What’s that one thing you really should get done, but keep putting off?

We all have them: time-consuming, or difficult chores we dread, procrastinate about, and drag out until the last minute – if we complete them at all.

But what if we could tempt ourselves into those dreary tasks by pairing them with something we really enjoy? Research suggests that combining the things we want to do, with the things we should do, could be a nifty trick to tackling our goals.

‘Temptation bundling’ allows you to combine two differing, but complementary, self-control problems

The method is known as ‘temptation bundling’ and it allows you to simultaneously combine two differing, but complementary, activities.

“I only let myself get a pedicure when I’m simultaneously doing some work or catching up, in my case, on manuscript reviews,” says Katherine Milkman, a professor of behavioural economics at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of a study into temptation bundling. “For someone else, it might be catching up on emails or old copies of reports that need to be read for work.”

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Another example? Going to your favourite restaurant, but with a difficult colleague, or someone you’re obliged to spend time with, such as a relative. “It might also be a restaurant that’s not terribly healthy for you,” says Milkman, so you don’t overindulge too often. “Whatever it is that makes it a guilty pleasure.”

In short, it’s pairing a thing you like with something you don’t like, offering you incentive to do something you might be putting off.

Maybe it’s discussing finances on a ‘date night’ with your spouse, as suggested by personal finance author Scott Pape.

Or using a treadmill desk to exercise throughout the day without harming productivity, as does Bri Williams, a leadership expert and founder of behavioural economics firm People Patterns in Melbourne, Australia.

Commitment issues

Exercise is one activity routinely treated as a chore – so Milkman used it in an experiment to test the effectiveness of temptation bundling.

In her experiment, Milkman encouraged students to exercise while listening to addictive, page-turning audiobooks, such as The Hunger Games. One group, which could only access the audiobooks while at the gym, were 51% more likely to exercise than the control group, which were able to listen when they liked. Another group, whose access to the audiobooks was not restricted but who were merely encouraged to bundle the activities, were 29% more likely to exercise than the control group.

Although the effects of the experiment declined over time, at the end of the study 61% of participants opted to pay for gym-only access while listening to tempting audiobooks. Temptation bundling worked well enough for them to want to continue the practice.

It seems to work for busier people, who have a lot get done, says Milkman.

It’s a type of commitment device – a formal arrangement to reach goals. For example, a reward or punishment for completing or failing to complete a task. (Think: an ice cream after a workout or money in a swear jar). But, Milkman says, temptation bundling is “very different from any commitment devices that have been written about or studied before.”

The trick is to find tasks that complement each other

The benefit comes from simultaneity, that is, doing two things at once that go well together, says Milkman. The trick is to find tasks that complement each other, and perhaps even work better, when combined.

By “taking the sting out of tasks that you don't want to do, you become less likely to drop them from your busy week,” Williams says. “The secret is to bundle tasks that require different effort. For instance, if one task requires focus or concentration, you want the other not to be too distracting – reading while listening to a podcast is very difficult, for example, while cooking and listening is more realistic.”


And the downsides?

Williams says there’s a risk of tainting your enjoyment of the task you like by pairing it with something unpleasant. “You may find you end up avoiding both, and binging on your temptation because you feel more virtuous. You may pair your ‘should do’ paperwork with ‘want to do’ bowl of ice cream and find you serve yourself a second helping.”

And, could bundling make us hate the things we love? Possibly, says Milkman. It depends how aversive the task is.

“The possibility is very real that if you push this too far, it will fall apart. We’ve only tested in the middle of the distribution in terms of things that are unpleasant,” says Milkman. “So, it’s an open question. We need more research to answer.”

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