In this installment. We’re discussing temptation bundling. A self-control technique where you pair pleasurable wasteful activities with such that unlock delayed rewards. But before we talk about it. Let me tell you why we need to talk about it.
If I was skilled with computers. I mean. Picasso-like good. Instead of taking control of the national reserve. I’d hack Facebook and replace their current message stating:
“Connect with friends and the world around you on Facebook.”
With the more appropriate:
“Feel depressed by watching how your “friends” and other people you don’t know waste their money so you can waste yours, too”
Plus, probably Netflix by adding this:
“Unlimited movies, TV shows, and more ways to waste your limited time on earth (bolded parts added by me).”
I know. Extraordinary depressive. But accurate AF.
Some mornings, I just stare at the ceiling and wonder how the hell we are still alive. How do we manage to achieve anything?
The supercomputer in my pocket is packed. Full of masterfully designed applications that seamlessly prevent me from achieving anything.
Think about it.
Our phones are a doorway to unlimited pleasure. I just need a charger nearby.
Thank god we have survival instincts deeply embedded in our DNA that occasionally slap the instant gratification monkey and get us back to work. Otherwise, we’ll be all jobless and overweight.
But the rational decision-maker is often too slow to react.
- We know we should finish the book attracting even more dust on our nightstand but social media feel so much more pleasurable.
- We know we should visit the gym but the comfortable sofa in combination with the TV feels so much better now.
That’s where the commitment device called temptation bundling can help.
It’s a method for combining instantly gratifying activities with painful but rewarding ones in the long run.
What Is Temptation Bundling?
Discovered by Katy Milkman, behavior scientist, author, and former president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. Temptation bundling is a personal rule technique where you bundle an enjoyable activity that gives you short-term pleasure with a painful one that will give you long-term gain.
In her famous study, she describes it like this:
“Bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing “want” experiences (enjoying page-turner audiobooks) with valuable “should” behaviors providing delayed rewards (exercising).”1
In her definition, the want is considered an activity we are all aware is wasteful, even harmful sometimes to the body. For example, diving deep into the endless rabbit hole of the online world; locking yourself with a six-pack of ice cream; binging the newest TV show, etc.
A should, in contrast, is an activity we know we should do. We are perfectly aware that it’s better. And yet, we don’t do it because it requires more effort: exercising; reading; preparing a salad.
In the mentioned study, the scientists proved that when a want activity is only available when participants also engage in a should behavior. They perform the beneficial things more often.
Or if we can simplify, if you set your Netflix account to run only if you cycle at a certain speed on your stationary bike. You will significantly increase the daily time spent doing physical activities.
It sounds absurd, I know.
What kind of lunatic will figure out a way to make his Netflix a hamster wheel-like machine?
Well, one person actually did it.
He’s called Ronan Byrne. You can read his story and how he did it here.
He did what I just mentioned – programmed his Netflix to run only if he’s cycling.
A want – watching Netflix. Is only available for him when a should is being executed – exercising.
Why Temptation Bundling is Important?
We need to set restrictions if we want to move forward in life.
The reason is quite simple.
We prioritize immediately good things and try to avoid delayed good things for as long as possible.
I mean, instead of going regularly to the dentist. We will postpone the visit until even a light breeze makes your teeth hurt.
The scientific word for this constant avoidance is present bias.
We settle for good things that are available right now over great things that can happen in the future if we indulge in the uncomfortable activity.
And while we design our lives to experience daily joys. Eventually, the comfortable small pleasures turn into uncomfortable, impossible-to-overcome obstacles.
Think about it…
When do people usually commit to going to the gym?
After a birthday party. After the Christmas holidays. After visiting their grandma who prepared a 5-course meal and skipping a single course is not an option. In other words, when they realize they are fat.
But when this realization hits the mind. It’s usually too late to change. Or if not too late, too hard to change. It’s one thing to have to lose 10 pounds. It’s quite another if you need to lose 60 pounds.
On top of it all, continuously choosing to focus on wants, programs your mind for certain behavior.
If for years, your daily regime was the following loop: eat sugary things and avoid physical exercise, eat sugary things and avoid physical exercise… Since you did this for more than you can remember, you can’t expect that you’ll suddenly change no matter how bad you want to lose weight.
You’re not simply fat. You think like a fat person.
For change to occur, you need to make an identity shift – read about this in my identity-based habits.
But along with this switch, the tactic we’re discussing here is a useful ally.
By tricking yourself to prefer should activities that can be painful in the present but beneficial in the future over want activities that are pleasurable now but carry few, if any, long-term benefits. You can start your slow progress toward a new better personality.
It requires setting restrictions.
One way to do it is to hire a coach who will scream at you till you do 100 pushups. Another way is to reuse the if-then-else methodology used in programming (basically another way to frame the temptation bundling technique).
Here is how it can look:
Only if I (painful but good activity). I can then (pleasant but wasteful activity).
Else, I don’t do (pleasant but wasteful activity).
Only if I exercise. I can then watch Netflix.
Else, I don’t watch Netflix.
Imagine this like a chain reaction.
The should activity unlocks the want activity.
Is Temptation Bundling Effective?
To answer this question, I’m going to bring another study on the subject: Teaching temptation bundling to boost exercise: A field experiment.2
The gist of the study is the following: Professors wanted to see how offering a free audiobook compared to a free audiobook and introduction to temptation bundling will affect going to the gym.
The results were clear. Over 60% of participants who got a free audiobook along with instructions on temptation bundling completed the gym program.
