How to Change - Notes

The book is organized into 7 chapters each of which looks at one of key barriers to behaviour change:

Getting started







‘The secret to a better life is not to eradicate the impulses that make us human but instead to understand them, outsmart them, and whenever possible, to make them work for us rather than against us.’

‘An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first carefully accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success’.

In a perfect world you would begin with a blank slate and not have to work against existing habits.


Getting started.


We don’t see time as a continuum but rather a series of episodes. The impression of a clean slate is very powerful for helping to kick start change and new habits.


‘We’re more likely to pursue change on dates that feel like new beginnings because these moments help us overcome a common obstacle to goal initiation: the sense that we’ve failed before and will, thus, fail again’.

Fresh starts are underutilized – they are moments we are more naturally open to change. However they can also be disruptive of good habits and things we need to be careful to keep.




Impulsivity reflects a present bias to the here and now this is a pernicious barrier to change which is focused on the future and long-term and therefore less immediately apparent benefits.

Gamification can help if you are bought into and motivated by the process (not having this done to you)

Temptations can be used to align action to goals if they can be made more immediate and related to your goals rather than having to exercise willpower to delay gratification.




Present bias tends to lead us to procrastinate on tasks that serve the long-term.

Commitment devices are very powerful for helping to disrupt this tendency, these limit or eliminate your freedom of action, eg a bank account that is locked until it hits a target savings amount. Social commitment to a goal eg announcing your intentions also help. Small is better than large, we are more likely to stick with small steps.

Those who are resistant to using commitment devices typically tend to overestimate their ability and willpower to avoid temptation.




Surprisingly intentions are only loosely predictive of our actual behaviour. The biggest reason for this is we simply forget what we intended to do.

‘Forgetting follows a roughly exponential decay function. We forget nearly half of the information we’ve learned within twenty minutes. After twenty-four hours, about 70 percent of it is gone and a month later, we’re looking at losses of approximately 80 per cent.’

Reminders work most effectively when they can be acted upon immediately so the timing in relation to the task is very important.

Intention cues are very powerful. If we link the intention to a cue (time place or action) for action we get a dramatic improvement in consistent action. When x I will do y.

‘Cue-based planning belongs at the top of any list of behavioral science insights that can spur goal achievement’.

(Research by New York University psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer—)




We all have tendency toward the path of least resistance but ‘Laziness can be an asset. And not just when it comes to efficiency. When laziness is appropriately harnessed, it can actually help facilitate change’.

We ideally want any default position to support the behaviour we want, eg how you set up your phone or computer to limit distraction for example by turning off alerts.

‘Aim for streaks. Anything more than a short lapse in a behavior you hope to make habitual (say, multiple missed visits to the gym, as opposed to just one) can keep a new habit from forming or disrupt an existing one’.

‘Piggybacking new habits on old ones can help with habit formation. Link whatever you hope to start doing regularly (such as push-ups or eating fruit) with something you already do habitually (such as drinking a morning cup of coffee or leaving for work)’.




‘Research confirms the obvious: when we don’t believe we have the capacity to change, we don’t make as much progress changing’. (Bandura, self efficacy)

People are more likely to struggle with change from a lack of confidence than knowledge. Very important to think about what we implicity convey to others in our actions because expectations shape our outcomes.

‘This turns out to be a good summary of one of the most influential discoveries psychologists have made in the past fifty years—that how we think about something affects how it is’.

Expectations shape outcomes in 4-key ways:

Our beliefs will change our emotions, positive expectations, postive mood.

Beliefs redirect attention

Beliefs impact motivation

Beliefs can affect our physiology

‘Many great leaders have a similar contagious belief that the people on their team will grow and flourish. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO who presided over decades of extraordinary profitability at GE, was well-known for his devotion to developing his employees’ leadership skills and his belief in their capacity to improve.28 Many celebrated coaches operate the same way. Pete Carroll, who led the Seattle Seahawks to victory in the 2014 Super Bowl, is widely admired for the confidence he has in his players to work hard and get better’.

‘When we’re pursuing a big goal, disappointment is inevitable. And when we get discouraged, it can be tempting to give up. So it’s critical to allow for mistakes and prevent them from sullying a strong performance streak. By preparing to recover from the occasional failure and focusing on past successes, we can conquer self-doubt, build resilience, and make it easier to change for years to come—not just until we hit the first bump in the road’.




Copy and paste is a very effective strategy though we tend to underappreciate how we could learn from others by assuming we know all they do already.

‘Your decisions are heavily influenced by the norms in your peer group, so it’s important to be in good company when you hope to achieve big goals, and it can be harmful to have peers who are low achievers’.

‘If the achievements of your peers feel vastly out of reach, witnessing or learning about social norms can discourage you from pursuing change rather than encouraging it’.

‘Social pressure can be used to coerce people. So, before using social norms to influence friends, family, or coworkers, take your moral responsibility seriously’.

“When we diagnose someone with diabetes, we don’t put them on insulin for a month, take them off of it, and expect them to be cured.”5 In medicine, doctors recognize that chronic diseases require a lifetime of treatment. Why do we assume that behavior change is any different? Dr Kevin Volpp economist and MD

The key to change is understanding your opponent.