Keep Putting Off Important Tasks? Try ‘Temptation Bundling’ To Get Them Done

This research-backed tool can be a game-changer for productivity — and you might already be doing it.
“Temptation bundling” — a term coined by behavioral scientist Katy Milkman — can help us increase follow-through on our goals.
Iuliia Burmistrova via Getty Images
“Temptation bundling” — a term coined by behavioral scientist Katy Milkman — can help us increase follow-through on our goals.

As humans, we have a tendency to procrastinate on things that are good for us in the long run but might be kind of unpleasant in the moment — think exercising, studying or tidying up the house.

This is due to what researchers refer to as “present bias,” which says we’re wired to overvalue instant gratification. That means we often make decisions that feel good in the short-term at the expense of our greater long-term goals.

It’s why we’re more likely to watch another episode of “Vanderpump Rules” than get up and go to the gym, or read another chapter in a juicy thriller than crack open the textbook to prep for an important exam.

But there’s a simple research-backed strategy to overcome this bias called “temptation bundling” — a term coined by behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — that can help us increase follow-through on our goals.

What Is Temptation Bundling?

Temptation bundling is when you take an activity or task that you avoid because it feels like a chore and combine — or “bundle” — it with a pleasurable activity and “only let yourself enjoy those temptations while you’re pursuing the chore,” Milkman, author of the book “How To Change,” told HuffPost.

So for example, you might only let yourself binge-watch a particular TV show while you’re walking on the treadmill or only listen to a smutty audio book while you do laundry.

The basic idea behind temptation bundling is this: When we put off important tasks, we often regret that procrastination later. And when we overindulge in certain temptations, we might feel guilty after for not using our time more effectively. Temptation bundling says: “Let’s fit those together like a puzzle and solve both problems at once,” said Milkman.

“We can use the allure of the thing that’s instantly gratifying, but maybe not-so-great for us, to convince ourselves to do the thing that’s important, but provides the delayed gratification,” she explained.

“Temptation bundling can make mundane activities more enjoyable.”

- Minaa B., licensed social worker and author

Another example Milkman offered: You only let yourself pick up a special coffee drink when you’re on the way to the library to do schoolwork. Or you only get a pedicure while you’re reviewing documents for work.

Rashelle Isip, a time management coach and productivity consultant, has used temptation bundling in her personal and professional life and encourages her clients to do the same.

“Temptation bundling can add a different dimension to necessary, repetitive and important tasks,” she told HuffPost. “For instance, I’ll only listen to my favorite classical music station while doing weekly administrative tasks or only listen to a particular audiobook or podcast when I’m exercising outdoors.”

Why It Works

We tend to avoid activities that might cause us discomfort, boredom or pain, licensed social worker Minaa B. told HuffPost. Linking one of those dreaded tasks with something appealing makes it easier to accomplish more without having to rely on lots of willpower.

“In other words, when we are expected to complete tasks that we find boring, tiresome or unfulfilling, it poses a significant risk of procrastination and delay,” said Minaa, author of “Owning Our Struggles.” “Temptation bundling can make mundane activities more enjoyable. It allows us to release dopamine and other ‘feel-good’ hormones while performing tasks that would typically have the opposite effect.”

Essentially, temptation bundling is a solution that “tricks” our present bias we discussed earlier.

“The bias says, ‘I don’t do things that aren’t instantly gratifying,’” Milkman said. “And you’re like, look, great, we can make the gym instantly gratifying if you just combine it with something that is.”

What You Need To Know To Use It Successfully

Listening to your favorite podcast only while you clean your apartment can help you achieve your goal of maintaining a tidy living space.
Eleganza via Getty Images
Listening to your favorite podcast only while you clean your apartment can help you achieve your goal of maintaining a tidy living space.

You might already be using temptation bundling in your life without knowing it had a name or thinking of it as a strategy. But now that you have this insight, you can apply it to other areas of your life as well.

Temptation bundling is designed to help you with the tasks that you struggle to motivate yourself to complete. For some people, cardio workouts are a total drag; for others, they might be something they look forward to. For some people, putting laundry away is a chore; for others it might feel like a pleasant, meditative part of their day. The point being: It’s important to zero in on the areas where you personally need a little extra push —and know they may be different than someone else’s.

“What’s the thing you delay? What’s the thing you dread? That’s where this is going to be useful for you,” Milkman said.

“What’s the thing you delay? What’s the thing you dread? That’s where this is going to be useful for you.”

- Katy Milkman, behavioral scientist, professor and author

Once you’ve identified the task you procrastinate on and paired it with the indulgence of your choice, try to make an effort not to enjoy that thing otherwise.

That “only dilutes the power of the bundle and your anticipation in enjoying that specific activity,” Isip explained. “Keep your word to yourself and only enjoy the activity as you initially planned.”

Doing this will maximize the effectiveness of the strategy. But that’s not to say you can never get a pedicure or drink an iced matcha unless it’s part of the temptation bundle. You can enjoy those things otherwise and you will still get some benefits, “they’re just smaller,” Milkman said.

And lastly, be on the lookout for potential disruptions that might derail your progress on your goals and come up with a plan for how you’ll get back on track.

“The thing about temptations is they get less tempting if you’re separated from them,” Milkman said. “This is like the No. 1 thing we know about cravings: forced separation reduces cravings.”

Let’s say you’re on a roll decluttering your house, room by room, and you’ve decided to only listen to a riveting true crime podcast while you’re doing this. If you go out of town for a week, it might be a challenge to find your rhythm again when you get back home because you’re less invested in seeing what’s going to happen in the next episode.

“You may fall off the wagon after those disruptive periods: vacations, if you’re sick and can’t go to the gym for a week, or whatever it is,” Milkman said. “So just knowing that that obstacle is a real one with this. Because the allure of the thing that’s convincing you to keep coming back dissipates the longer you wait.”

One of the upsides of temptation bundling is that it’s a flexible strategy that can be tailored to your individual needs and preferences, said Minaa.

“It’s a tool to make necessary tasks more enjoyable and not a strict rule that one has to abide by, so people should feel free to experiment and see what works best for them,” she said.


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