Why Change Is So Hard and Why It Doesn’t Have To Be

August 20, 2021

Book Review by Taylor Berrett

The Struggle to Change

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the new book from Katy Milkman is its straightforward title. No trendy one-word mystery, no clever wordplay. Just the book’s highly sought-after goal: How to Change.

A book like this one, an enjoyable entry from award-winning Wharton Professor and Choiceology podcast host Milkman, succeeds or fails largely on whether it delivers on the promise of its title. That’s especially true when it comes to one of the most widely discussed failings of human nature— our desperate struggle to change our beliefs, behaviors, habits, and actions in a lasting and meaningful way.

So, is Milkman’s book a success? In large part, yes. Milkman draws on scientific research to move beyond trends, pithy motivational sayings and ‘just do it’ pandering to get to the real root of why change is so hard and why it doesn’t have to be.

I have personally read several books on the topic of personal change and transformation, partly because the science of why we do what we do is fascinating to me and partly because, like most people, I have many habits of my own I’d like to change. Milkman’s is the first that truly bypasses focus on the little tools and ‘tricks’ of forming habits to address the true change agents we can each unlock within ourselves.

Perhaps her ethos is best summed up in the book’s Amazon description:

“Change comes most readily when you understand what’s standing between you and success and tailor your solution to that roadblock. If you want to work out more but find exercise difficult and boring, downloading a goal-setting app probably won’t help.”

But anyone can point out the weakness in prevailing wisdom or popular science. Milkman goes further to answer key questions in an engaging and actionable way. She explores everything from the importance of timing when making a change, how to turn temptation and friction into power, and why giving advice on topics you’re personally struggling with may be the key to increased achievement.

Slingshots for Public Change

One of the most compelling messages in her book is the idea of the ‘blank slate.’ She claims (and backs up with her own research) that the reason so many personal transformations or shifts in our daily habits change is that the message telling us to change comes when we’re simply too busy with everything else to pay attention. Whether that message comes from an advertising campaign telling us to quit smoking or a quiet voice in our own head reminding us of a deceased relative’s lung cancer, it’s difficult to buckle down and change when our life is filled with too much else keeping us busy.

That’s why Milkman argues that we should use the natural ‘turning points’ of our lives as slingshots for personal change, channeling their momentum into the desired transformation. She uses the example of a successful public health campaign that got parents to stop placing their babies on their stomachs to sleep, a proven risk factor that increases the possibility of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome.) This message was reaching parents at arguably the most transformative moment of their lives– just before or after the birth of a child— and as such they were particularly receptive to personal transformation.

Milkman compares this to the ever-present campaigns telling us to quit smoking or eat better, which have consistently proven ineffective across decades of attempts.

Then, she goes on to outline how we can simulate that ‘blank slate’ or ‘fresh start’ feeling in our own lives, anytime— but I won’t spoil her book for her.

The Bottom Line

Whether you work in a leadership role and want to inspire change in the people you manage, or you simply want to inspire change within yourself, How to Change isn’t just the most recent, but perhaps the most effective guide to making it happen.


Taylor Berrett

Taylor Berrett is a Contributing Writer at Soundview. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and host of the podcast Alone in a Room. His other book reviews can be found here.