How to Stop Procrastinating on the Important Things, Yet Still Indulge in Guilty Pleasures Guilt-Free with “Temptation Bundling”

We’d all like to eat better, exercise more consistently, practice smarter, and improve ourselves in many areas of our lives, but dang, why does our willpower seem to peter out right when it’s time to make the right choice?

At the end of a long day of rehearsing, teaching, and practicing, it’s so much easier to skip the gym, order some General Tso’s chicken1 instead of cooking something healthy, and chill on the couch with Netflix, topped off with some Pinkberry and a bag of frozen mangos2.

The problem of course, is that while this path is easier and does provide us a momentary boost of pleasure, eventually the mango high wears off, and the guilt kicks in as we realize that instead of taking a step towards our long-term fitness and health goals, we’ve taken a step backwards.

Sheesh. What kind of cruel universe is this where the things that are good for us require willpower, while the things that don’t have any real long-term benefit are so tempting?

If only there were a way to make it easier to do the right thing…

Curses! Foiled again…

The crux of the issue seems to be that the actions which pave the way towards our long-term goals often require some willpower to initiate, as they’re not usually the funnest of our options in the immediate present. Things like score study. Reviewing video of our last performance. Working on our weakest skills. Studying our least favorite subjects. Doing single-leg side planks.

Conversely, the things that are more tempting, or easier to do instead require willpower to avoid, and can sometimes feel like an indulgence we cannot afford. Such as, taking a day off from practicing3, skipping “leg day,” and all-you-can-eat taco tuesdays.

temptation-bundling-graphic-bulletproof-musician

So what if we mash these two things together? What if we tether productive activities that require willpower to initiate with “unproductive” activities that require willpower to avoid?

Genius, right?

“Iron Prof”

Wharton “Iron Prof”4 Katherine Milkman observed in her own life that despite wanting to exercise regularly, she had difficulty getting to the gym after work. So in trying to find ways of motivating herself, she decided to experiment with allowing herself to indulge in one of her guilty pleasures (fiction novels like The Hunger Games), but only while she was at the gym. When it worked, she put it to the test with a larger group of folks.

She and her colleagues followed 226 UPenn students, faculty, and staff for 9 weeks to see if this strategy named “temptation bundling” could help them get through that initial speed bump, and do the thing that would be good for them in the long run.

Three groups

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three different exercise groups.

Group 1 (the control group), received a reminder of the health benefits of exercising, and a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card.

Group 2 (the “intermediate” group) also received the health reminder, and were then introduced to the temptation bundling technique. Next, they were given an opportunity to rank order their most desired audiobooks from a list of 82 best-sellers5 and received copies of their top four to put on their personal iPod.

Group 3 (the “full” group) received the health reminder, the introduction to the temptation bundling technique too, and an opportunity to select their most desired audiobooks too. The key difference with this group though, is that they received the audiobooks on a loaner iPod which was kept locked at the gym. So in theory, they would have no choice but to go to the gym if they wanted to find out what happens next in their book6.

Did it work?

So did the bundling technique help to increase gym attendance?

Yeppers.  (Indeed it did.)

The first week was awesome. A 51% improvement over the control group for the full group. And a 29% increase over control group for the intermediate group. But…as anyone who has ever tried to exercise has discovered, keeping the habit going past the early stages is a challenge. So as you might expect, things did drop off a bit over the next couple months as students/faculty/staff got busier. And then things really went to crap for all three groups when Thanksgiving break kicked in during week 8 (but that sort of makes sense).

Despite the Thanksgiving dip, bundling still turned out to be a useful strategy overall, helping the gym-only iPod (full) group average more visits to the gym over the first 7 weeks of the study than the other two groups7.

Busy people benefit more

Interestingly, temptation bundling was the most helpful for the busiest folks in the gym-only iPod (full) group (i.e folks who had the least free time in their schedules), whose gym attendance was even higher than their peers.

Why?

The authors surmise that very busy folks may feel more guilty than most about indulging in activities that aren’t connected with work or study, so the opportunity to “multitask” in this unusual way might be particularly enticing.

Take action

Temptation bundling isn’t about making you suddenly fall in love with slow practice or cleaning out the garage. It’s about removing that little speed bump that stands in the way of us getting started. And about helping us to build up stronger habits that are consistent with the long-term goals we are already committed to.

Like score study with some cookies and milk. Reviewing tape of a recent performance while getting a foot massage. Chopping veggies into ziplock bags for the week, while watching Netflix.

What are some other examples of temptation bundling that might help you get through your initial sticking points? Take a moment to think of one bundling experiment you might try this week.

Footnotes

  1. And if you’ve ever wondered who this General Tso fellow was, you’ve got to watch this entertaining TED talk.
  2. Seriously, if you’ve never tried eating frozen mangos, you’re missing out. Just leave a bag out for 5 minutes, and they’re good to go.
  3. Except when we really do need a break to stave off burnout or injury, of course.
  4. What is this Iron Prof business all about? Read this.
  5. Like the Harry Potter series, Bourne Trilogy, Hunger Games, Da Vinci Code Trilogy, John Grisham novels, etc.
  6. Sure, they could have loaned or purchased another copy of the book to put on their own iPod, but this went against the spirit and rules of the study, so presumably they didn’t try to circumvent the guidelines.
  7. The intermediate (personal iPod) group maintained a higher average too, but only slightly, and it wasn’t statistically significant.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

8 Responses

  1. The “temptation bundling” strategy motivates you towards high-energy productive actions via mind-distractive procrastinating behaviours.

