January Goals Fizzled? Try ‘Temptation Bundling’

A woman in workout clothing eats a chocolate protein bar
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It’s the start of February — if that means your dry January ended yesterday, I toast you for making it! But usually, the change to February makes you realize you have abandoned all the good intentions you had on New Year’s Day.

January is usually a harsh reminder of how hard it is to replace bad habits with good habits.

I’ve been interested in this topic for a while, and behavioral science has a lot to say about overcoming these barriers to good health, or saving money, or improving relationships.

In the past I’ve written about the importance of setting goals that are specific instead of vague (“I’ll stop eating after 10 p.m.” instead of “I’ll eat less”), of making concrete plans (“I’ll call home every Saturday at lunchtime” versus “I’ll call my parents more often”) and of making small steps instead of engaging in delusions of grandeur.

We all live lives of constant temptation, made even worse by the easy availability of almost anything.

I recently learned that my favorite turkey club from my favorite tiny deli is available through one of those food delivery apps — 24 hours a day. This is going to be an ongoing battle.

You know the struggle. Every day, we get home from work and face the couch-versus-workout fight, the broccoli-versus-cookie fight, the Netflix-versus-treadmill battle.

The standard formula is to delay gratification, to eat the cookie after the vegetables, or to watch the movie after the long run. There might be a better way.

My editor at PeopleScience.com, Jeff Kreisler, recently asked me to write about a fairly novel approach to keeping promises you make yourself. If you’re frustrated by the results you got in January, perhaps “temptation bundling” is something you could try.

The idea is simple: Don’t reward yourself after the desired behavior — do both at the same time.

Katherine L. Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, conjured up the idea when she was having trouble keeping up with exercise during intense graduate school studies. Then she made it into an academic study.

Here’s an excerpt of my piece in PeopleScience, but you should read the whole story there:

“In the study, some subjects were told they could listen to fun audiobooks only while exercising. That group was 51% more likely to get to the gym than a control group, at least in the short term. The experiment worked so well that test-takers were sold on the idea — fully 61% of participants said they would pay for gym-only iPod access.

Soon, a cottage industry of temptation bundling stories on fitness and management websites was born. There’s the story of Ronan Byrne, an electrical engineer in Ireland, who hacked his exercise bike so he could stream Netflix only while pedaling at a fast pace. (He called the new machine ‘Cycflix.’) Over at NerdFitness, Steve Kamb wrote that he lets himself play videogames only while he is standing or doing squats. Some bundlers let themselves indulge in expensive scotch only while folding laundry or doing other housework. Then there’s the common suggestion of scheduling difficult conversations with employees or a spouse at a favorite restaurant. That sounds a bit like cookies and asparagus to me, but whatever works.”

Read the rest of this piece at PeopleScience.com.

Or, read all my behavioral science stories here.

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