Temptation bundling: how to stop procrastinating by boosting your willpower

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You know you should be working on that presentation, but you’ve been procrastinating. To make things worse, the latest season of your favourite show has just dropped on Netflix. Luckily, making progress on your work and indulging in activities you enjoy is not only compatible, it can make you more productive. That’s called temptation building.

Temptation bundling is a productivity technique that involves combining an activity that gives you instant gratification, such as watching TV, with one that is beneficial but has a delayed reward, such as exercising. If you only allow yourself to watch TV while you’re on a treadmill, you may be more likely to exercise regularly than you would otherwise have been. 

Temptation bundling can help you to avoid procrastination, reduce short-sighted decision making, and improve both your physical and mental health. Let’s have a look at the scientific evidence for temptation bundling, and explore how you can use this technique to boost both your productivity and your health.

The science of temptation bundling

The term temptation bundling was first coined in 2014 by Professor Katherine Milkman of Wharton University. As part of her study, Milkman noted some worrying statistics. In the USA, 68% of adults had been classed as overweight or obese in 2008, and 112,000 Americans were dying each year as a result of obesity and its complications. Milkman therefore emphasised that promoting weight loss was an urgent priority for public health.

Alongside researchers Julia A. Minson and Kevin G. M. Volpp, Milkman began to investigate temptation bundling in relation to exercise. The team hypothesised that if this productivity tool could increase the chance of an individual making wise or healthy choices such as regular exercise, then it could lead to health improvements and weight loss. 

Milkman designed a study to ascertain whether an individual’s drive to exercise would increase if they were given a page-turner audiobook that they could only listen to while at the gym. She described this as bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing ‘want’ experiences with valuable ‘should’ experiences, which may increase an individual’s commitment to the ‘should’ activity. 

The results showed that participants within the temptation bundling group visited the gym 51% more frequently than the control group during the 10-week study. The desire to carry on listening to a great audiobook had boosted their commitment to visiting the gym. Combining a ‘want’ with a ‘should’ increased the chance that a participant would make the healthy decision to exercise.

However, Milkman noted that as with many exercise programmes, gym visits declined towards the end of the study. This was particularly true after the Thanksgiving holiday period which fell between weeks 7 and 8 of the study and interrupted participants’ exercise routines. The researchers concluded that temptation bundling may become less effective over time or following changes to normal routines, and that incentives to return to the gym following periods of abstinence could be helpful, for example by offering a new audiobook. 

However, the researchers also noted that audiobooks don’t suit everyone, and that alternative forms of hedonism, such as the option to watch TV at the gym, may be a better incentive for some. As with many productivity techniques, the general principles need to be adapted to people’s specific needs. Which works great in the case of temptation bundling, a versatile technique you can use to combine your temptations with your goals.

The many faces of temptation bundling

Exercising may not feel good at the time, but combining it with a gripping audiobook makes it feel more enjoyable. This means you are far more likely to exercise than if the incentive of listening to more of a mesmerising novel were not there.

As Milkman illustrates, temptation bundling is usually extremely inexpensive, making it a more sustainable way to commit to ‘should’ tasks. Giving yourself permission to watch TV only if you complete your ironing while watching costs nothing, but helps ensure this chore gets completed. 

To get your other household chores done, you could only listen to your favourite podcast or catch up on a favourite radio show when you are cleaning, washing up or doing laundry. If you know that you cannot listen to the show at any other time, you’re far more likely to get these chores done as you will be instantly rewarded while doing so.

TV and audiobooks might not feel as tempting for everyone, but there are many other examples of pleasurable activities that could form part of a temptation bundle. If you enjoy getting your hair cut or having a pedicure, use this time to catch up on overdue work emails or other admin such as insuring your car. This way, you can use an enjoyable experience to encourage the completion of tedious, but necessary tasks.

If you have to meet up with a difficult colleague or relative, do so at your favourite coffee shop. The lure of the nice coffee will help reduce the chances that you procrastinate on the difficult meeting, but will also make the meeting experience less stressful in general.

As you can see, temptation bundling works by using so-called guilty pleasures, such as getting a pedicure, indulging in TV shows, or eating out, as you complete the tasks that are less enjoyable. Fulfilling these tasks may not bring you immediate joy, but will contribute to your long-term goals in your professional and personal life.

How to create your own temptation bundle

Temptation bundling is a great way to increase your willpower to ensure you make sensible decisions and maximise your productivity. In the words of Erika Kirgios and colleagues including Katherine Milkman, summarised that temptation bundling “combats present bias by making behaviours with delayed benefits more instantly-gratifying.”

You will then reap the rewards of your sensible choices in future. To be effective, your bundle will need to appeal to your individual taste. Follow these simple steps to create effective temptation bundles that are personal to you:

  • Create a two-column list. In one column, write down all the activities that bring you joy or that you find relaxing, such as watching TV, reading, or listening to podcasts. In the second column, list all of the tasks and behaviours that are less enjoyable or that you are prone to procrastinate over, such as exercise or chores.
  • Combine ‘wants’ with ‘shoulds’. After you have taken your time to write the two lists, you can start browsing them to make suitable combinations of gratifying ‘want’ behaviours and necessary ‘should’ activities.
  • Check for conflict. It is important to make sure that the two items do not physically conflict with each other. You must be able to effectively perform both behaviours at the same time. For example, trying to reply to important work emails while watching one of your favourite TV shows may not be the best combination, as your concentration levels are likely to be affected.

Temptation bundling is a simple yet effective productivity technique that combines a hedonistic activity with a chore to offer short-term gratification with long-term gain. It will help you reduce procrastination and increase your overall efficiency. By taking the time to reflect on your own ‘wants’ and ‘shoulds’, you can start to make wiser decisions and even boost your mental and physical health.

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