    It’s like enhancing the primary and most important activity with the simultaneous execution of a secondary activity that reliefs the pressure off the first one. Kind of like studying for a History or Math test listening to music or the white/random noise of a coffee shop.

    This is quite intriguing to me because it feels like we’re stepping of the Mindfulness state of mind don’t you think?

    Suddenly we have Mindfulness, Multi-Tasking and Temptation Bundle all working together in different scenarios and different types of people.

    I believe that the most interesting part of this strategy is that one has got to observe their actions (active will power and random mindlessness) and plan how they can work together.

    Great article, Noah, already working on this one 🙂

  2. I have been signed up to your emails for quite a long time. I have gained a lot of useful insight from them for which I thank you. This latest one is a real puzzle….

    You are suggesting ways of motivating oneself to do things that are unattractive by bleeding attractive activities into a mix… BUT … the very things you describe as unattractive should actually be attractive to the serious musician. I am still working at basics after 37 years of professional playing and 24 years of collage teaching (we do both at once in the UK) … and I STILL look forward to getting the chance to practice on the instrument. NEVER a chore. If I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it. That does not last for long. Young musicians need to be guided, focussed, inspired… sure… but sweeten the practice pill ???? If you need that, you are not the right person to make a professional musician…. or am I wrong ?

    Chris.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Good point. I think you’re spot on – becoming truly great at something requires more than a commitment to the end result, but to the process as well, and so I’m not sure that temptation bundling would work in the long run for the person who genuinely feels practicing/studying/etc. is a chore. It’s just not going to be sustainable.

      My take is that this is a strategy for those tasks that we don’t really mind so much, but given the alternatives, may require a bit of willpower to choose – but once we get into it, things are fine. As in, I don’t see working out as a chore, but on a cold, dark, winter morning, when it’s way easier to just stay in bed for an extra hour, it can be helpful to have an extra incentive to get out the door. Once we’re out the door, we’re good to go, but it’s that getting out of bed and dressed part that takes some willpower.

      Or perhaps, for a supplementary activity that definitely aids us in achieving our goals, but may get pushed aside in favor of other activities – like putting off performance practice in favor of more woodshedding, even though our performance is coming up in a couple days, and we would benefit more from running things and simulating the conditions of a real performance.

  3. I love this! I wouldn’t function as a musician without using it everyday. I’d never stop practicing and go exercise if I couldn’t listen to my favorite piece and let my mind drift during that time. Same for long car trips to gigs. Memorizing, something I hate, (though I love performing by memory) must be supplemented by sips of coffee. Text, language study, or admin stuff generally accompanied by chocolate or wine. And to respond to Chris above – I don’t think we’re talking about sweetening practice. More like those other aspects of life. Admin. Exercise. or the little parts of “practice” we’d prefer to avoid.

  4. Dear Dr. Noa,

    Your articles have been great motivators for me to get back on track with my music practices and healthy lifestyle. However, it has been a constant struggle of procrastination and lack of willpower to make them persist in life, as mentioned above.

    Lately, I have been trying to go to bed at 10pm and wake up 5am. It is either it is too early for me to sleep or too early to wake up. And I always feel guilty afterwards. And to make my day even worse, I give up following my schedule that was set to be really good for my long and short term goals, just because I have ruined the very beginning of my day.

    I would appreciate if you can suggest some solutions in solving this issues because I believe many others struggle the same way as well. To try temptation bundling in this sleep habit issues, I wonder what creative ways you can come up with.

    With gratitude,
    Jas

    1. Hi Jas,

      There are many articles written online about ways to wake up earlier. For me, the thing that helped was having kids. As in, once I had kids, my time became more limited, so I had to wake up earlier in order to do certain things I wanted to do. Like going to the gym, or reading about the latest sports news and checking out box scores. But even without having kids, having things you want to do early in the morning could help to establish the habit. What sorts of early morning activities would be appealing, that you otherwise may not have time for?

  5. Dear Noa,

    For me, the mastering of classical music is a form of literacy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about classical music mastery rate(s).
    Your blog is a musical literacy blog, of sorts.
    The same way the people with the highest level of income represent a minority of the population today, who are for some of their part the people in higher education, are we going to observe the same thing with classical music?
    This is my question? and my hypothesis, as well…
    The day mastering classical music will be like reading and writing today, and when the distinction won’t be in the type in music we play, what should we do then? I really want to be myself on stage to rock out! to classical-music out with my instrument if you see what I mean!
    I have interest in what other people do, because I have to diagnose who will come at my concerts, you know.
    I feel motivated now if I go in the practice room into thinking I have to turn the practice room into this foreign world!
    Thanks for reading me

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