On December 1, 2017, the New York Times published a piece by Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan entitled, “Why Trying New Things Is So Hard to Do.”
The piece dissects the repercussions (both economic and otherwise) of the habitual nature of most humans’ existence. He makes the observation that most of us (himself included), rarely experiment in our personal lives—even though experimentation can have a large payoff.
Mullainathan himself is a Diet Coke addict. He has never tried a generic brand. He knows it would be cheaper, but the habit of cruising through the soda aisle and dropping a case of Diet Coke into his cart is so strong that he’s never strayed. He points out that we all do similar things every day: ordering the same thing every time you go to a restaurant, always reaching for the Aleve instead of generic Naproxen...the list goes on.
The piece recounts one particularly noteworthy study: When London Underground workers went on a strike (closing multiple Tube stops), commuters were forced to find alternate routes.
“When the strike ended, most people reverted to their old patterns. But roughly one in 20 stuck with the new route, shaving 6.7 minutes from what had been an average 32-minute commute.”
For those 20 people, a small amount of forced experimentation resulted in a 20% decrease in commute time! Imagine what benefits we could all reap if we willingly experimented with different aspects of our lives.
Part of Mullainathan’s explanation of our persistent habits is that we “tend to give undue emphasis to the present.” Trying something new is risky, and in order to do so, the “cost is immediate,” as we give up something we know already works well enough.
We don’t improve if we don’t step out of our comfort zones. Remember that as you embark on your life’s first big experiment: your internship!