If only we always made the best decisions for ourselves—choosing the gym over watching trashy TV on the couch; doing laundry instead of having a beer after work—and actually followed through on them.
Researcher Katherine Milkman, from the Wharton School at UPenn, has been looking at how we can have the best of both worlds—making the most optimal choices for our health and wellbeing while still indulging in temptation.
This might sound like a having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too contradiction, but Milkman, who's been researching self-control and the role of decision-making over the years, has another term for it: temptation bundling, which involves mashing together an indulgent or tempting behavior with a productive and beneficial one.
Milkman started thinking about this type of habit-forming strategy the way many behavioral researchers often do: through the lens of her personal life. While studying for her PhD in computer science and business at Harvard in 2007, Milkman wanted to get to the gym more and waste less of her study time reading the addictive Harry Potter series. So she came up with a strategy. She would only allow herself to listen to audio books of the series while on the treadmill at the gym.
That's the first step in temptation-bundling: finding two activities—one tempting and addictive, the other productive and good for you—and only allowing yourself to do one in the presence of the other.
For Milkman, the tactic worked. She started temptation-bundling other parts of her life: only listening to her favorite podcast while doing laundry and treating herself to Starbucks only when she went to the library. "I call a lot of this work me—search rather than research," Milkman says.
Still, over the years, she's tested her theory on plenty of others, namely in a study that followed the exercise behavior of 226 individuals to find that temptation-bundling addictive books on tape with exercise helped others also improve their gym attendance.
There's a long-running debate out there as to whether it's better to reward good behaviors or punish bad ones when it comes to positive habit formation. Do you beat the horse with a stick or entice it with a carrot? "We do know in the short run if you are just trying to motivate someone once, the stick is more effective than the carrot," says Milkman.
In other words, we're typically more motivated by the fear of punishment than the prospect of reward. Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman's seminal research on the topic calls this the "prospect theory," which essentially found that when we anticipate experiencing a loss, we're twice as motivated to avoid it as we are by the idea of receiving a reward.
Still, Milkman's research finds much value in the use of rewards, not just when it comes to reinforcing positive behaviors, but also in terms of encouraging people to pick them up in the first place. "The carrot has benefits in that it may be easier in the long run to get people to get on the horse," she says.
Milkman's theory essentially says that combining instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing activities with productive ones can help people use temptation to become more productive at what they have a hard time getting themselves to do. Her study subjects, for example, were only allowed to listen to the addictive audio book version of the novel The Hunger Games when they were at the gym—much as she'd done with Harry Potter.
Her research had two key findings: first, that temptation bundling leads people to exercise more in the short term, but more importantly, says Milkman, that people are not only more likely to exercise when bundling the activity with an indulgent one, but the majority of people are actually willing to fork over money to restrict their access to an indulgence that they could otherwise use freely.
Milkman sees this as an opportunity for all kinds of apps and location-based services that use geo-mapping to lock access to certain features or entertainment on devices unless the person is located at the gym or doing whatever activity they've committed to bundling with their indulgence. "It seems like there could be a market for these kinds of carrot devices," says Milkman. "It's basically paying someone to link a carrot to your good behaviors."
But her research also found that even when we succeed in taking on a positive habit, it's easy to slip out of it when our routines are disrupted. In the case of Milkman's study, that disruption was a holiday break when being away from the temptation of the audio book long enough made the reward less desirable to participants when they got back to their regular routine. "When people have less exposure to temptation, they crave it less," says Milkman.
When a reward becomes less appealing to us, it's no surprise that we're more likely to drop the positive new habit linked to it. There's no avoiding those slipups. But we can be more mindful of them, anticipating that breaks in our routines make new habits far more susceptible to disruption. "We need to be aware of these disruptive moments," says Milkman. "We need to know that those moments are when people fall off the horse."
One way to prevent derailment is to make sure you have a firm plan in place for those times when you're most likely to slip up. The psychological research on habit formation also suggests that shifts in our routine can be good times to jumpstart a positive habit. For example, Milkman's latest research focuses on something she calls the "fresh start effect."
Analyzing Google search data, she found that people are most motivated to take on new goals or form new habits when they feel they're making a "fresh start." This phenomenon is well-documented at the start of the year with resolutions, but it turns out people also use the start of each month, week, and often holidays as an opportunity to make a "fresh start" and pick up a positive behavior. "That's when people are most likely to go to the gym and search for the word diet online," says Milkman.
The reason this is relevant? Those are moments when you can capitalize on that "fresh start" effect to reinforce a positive behavior. "Can we turn a day that might otherwise feel ordinary into a way to feel motivated to start and pursue new goals?" says Milkman. With a little temptation in the mix, the research shows that yes, in fact, we can.