Everyone has something in their life they want to change, whether it's saving more more, eating better or getting off of social media.
There are tons of books, videos and podcasts promising to help you achieve your goals, but many people are still struggling to make real change. But Katy Milkman, Wharton professor and author of "How to Change," says people are missing a key aspect in their pursuit of change: science.
"There are so many tools, and this is such a giant industry, this sort of self-help industry, but most of it is not based on science," she tells CNBC.
Milkman, co-founder and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, has spent much of her career researching how people can make better decisions. One of the biggest mistakes people make when attempting to change their lives is trying to find one "magic" solution.
Instead, people should be taking a more strategic approach based on the barriers they face. "In order to achieve change, it really depends what's standing in your way," she says.
Here are three science-backed ways to truly achieve change in your life:
1. Take advantage of the 'fresh start effect'
Several years ago, Milkman was giving a talk at Google on her research about what could nudge behavioral change when she got a question that changed her career: "Is there some ideal time to encourage change?"
This inspired Milkman and her collaborators to study what they now call the "fresh start effect" — the idea that there are specific moments in life where people embark on something new and are more motivated to change.
"There are moments throughout our lives when we feel like we are facing a chapter break or a new beginning," Milkman says. It could come from a major life event, like a new job or moving to a new home. Or it could be something as small as the start of a new week. These fresh starts provide a break from the "old" you.
"Fresh starts are a really potent motivator, and really effective if we can use them as a springboard towards change," says Milkman.
Right now, as the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, she believes there's an opportunity for a collective fresh start. "I hope we won't let the moment pass, that people will be deliberate," she says.
2. Identify the barriers that stand in your way
Milkman advises not to just jump into trying to make a change. Analyze the situation first and think strategically about the barriers to change.
"It's important to do that diagnosis phase that we tend to skip, instead of just rushing right into a solution, trying to understand what is holding you back from achieving this goal," she says.
Milkman has identified several common barriers that could hold people back from making a change, from getting started to forgetting to temptation. Want to start exercising but hate working out? Want to get off of social media but find it's more entertaining to be on it? These are examples of temptation working against you.
Once you've identified the barriers, you have a toolkit of solutions. If temptation is holding you back, make change fun. Milkman suggests finding a way to be social while achieving your goal.
Temptation-bundling can also work. For example, if you're struggling to get to the gym, set that as your time to watch your favorite show — and maybe you'll even start to look forward to exercising.
"If you pursue your goals in a way that you enjoy," says Milkman, "you're much likelier to stick to them."
3. Give advice
Research shows that giving advice and mentoring others can actually help you achieve your own goals.
"Putting people in the role of mentor and asking them to advise other people boosts their confidence, causes them to introspect about what might work for them and makes them feel hypocritical if they don't follow through," says Milkman.
She shares the example of a study with high school students giving advice. When the students were given the role of "advice givers" for younger students, their own grades actually improved.
How can you apply that to your own pursuit of change? Milkman suggests forming an advice club with other people trying to achieve similar goals.
"You can help other people and learn from their insights and get the benefits of coaching as well," she says.
*Watch the full interview with Katy Milkman here.
- The most mentally tough people apply the 1% 'marginal gains' rule, says performance expert—here's how it works
- This is the No. 1 mistake young people make when 'following their passion,' says career expert of 20 years
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter