Everyone knows how difficult it can be to achieve goals and follow through on new, positive habits. We want to exercise, but it’s so much easier to watch Netflix. We want to homecook our meals, but it’s so much more convenient to order food on DoorDash. We want to knock a bunch of errands off our to-do lists, but it’s so much more relaxing to hang around the house. There’s simply a big gap between what we cognitively want to do, and what we viscerally want to do.
To try to bridge this gap, we typically rely on discipline. We try to flagellate ourselves into doing what we know we should. And then, when we still fail to follow through on stuff, we flagellate ourselves for not having sufficient willpower.
Fortunately, there’s a way out of this fruitless cycle. A technique for making our habits happen, and doing so with less effort and more pleasure: bundling our temptations.
Primer on Temptation Bundling
if people focused on making long-term goal pursuit more enjoyable in the short-term . . . they’d be far more successful. —Katy Milkman,How to Change
It’s not so hard to understand the reason we struggle so mightily to follow through with our good intentions: The things we aim to complete are often not enjoyable or rewarding to do in the short-term. Things like going to the post office, washing the dishes, and doing taxes have a long-term payoff, but simply aren’t pleasurable in the moment. Ditto with cooking and exercise, at least for some people. So, when it comes to choosing to do these tiresome tasks, or, choosing to do something that’s more immediately satisfying — scrolling through social media, watching television, ordering takeout — our pleasure-seeking selves choose the latter over the former more often than not.
Once you understand this obvious problem, the solution also becomes obvious — though you may not have ever really thought through it before: make working on your goals more rewarding.
You can’t do this by changing the nature of the task itself, which, as we’ve already said, is inherently unpleasurable. But, you can add enjoyment to the task by pairing it with something that is pleasurable.
This is a concept developed by the behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, which she calls “temptation bundling.” You take something you need to do, something you should do but don’t enjoy doing, and you bundle it with something you don’t need to do but intrinsically enjoy, and are already tempted towards. You bundle something with long-term value but no short-term reward, with something with no long-term payoff but plenty of short-term satisfaction.
For example, Milkman used to have a hard time getting herself out the door to go to the gym. To motivate herself, she started listening to Alex Cross detective novels — a guilty pleasure — while working out. What used to seem like a chore — logging miles on the treadmill — became something she really looked forward to.
I don’t enjoy running errands around town — Amazon returns, grocery shopping, you know the drill — when there are a million other things I could be doing. To be a little more pumped up about it, I only listen to Halsey while putzing around in the minivan. (She slaps, guys!)
Find it hard to get motivated to fold the laundry? Listen to a podcast while you do it. Want to eat more homemade meals, but don’t enjoy cooking? Crack open a particular beer or wine while you chop and saute to make the process more pleasurable.
By coupling a rewarding “guilty pleasure” with a tedious-but-important goal/habit/task, you’ll be far more likely to follow through with it.
Getting the Most Out of Temptation Bundling
This small act of neurological trickery is not a panacea. There are a couple keys to making it work for you, as well as limitations to keep in mind.
Only do the particular “vice” when you’re doing the non-pleasurable task. In How to Change, Katy Milkman writes that “temptation bundling certainly works best if you can actually restrict an indulgence to whenever you’re doing a task that requires an extra boost of motivation.” You’ll be much more motivated to tackle something when it’s the only way to access a certain reward. Want to listen to Alex Cross? You have to get on the treadmill. Want to listen to Halsey? You’ve got to get in the minivan.
Keep one of the things