kind of just going to fall into it, which is probably a little bit idealistic, but how would I go about, let's, I'd like to make it concrete. I'm having a hard time coming up with an example. I assume you have some really good ones in the book. So can you give me an example of how would I figure out what exactly my, my roadblock is? Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, the answer is that, that is actually, the book doesn't spend a lot of time saying like, here's a diagnosis strategy. It's actually normally, once you understand what the roadblocks tend to be, it's actually pretty easy to recognize them in yourself. So you can say, oh, yeah, no, I have a bad habit. That is exactly my challenge. It's not that I am, you know, distracted or forgetting, like, no, it's a habit or, oh, gosh, yeah, like everyone in my social environment is reinforcing this behavior. And that's really my challenge or I just cannot start. I just can't start. So, so the book doesn't spend a huge amount of time helping you with diagnosis because I think most of us can immediately see it ourselves. It rather provides tools once you, once you recognize that a diagnosis is helpful and says like, okay, if you, if you see yourself in this example, then do the following. So let me give you a really concrete example of a tool and you'll see what I mean by like, oh, it's sort of obvious what the problem was and how this would be useful. Yeah, perfect. Let's do that. Yeah. So one of the strategies is based on my own life. When I was a graduate student, I was actually studying engineering. I found it really hard at the end of a long day going to class to motivate myself to get to the gym. So, you know, I knew I should and knew it was good for me in the long run, but I just, I was tempted and that's, that was my big barrier to just, you know, lie down in the couch, like turn on the TV and relax. On the flip side, instead of doing the homework I should be doing, I was also giving to this other temptation of like, you know, indulging and entertainment when, when I should be focusing or at least getting in a workout like one or the other. And I actually came up with a way to solve both of those problems at once that I call temptation bundling and it's very much an engineered solution to this temptation challenge. I realized the gym was something I knew I should do, but delayed because it wasn't instantly gratifying. And, you know, homework was something that I was putting off and delaying because it wasn't instantly gratifying. TV and other forms of entertainment were something I was reaching for because they were instantly gratifying and that was leading me to put off doing what I should do. So I combined them. I stopped letting myself enjoy temptations like TV and actually my big, the big thing for me ended up being audio novels work really well. I love books and for listeners podcasts maybe there, they're treat. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I would, I would listen to a page turner during a workout and I couldn't find out what happens next in my novel unless I came back to the gym. And suddenly I was craving drips to the gym at the end of a long day because I wanted to find out it was a temptation to find out what happened next. I stopped wasting time at home because I had my entertainment fix in at the gym. So I was getting my work done doing better in my classes. And I was enjoying those workouts time was flying by and I felt no guilt while I was listening to these novels because I was doing it while exercising. So just sort of all my problems evaporated in one small, I'll say like innovation. I engineered the solution to that temptation problem. And so that's the kind of thing that the book is about. So once we recognize a challenge, how do we, how do we take that challenge and figure out like, you know, what's the, what's the fitted solution that we'll solve it for us? Yeah. I want to break this down to one more layer of specificity here because I'm, this is such an, I've used the same technique that you're talking about. I assume that I found it from you. Possibly. So, but I'm curious about why is it that we're able or in that case, you were able to keep yourself from listening to that audio book at home, you know, doing the same thing before. Yeah, it's such a great question. Like what, what, what level, like how can I, why was it that I could resist? Yeah. So we've studied this. My team and I have studied this in a couple of ways. So first of all, it's better if someone else is tying your hands. So we did one experiment where people were only allowed to access attempting audio novels, we actually did an audio book experiment at the gym, like literally we locked them in a monitored locker and people who had picked a novel and listened to the first 30 minutes during a workout couldn't find out what happened next. The only way to get at that iPod was at the gym where it was, it was locked. That was first best. We increased people's exercise by like 50% by doing that. But second best was telling them set a rule and only let yourself listen to this audiobook that you can use any time. And that increased exercise about 30% in our study initially. So there was some benefit and people have some ability to set those kind of boundaries on things for themselves. We have the ability to stick to goals in general. And when the goal is more concrete and you can see a way to solve a problem sometimes that's easier than just the vague goal of like, you know, and actually this is a general truth about goal setting, the more concrete, the more planned, the more precise, the easier it is to follow through. So the vague goal, like I'd like to exercise is hard. Now, okay, now you've taught me a sweetener. Okay, I'd like to exercise and maybe won't be so bad if I'm doing it while I'm being entertained. And now I have layered on and I will only let myself enjoy the entertainment while exercising. That's a little easier. It's more concrete. It's a clear, simpler set of rules and the exercise is no longer dreaded. So that sandwich can work better than the just go exercise sandwich. Yeah, it's kind of like saying, you know, you can have your dessert after you eat your vegetables rather than the rule being you must eat your vegetables. Exactly. Maybe dessert will follow who knows. It's not really specific, right? It just doesn't give a strong incentive when you make these hard rules for yourself. Exactly. It's a rule that's enticing. It's a rule that's doable. You can see why I would work and it's more concrete. And I think that's why it's more feasible for people to follow this. There's also an insight in it, right, that people can relate to. And so I think that's part of what's important about temptation, bundling is just giving people an insight that, you know, I think too often we like hear Nike, like these commercials in our head, like just do it. And so we have this intuition that we should be able to just push through. And there's actually a lot of research showing if you ask people like, what's the best way to achieve your goal? They say like, you know, I'm going to find the most effective path. That's, and I'm going to straight for it. Like if I'm at the gym and I want to burn calories, I'm going straight for the stairmaster. Healthy eating, like I'm going to buy the kale. But actually in reality, if instead you encourage people to try doing something more, that's more fun to achieve their goals, like maybe going to a jazz or size class instead of the stairmaster or, you know, finding a light, healthy, delightful salad that has a lot of ingredients, not just kale, but they, you know, some things that they love, walnuts and apples, laces, all of a sudden you're actually more likely to persist. But people don't have that intuition naturally. So I'd call that, you know, like a bias and a sense that they're making a mistake. And so when we give them an insight about this, we teach you this about yourself and we give you a rule you can follow that will make it more feasible to achieve the goal and you understand why that can all work to, to lead to success. Thank you so much for listening to the first part of my interview with Katy Milkman. I'm so excited to have Katy on the show. She's a podcasting hero of mine. She is an academic hero of mine. And all around just an incredibly smart person. I encourage you to go and buy her book. I know I certainly will, the book is called How to Change, the science of getting from where you are to where you want to be. This episode of Developer Tea was sponsored by Voyage. Go and check it out voyage app.io. That's voyage app.io. You can get started with automated staging deployment today, no matter how complex your application. If you want to join the developer discord community, head over to developertea.com slash discord. We can discuss things like what we talk about on this episode and certainly much more. You can even get feedback on work that you're doing, your resume, you can practice interview questions, all kinds of cool things happening over there. Thank you so much for listening. And until next time, enjoy your tea.