Indulge Your Way to Self-Discipline

Want to form a new worthy but less than pleasant habit like going to the gym? A new study suggests you should try pairing it with a guilty pleasure.

New Years is approaching so you’re probably already starting to think about resolutions and what worthy changes you should make to your life in the coming year. Whether it’s getting healthy by hitting the gym or getting organized with new processes at at the office, chances are your musings are focusing on how to get your butt in gear to show a little more self-discipline.

But what if forming new less than pleasant habits isn’t a matter of gritting your teeth but actually an occasion to indulge in a few guilty pleasures?

That’s the happy suggestion of a new study written up recently in Knowledge@Wharton. Katherine Milman, a professor at the school, got interested in the idea of indulging your way to better habits when she successfully lured herself into a regular exercise routine by only allowing herself to enjoy light page turners like The Hunger Games while she was sweating it out at the gym. She decided to scientifically explore this idea of pairing less than pleasant new habits with little treats and gave the practice the name "temptation bundling."

Together with Wharton health care management professor Kevin Volpp and Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia Minson, Milkman carried out a study recently published in the paper, “ Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.” What did the team find?

The nine-week temptation bundling study looked at 226 students and faculty who belonged to a university gym, all of whom indicated they wanted to work out more. Participants were divided into three groups: One got iPods loaded with four tempting novels of their choice, but were only allowed to access them at the gym. Those who were part of the second group received the same audiobooks but loaded them on their own iPods and could thus take them home, although they were encouraged to only listen to the devices at the gym. Members of the third group (a control group) were each given a $25 gift card (valued equivalently by this population to the loan of four audiobooks) and were simply encouraged to work out more. The participants selected from 82 pre-tested novels deemed highly tempting, including The Hunger Games trilogy, The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series and The Help.

Initially, the researchers found that those who had gym-only audiobook access attended the gym 51% more than the control group and 29% more than the group encouraged to self-restrict their enjoyment of tempting audio-novels to the gym.

While the study is good news for authors of pulpy paperbacks like Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown, it’s also happy tidings for business owners as it offers a new trick to help you manage to accomplish all sorts of unpleasant tasks. “If you tend to overindulge in pedicures or spend too much time lingering over $5 lattes at a coffee shop and struggle to complete tedious work assignments, you could only treat yourself to pedicures or lattes when working on dreaded assignments,” suggests the Knowledge@Wharton write up by way of example.

The technique might amount, basically, to self-bribery, but who cares as long as it works to get us to tackle our most dreaded tasks.

What unpleasant to-do list items could you bundle with a favorite indulgence?

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