The Science of Habits


Are New Year’s resolutions useful?


Fortunately, the answer is yes, but you don’t have to wait until the start of a new year! How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Katy Milkman explains why resolutions or “fresh starts” can be helpful in introducing a new habit that is important to you. This reader-friendly book offers evidence-based insights about how to effectively create and sustain a habit by working with your brain’s natural wiring.


Think of all the ways you make a change or a new beginning in your life. It could be the start of a new week or a new year, the changing of the seasons, or a life event like moving or starting a new job. These events can be an effective opportunity for reconsidering where you want to put your time and energy, both because of the symbolism they hold and because most of them automatically change something about your routine, even if it is just remembering to write 2022 instead of 2021. Leaning into that period of openness to change can help you introduce another change you want to make at the same time.


The author also offers insights about what is really going on behind common obstacles to changing a habit. Think of the scene in every episode of Scooby Doo where the villain is unmasked and the gang finds out what is really going on.


Impulsivity is actually present bias, the natural human tendency to favor what feels beneficial or enjoyable in the present. Temptation bundling, gamification, and the Mary Poppins phenomenon (find the fun and the job’s a game!) can all be helpful in working with this tendency.


“Laziness” (a word I would love to ban) is actually the very efficient tendency to follow the path of least resistance, and it can work in your favor when a system is set up to make it easier to do the desired behavior and more work to do the thing you want to avoid doing. (Try putting your alarm clock or phone across the room and see how getting out of bed to turn it off impacts your use of the snooze button.)


Forgetfulness can actually be a matter of asking your brain to remember more than it reasonably can. Being more selective about your goals, choosing a slower pace for introducing new habits, and being as generous as you can in setting reminders for yourself can be part of a gentler, more effective way to reach your goals.


Whatever you choose for yourself this year, I encourage you to choose it with a spirit of self-love and approach it with a better understanding of how your human brain ticks. In reading this book, there were so many “ah-ha” moments when I recognized something that has worked for me or something I have tried over and over that just has not worked, no matter how good my plan looked on paper. I hope it will be the same for you!

If you are interested in learning more, this book is available through both Grand Rapids Public Library and Kent District Library as a physical book or an audiobook, as well as for purchase online. (Book: How to Change — Katy Milkman)


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