Like many people, Katy Milkman knew she should be exercising more.
But each day she left her job as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania feeling exhausted and drained. By the time she made it home, all she wanted to do was curl up on the couch and read a book or turn on her favorite TV show. On this particular day, she wanted to read The Hunger Games.
That's when she had an idea.
What if she created a rule for herself? What if she was only allowed to read The Hunger Games when she went to the gym?
“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.
And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.”
-Katy Milkman, Wharton School of Business 1
Milkman's strategy worked. Not only did she go to the gym more often, she actually looked forward to going to the gym because it meant that she got to do one of her favorite things: read a good book or watch her favorite TV shows.
This idea that you can make it easier to perform a behavior that is good for you in the long-run by combining it with a behavior that feels good in the short-run is what Milkman refers to as “temptation bundling.” You are essentially bundling behaviors you are tempted to do with behaviors that you should do, but often neglect.
Milkman was happy with the progress that she was making in her own life, but she wanted to see if the idea extended beyond her own behavior. Given her interest in behavioral economics and her teaching post at one of the country's finest universities, she naturally decided to design a research study.
Milkman and her colleagues studied the exercise habits of 226 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pennsylvania. After teaching a cohort of the participants how to use temptation bundling, Milkman found that people who used temptation bundling were 29 percent to 51 percent more likely to exercise when compared to the control group. The findings were quickly published in Management Science (full study). 2
How to Create Your Temptation Bundle
There is a simple exercise you can use to boost your willpower and figure out your own temptation bundling strategy.
You're going to create a two-column list:
- In column one, write down the pleasures you enjoy and the temptations that you want to do.
- In column two, write down the tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but often procrastinate on.
Take your time and write down as many behaviors as possible. Then, browse your list and see if you can link one of your instantly gratifying “want” behaviors with something you “should” be doing.
Here are a few common examples of temptation bundling:
- Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
- Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
- Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
- Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.
Always Important, Never Urgent
There are many factors that contribute to success, but you can make a strong argument that consistently accomplishing tasks which are important, but not urgent is the one ability that separates top performers from everyone else.
Consider how many tasks are important to our progress, but not urgent in our daily lives.
- Getting a workout in will never feel like an urgent task on any particular day, but exercising consistently will change your health and your life.
- Cleaning your office space or kitchen will rarely feel like an immediate need, but reducing clutter can clear your mind and reduce chronic stress.
- Practicing the fundamentals of your craft is often boring, but when you master these core skills you begin to separate yourself from your competitors.
Temptation bundling offers a simple way to accomplish these tasks that are always important, but never feel urgent. By using your guilty pleasures pull you in, you make it easier to follow through on more difficult habits that pay off in the long-run. 3
If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.
Source: “When Willpower Isn’t Enough.” Freakonomics Radio
The range of results depended on the degree to which participants implemented temptation bundling. A full treatment resulted in a 51 percent improvement. An intermediate treatment led to a 29 percent improvement.
Thanks to my main man John Kester III for originally telling me about temptation bundling.