Use Temptation Bundling to Create Better Habits

To muster the willpower to tackle something unpleasant, combine it with something indulgent

Photo: Science Photo Library/Getty Images

WWe’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 indulgence and automatically making your work more attractive.

“One reason immediate rewards, like temptation bundling, are so effective is that they increase intrinsic motivation — your interest and enjoyment in an activity,” says Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. “The earlier the reward arrives, the better, because it can actually make you enjoy the task itself.”

In other words, the practice can transform a miserable activity into one that’s not just bearable, but maybe even pleasurable. Here’s how to bundle your temptations most effectively and consistently to make it work.

Make your chore more fun

Often, when people struggle with motivation, it’s because they have trouble conceptualizing their future selves — the ones who will benefit from the choices that require willpower now. Since those future selves can seem distant and vague, most of us have a strong “present bias,” which means we overvalue pleasures we’ll be able to experience immediately and undervalue delayed rewards.

So making the chore itself more enjoyable can help, says Woolley: “For example, dieters are better able to stick with their health goals when eating healthy food they find tasty, and doing workouts that are actually fun and engaging for them.” If you really want to flop down and sit through a trashy TV marathon, figure out how to use that desire to make something on your to-do list more appealing. Need to clean out your closet? Bring your laptop in there with you and pull up Netflix to keep you company.

Do the activities at the same time

Getting the timing right is essential to pulling off temptation bundling correctly. The fun indulgence should happen at the same time as the less pleasant thing, not as a post-willpower reward. While you might deserve a cupcake after a hard conversation with a coworker, promising to treat yourself once it’s over probably won’t provide the same bump in motivation.

“People sometimes say things like ‘ice cream after exercise’, and that’s not a temptation bundle — it’s a self-reward,” Milkman says. “It also doesn’t make exercise any more fun and probably takes away most, if not all, of its value.”

Don’t bundle two virtues

Overachievers might try to knock two productive things off the to-do list at once, like reading an economics textbook at the gym.

Woolley says that pairing two unenjoyable activities can actually backfire: “The workout becomes less fun with a dry book involved,” she says. “And the studying becomes less valuable when it’s harder to focus.”

To pick your pairing, start by identifying pain points in your life, then figure out an equally emotionally salient craving. Maybe you only let yourself go to an indulgent restaurant you love when spending time with a difficult relative, or you only get a pedicure while catching up on work emails. Try different combinations to find the sweet spot that works for you, Woolley says, where you’re getting your least pleasant tasks done, but having a bit of fun in the process.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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