When I was an engineering graduate student, I regularly disappointed myself.
Rather than get my schoolwork done, I’d crawl under a blanket with a juicy novel or thriller. Later, after I finally turned to studying and finished my problem sets, I couldn’t get myself to exercise.
Then one day it hit me: What if I only let myself enjoy page-turners while working out?
I tried it, and practically overnight, I stopped wasting time when I should have been studying. Instead, I started craving trips to the gym to discover what would happen next in whatever novel had me engrossed. Not only that, I enjoyed the novels and workouts more combined — I didn’t feel guilty reading, and time flew at the gym.
In my research, I’ve found that “temptation bundling” — linking something you enjoy with pursuing a valuable goal that might be a bit of a drag — can be a powerful way to achieve more without exerting much self-control.
This strategy can be used to solve all kinds of problems. For instance, you could let yourself watch your favorite Netflix show only while folding laundry, doing dishes, or tackling other chores, and you’ll watch less TV and finish more housework. Or only let yourself pick up your favorite treat — say, a vanilla latte — when heading to the library to hit the books.
Committing time to what’s best for you in the long run (like studying or exercising) is often unsatisfying in the short run, but people are wired to overvalue short-term rewards. Temptation bundling harnesses the appeal of the here-and-now, making your tough goals fun, not dreaded — and can help you recover wasted time in the bargain. And it’s especially helpful for the busiest among us, who can have difficulty finding time for pursuing long-term goals.
Don’t just grit your teeth and will yourself to make progress on distant goals. If an activity isn’t instantly gratifying, you’ll rarely stick with it.
Do look for a way to bundle temptations with chores, and help the young people in your life do the same. Transforming goal pursuit into a pleasure is a surefire way to get further faster.
Katy Milkman, author of the new book How to Change, is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She codirects Penn’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative and hosts Charles Schwab’s Choiceology podcast. She guest-wrote this week’s UpBringing column for Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. You can sign up to receive her Tip of the Week — actionable advice about the science of character — at characterlab.org.