But there is an additional interesting component present in the study.
When people were educated on the effects of temptation bundling. They realize how this method can be used to avoid the daily pitfalls. Or rather, trick their minds to do hard stuff that can lead to lasting behavior change.
But not only. There was another intriguing observation.
When you pair a want activity with a should activity. You teach yourself to do the want activity only when you do the should activity.
This is probably the most beneficial aspect of temptation bundling.
You reprogram your brain and whenever you feel like watching Netflix. You also feel like exercising.
How Do You Temptation Bundle?
OK, now we know why temptation bundling is good.
But how to start doing it?
The best way to start is to grab a notebook and create two lists:
- A list of wants.
- A list of shoulds.
After that, see how you can pare things.
The most applicable and therefore the most mentioned example is exercising.
You bundle a favorite show with exercising. You don’t necessarily have to reprogram your computer to run only while you cycle. You simply design your day around that.
That’s a no-brainer.
But if a repeating want in your life is eating sweet things which is in direct conflict with an important should – eating green stuff to maintain good health. How can you do it?
Or something I’m daily facing, I know I should write daily. But I so badly want to watch YouTube videos about writing.
A way to approach this is to allow yourself to do the want only after you do the should.
While you’re not doing them simultaneously. I mean, intaking both a salad with a waffle will probably ruin both meals. You can allow yourself a small dessert only after you eat your vegetables.
In my case, I allow myself to watch videos or play video games only after I’m done with my writing for the day.
And here, I don’t mean writing for 30 minutes and then playing games for 2 hours straight. It’s reversed. I’m writing for 2 hours and playing games for 30 minutes.
But as you can notice. This also leaves room for error.
Good intentions are not enough to move us forward.
We need constant feedback about what we are doing. Regular check-ins to help us avoid bad, unwanted behavior.
Something I labeled fitness mirror strategy.
When Temptation Bundling Is Not Applicable
The main reason finesses are fully equipped with mirrors is not for muscular guys to showcase their big arms all the time. OK, it is. But there is another application.
Mirrors are there for instant feedback. You see how you are performing the exercise, and you make adjustments, on spot, if you deviate from the standard posture.
Such mirrors are observable in other places.
You just need to start noticing.
To prove this to you. Think about your job…
When you’re at the office, you’re surrounded by “mirrors”. Your colleagues, your boss, the environment is giving you constant feedback and helping you adjust. I mean, even if you don’t feel like working, you just look around and see how everyone is buried in his computer. So, you close Instagram and return to your to-do list.
Parents also have this feature included.
I remember when I was younger. My mother was constantly asking me about my homework. “Did you finish your homework? Are you ready for the test? etc., etc.”
These questions often ended with arguments and after that with me being punished. Yet, it worked. I successfully endured school with good grades. Since I knew that my mom is going to nag about doing my homework. I started doing it before she asked me to save myself from having to find explanations for my grades.
However, when we grow up and when are home alone. Or even if we’re with our partner. There is little feedback about what we are doing. Unless your partner is Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock.
Since my wife is definitely not a former professional wrestler. Theoretically, I can binge an entire show while eating a bowl of chips and no one is going to comment on this. Actually, she’s probably going to join me.
When we are adults. We are free to choose how to allocate our time but we often choose poorly.
This not only affects us but also the people around us. If I watch TV and play video games all day long. I’ll teach my son to do the same.
To practice the fitness mirror strategy. You basically have to continuously, throughout the day, remind yourself this: “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Am I doing the things that are in line with my desired personality?”
Obviously, if the answer is no. You should make changes.
You pause the video game and exercise. Only then, you’re allowed to continue.
Or you get a desert only if before that you had a low-carb meal.
The reward should always come last or during. That’s the main message here.
Want to save money?
Automate your investments and only buy things after you’ve invested X% of your income.
Want to lose weight?
Watch shows after you’re done with your training or during your training.
Want to read more books?
Turn on your console only after you’re done with your reading for the day.
In the world of unlimited pleasures. Were the parent control is something we need to set up. We are the ones who should set restrictions.
Amazon will never tell you to stop shopping.
Facebook will never tell you to stop scrolling.
Google will love it if you keep searching.
The question is, what do you want for yourself?3
Some Closing Thoughts
The reason temptation bundling is beneficial is not only because you start doing the important things in life. Things that can bring you good results in the future.
But it works because this tactic doesn’t sound like a prison.
Hear me out for a moment.
Most habit-changing programs will tell you to completely stop doing wasteful activities… Quit social media. Lift weights as soon as you wake up. Read books even under the shower.
OK, you definitely should avoid the last one. You’ll ruin the book.
The point is. Everything restricts you from instant pleasures. What kind of life is that?
We need to cheat from time to time. We need time to be unproductive. Silly. Wasteful.
But to a certain extent.
With temptation bundling, you don’t completely kill activities you enjoy doing. You do them, but only after you’ve done something productive first. Something that will move you closer to the desired future state. To the desired personality. The deeply wanted lifestyle.
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.
- Milkman KL, Minson JA, Volpp KG. Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Manage Sci. 2014;60(2):283-299.
- Erika L. Kirgios, Graelin H. Mandel, Yeji Park, Katherine L. Milkman, Dena M. Gromet, Joseph S. Kay, Angela L. Duckworth, Teaching temptation bundling to boost exercise: A field experiment, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 161, Supplement, 2020, Pages 20-35.
- My guide Follow Yourself can help you here. It’s a mini-course that will help you stop using social media to waste your life and start using it to be more creative.