One professor takes her personal struggle with productivity and creates a formula that can make anyone more effective at reaching their goals
Katherine Milkman is an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. When she was a graduate student, she had a very similar productivity problem to Liz Lemon, a key character on NBC’s former hit show 30 Rock. Like Lemon, Milkman is far more interested in indulging in her guilty pleasure – binge-watching TV shows after a long day – than she is in regular exercise.
“I like to make two plausible assumptions about Liz,” says Milkman. “I first assume that she wishes she exercised more but lacks the willpower, and the second is that she has a thing for trashy novels but feels guilty wasting her time reading junk.”
Inspired by her studies in behavioural economics and previous research on commitment devices (when people only allow themselves to enjoy a reward, contingent on achieving a goal), Milkman sought to overcome her inner conflict through what she calls “temptation bundles.”
The law of a temptation bundle is that two contrary things must be combined: a temptation, which is defined as something you want to do more of than you know you should, with a behaviour, which you should do more of than you want. In Milkman’s case, what would happen if she only let herself binge watch her favourite TV series while she hit the treadmill?
For those willing to pin their rewards to a desired action, “temptation bundling can solve lots of dual self-control problems,” says Milkman. And she’s not just talking about wasting time and exercise. “If you don’t spend enough time reading The Economist or some other publication that’s important for work, and you’re tempted to get pedicures what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on that reading?”
Other temptation bundles Milkman uses as examples include pairing household chores with podcasts, or eating at a greasy spoon that you really crave while dining with a difficult relative or workplace mentee with whom you should spend more time. Or for people who don’t exactly enjoy travelling for work or find it unpleasant, there’s a window of time to watch all your lowbrow movies while you’re in transit. “You’d be willing to agree to more work trips, and that might increase your chances of promotion, perhaps?” Asks Milkman.
To test the temptation bundling theory, Milkman, alongside Kevin Volpp (a Wharton healthcare management professor) and Julia Minson (formerly a Wharton postdoctoral scholar who now teaches at Harvard), created an experiment at the University of Pennsylvania to see what would happen when desires were tied to specific behaviours.
Test subjects were assigned at random to two different groups. The first group was given closed iPods containing up to 80 tempting audio novels, of which they could choose four. The second group all had their own iPods and were given a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble, and told they could pick up any audio books they wanted.
The telling difference, however, was how people could listen to their books. The first group was only allowed to listen to the first 30 minutes of their audio novel of choice. To hear what happened next, however, they’d have to come to the gym because the iPods would be held in a locker, which they could only access if they came to work out. The second group didn’t have any such restrictions.
“For the first seven weeks of our study we saw that folks who could only listen to their temptations while exercising, exercised significantly more,” says Milkman. “They went to the gym about one extra visit every two weeks, which is pretty substantial because [these] people weren’t going to the gym very much to begin with, so that was very exciting.”
“The best thing you can do to kill a craving is forced separation from the thing you crave.”
But as anyone who’s ever tried to start a new habit knows, sticking to it is the tricky part, which is why Milkman and her colleagues also tested out how long the temptation bundle would last. Unfortunately, they discovered that after Thanksgiving break (exactly seven weeks after the study began), the effects of group one were totally wiped out. After the holidays, the audiobook no longer encouraged group one to go to the gym any more than the second group.
This result led Milkman to the following conclusion: the temptation is effective at getting people to perform a certain behaviour (like going to the gym) because it works like a craving. “[And ] it turns out the best thing you can do to kill a craving is forced separation from the thing you crave, so you basically forget about it,” says Milkman. “And that’s exactly what Thanksgiving break did. [The] bad news in that we have a lot more work to do figure out how to make temptation bundling last forever.”
So while removing the craving effectively killed the good habits built through temptation bundling, the result offers two insights for those trying to affect positive change on their behaviour. First, that when trying to use temptation as motivation, it’s key to keep the temptation front and centre. Second, it appears the best strategy for curbing unwanted cravings might just be adhering to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.”