Use Temptation Bundling to Create Better Habits
To muster the willpower to tackle something unpleasant, combine it with something indulgent
We’re just over halfway through the year at this point, which means if you were optimistic enough to make new year’s resolutions, you’ve probably already been through the various stages of failing at them. It’s a familiar cycle: You start off bright-eyed and eager, then quickly lose steam, take a break, feel guilty, muster another half-hearted attempt, and, right about now — with all the pleasures of summer in full swing — finally come to grips with the fact that your resolution has not stuck.
It’s easy to chalk this up to a lack of willpower, the inability to say no to that half-pint of ice cream left in the freezer, or that last sweep of Instagram before bedtime. But the key to sticking with a habit may not be saying “no.” It’s figuring out the right time to say “yes.”
There’s plenty of research showing that a restrictive, black-and-white approach isn’t the most effective way to approach habit formation: Diets that require you to cut out all sugar, for example, are harder to stick to than those that allow you the occasional treat. And newer research on habit formation actually encourages giving in to temptation — but only if it’s paired with something beneficial.
“Temptation bundling” is a term coined by the behavior researcher Katherine Milkman and her colleagues in a 2014 study. Here’s how it works: Basically, you “bundle” a source of instant gratification (like checking Instagram or watching an addictive show) with a beneficial but less fun “should” activity (like running on the treadmill or working on a spreadsheet). In Milkman’s study, the researchers gave participants iPods with four audio-novels they wanted to listen to — but they could only access the iPod while working out. By and large, the participants’ gym attendance increased when an indulgence was tied to it.
A truer to life example: Let’s say you’ve got a sugary soda habit you’re trying to cut back on — and, unrelatedly, you’re also struggling to stay motivated for a big work project you’ve been assigned to. By only allowing yourself a soda when you’re working on this one project, you both reduce the guilt around the…