There are plenty of days when I feel lazy and don’t want to exercise or cut up vegetables for dinner. But most of the time, I still manage to get a workout in and a healthy meal on the table. Do I have some kind of superhuman willpower that motivates me? No, of course not. But I do have some good habits and strategies to help me stay on track.
There is a simple strategy that you can use to make healthy habits more appealing. It’s called temptation bundling (a phrase coined by Wharton Professor and behavioral scientist Katy Milkman) which is really just a fancy term for linking an action that you want to do with an action that you need to do. The idea of temptation bundling is to use the thing you want to do as a motivation to do the thing you should be doing. Temptation bundling isn’t a reward (something you do after you’ve completed a task) but rather something you do while you are doing the less desirable task.
How it Works
Let’s say you really want to improve your health by walking on a treadmill, but you really don’t like treadmill walking. Let’s face it, affectionately known by some as the ‘dreadmill’, a treadmill can be incredibly boring. Whether you are walking or running, the scenery never changes and even if you are going at a decent pace, the miles seem to drag by. So, you keep saying you are going to walk on the treadmill, but you keep putting it off.
Let’s also say you love watching TV series, mysteries like Lupin or comedies like Ted Lasso. But you feel guilty after one or two (or more!) hours of sitting on the couch watching TV. You feel like your time could have been spent more productively and that you probably should have been exercising instead.
With temptation bundling, you would use your favorite show as motivation to get you onto the treadmill and doing what you know you should be doing. You would set yourself a rule that would restrict your series-watching time to the same time you are exercising – only watch an episode while you are walking on the treadmill. Once you are off the treadmill, the show is turned off and you are left wondering what happens next. The only way to find out? Get back on the treadmill!
Create Your Healthy Bundles
Temptation bundling doesn’t have to only be pairing the treadmill with TV. There are many different ways to bundle a healthy habit with a favorite activity.
There is a simple way to figure out your own temptation bundling strategy to boost your willpower to start healthy habits. Here’s what you do:
Grab a piece of paper and a pen, open a spreadsheet on your computer, or use the note app on your phone.
Create a two-column list.
In column one, write down the things you enjoy doing and want to do.
In column two, write down the healthy tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but avoid.
Review your list and see where you can link your ‘want to do’ activities with your ‘should be doing’ activities.
Here are a few examples:
Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts while preparing healthy home-cooked meals.
Only talk on the phone with a friend while walking.
Only watch your favorite show while exercising.
Only scroll through Instagram or TikTok while holding plank or in between sets of squats or lunges.
For optimal results, you must stick to the plan of course. Any deviation can and will likely result in falloff. To stick to the plan, you must have some self-control. If you allow yourself your desired activity without doing what you should be doing, such as watching Netflix without walking on the treadmill or listening to your favorite podcast without chopping vegetables, the system will begin to fall apart.
Make it a Habit
Sometimes all we need to start a new habit is some good temptation bundling to get us past the initial resistance. Maybe after 1 or 2 seasons of a Netflix show, your treadmill walking will become a habit and something you do regularly even after the season ends. Maybe your dreadmill becomes your new favorite toy and you start to appreciate the soft belt cushioning the impact of your steps and the soothing hum of the motor. You begin to enjoy the exercise and love the way it makes you feel so you no longer need the distraction and motivation of a good mystery or comedy.
Temptation bundling is a great strategy to try when you need the motivation to switch from outdoor to indoor exercise. Walking outside can be enjoyable on its own, especially when done in a park or along the lake. But moving your walk to a treadmill inside might be less appealing. Finding the motivation by bundling with an enjoyable activity might be the healthy hack you need.
For me, it was pairing Netflix’s competitive cooking series The Final Table, with time on the elliptical machine at my local gym. I couldn’t wait for my next workout to find out what the cooking challenges would be, and which chefs would continue on to the next round. After a 12-episode season, the elliptical was part of my exercise routine and a regular habit.
Health-promoting behaviors can easily be avoided when you rely on willpower alone. Instead, we can look to lessons from behavioral science to help us start a beneficial habit in a low-cost and effective way. Through health coaching, we explore these and other ideas to help you to create better habits. Interested in support to overcome a particular health challenge you are facing? If so, please get in touch!