The key to creating better habits? Temptation bundling

Have you ever felt a conflict between what you want to do and what you should do? For example, you may want to finish reading a book, listen to a podcast or browse the news. But really, you know you should go for a walk, get on the treadmill or make that difficult phone call.

Trying to do the shoulds on willpower alone can feel like pushing water uphill. Despite our best intentions, it can be really difficult to consistently do all the things that we know are good for us – like getting enough exercise every week, or eating our five a day. The want-should conflict can just get in the way.

What is ‘temptation bundling’?

Behavioural scientist Professor Katy Milkman has a keen interest in this aspect of behaviour change and has done extensive research into ‘temptation bundling’. This is a strategy to help us change our bad habits by creatively pairing something we should do (but may want to avoid despite its long-term benefits), with something we want to (that is fun and gives instant gratification, but may not be productive).

So, the act of pairing our wants with our shoulds can take the sting out of the activity that we don’t really want to do. By bundling the two together, we can theoretically increase the virtuous behaviour, while guilt or time-cost from the ‘indulgent’ behaviour is decreased.

How can ‘temptation bundling’ effect behaviour change in healthcare?

When it comes to healthy behaviours, the issue of self-control is by no means trivial. One study estimated that 40% of premature deaths could be associated to repeated decisions where the wants heavily outweigh the shoulds – such as eating, drinking and smoking . Favouring the want over the should is an example of present bias – in other words, favouring today over tomorrow – which can be ruinous in changing behaviour.

When it comes to healthy behaviours, the issue of self-control is by no means trivial

Milkman and colleagues researched the effectiveness of temptation bundling by pairing workouts at the gym (delayed gratification) with listening to page-turning audiobooks (instant gratification). The researchers found that the treatment group – whose only opportunity to listen to audiobooks was during a workout – visited the gym 51% more than the control group. Similar findings have been found by a later study on the Step UP! Program, which had the advantage of using a lot more respondents than the original research.

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. First, the want has to be sufficiently tempting to the individual – audiobooks, for example, won’t cut it for everyone. Second, it necessitates finding two tasks which ‘go well’ together – having a pedicure while exercising wouldn’t be practical! And third, we have to find activities that enable our concentration to be equally applied. Listening to a podcast while doing meal prep won’t detrimentally divide our focus, but trying to read a magazine at the same time as writing a report is not advisable.

Final thoughts…

As long as we can find the perfect want-should pairings, temptation bundling can be a very effective behaviour change strategy. Health-promoting behaviours can be stymied by their sheer reliance on self-control or willpower alone. Instead, we can look to learnings from behavioural science literature to help encourage the uptake of a beneficial behaviour in a low-cost and effective way. The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, both literally and figuratively!

Hall & Partners behavioural science team aim to understand what a particular, potentially negative, behaviour is and how we can encourage a change to help people create better habits. If you want a better understanding of a behavioural challenge your facing, please get in touch.

Dr. Adele James
Dr. Adele James
Strategy Director & Behavioural Insights Expert, Hall & Partners Health

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