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.