How to use temptation to hack your productivity

Indulging in our guilty pleasures could be the ultimate procrastination hack. Here is how temptation bundling could help you build lasting habits.

It’s true, a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.

When Mary Poppins sang about adding an element of sweetness to something unpleasant to make it more palatable, she was onto a good thing.

Some tasks are plain dreadful, but they don’t have to be – and by adding an element of fun, you might even be able to form a good habit in the process.

But what is temptation bundling and how can it help you form habits?

Here’s how bundling pleasure with productivity could be the key to overcoming procrastination.

How a habit of procrastinating led to ‘temptation bundling’

The idea of bundling something you love with something you don’t particularly enjoy (but really should be doing) sparked in behavioural economist and author Dr Katy Milkman’s mind when she was in grad school.

“Rather than studying, I tended to procrastinate, curling up on the couch with a good book,” Dr Milkman, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says.

At the time she was also trying to motivate herself to exercise more.

She knew change was necessary, and an idea was born.

“What if I only allowed myself to indulge in the fiction books I craved while I exercised?” Dr Milkman recalls thinking.

Not only would restricting her page-turners to gym time result in a desire to work out, but she’d also free up time to study.

The strategy, which Dr Milkman dubbed “temptation bundling” was a success; she not only applied it to various facets of her own life, but it also led to groundbreaking research.

How temptation bundling works

At its core, temptation bundling involves engaging in a guilty pleasure while undertaking a valuable activity, Dr Milkman explains, giving the example of listening to an audiobook while exercising.

“Our research confirmed temptation bundling can alter behaviour in a powerful, long-lasting way,” she says.

The caveat? Temptation bundling works best if you restrict the indulgent activity to only when you’re engaging in the one you require extra motivation to do.

This is the secret sauce to forming habits.

Put simply, if you engage in an indulgent behaviour while doing something you dread, you’ll become conditioned to do it – because, as Mary Poppins did, adding an element of fun sweetens the deal.

Temptation bundles to try for yourself

If you’ve been trying to form a habit or stop dragging your heels to get things done, temptation bundling may help you leave procrastination station.

A few of Dr Milkman’s bundle suggestions, sourced from her best-selling book How to Change, include:

  • Listen to your favourite audiobook while working out
  • Watch your favourite TV show while doing household chores, such as folding laundry or doing the dishes
  • Catch up on study readings while getting a pedicure
  • Only drink wine when making home-cooked meals

Since her initial epiphany, Dr Milkman has learned temptation bundling can be applied to a range of problems.

However, while the strategy can be used in many ways, some bundle combinations simply aren’t practical – such as enjoying a glass of wine while running on the treadmill.

“Temptation bundling won’t always be the magic key to pursuing a challenge, but it’s an effective tool to consider,” Dr Milkman says.

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.