Ronan Byrne, an electrical engineering student in Dublin, Ireland, enjoyed watching Netflix, but he also knew that he should exercise more often than he did. Putting his engineering skills to use, Byrne hacked his stationary bike and connected it to his laptop and television. Then he wrote a computer program that would allow Netflix to run only if he was cycling at a certain speed. If he slowed down for too long, whatever show he was watching would pause until he started pedaling again. He was, in the words of one fan, “eliminating obesity one Netflix binge at a time.”
He was also employing temptation bundling to make his exercise habit more attractive. Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need do. In Byrne’s case, he bundled watching Netflix (the thing he wanted to do) with riding his stationary bike (the thing he needed to do).
Businesses are masters at temptation bundling. For instance, when the American Broadcasting Company, more commonly known as ABC, launched its Thursday night television lineup for the 2014–2015 season, they promoted temptation bundling on a massive scale.
Every Thursday, the company would air three shows created by screenwriter Shonda Rhimes—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. They branded it as “TGIT on ABC” (TGIT stands for Thank God It’s Thursday). In addition to promoting the shows, ABC encouraged viewers to make popcorn, drink red wine, and enjoy the evening.
Andrew Kubitz, head of scheduling for ABC, described the idea behind the campaign: “We see Thursday night as a viewership opportunity, with either couples or women by themselves who want to sit down and escape and have fun and drink their red wine and have some popcorn.” The brilliance of this strategy is that ABC was associating the thing they needed viewers to do (watch their shows) with activities their viewers already wanted to do (relax, drink wine, and eat popcorn).
Over time, people began to connect watching ABC with feeling relaxed and entertained. If you drink red wine and eat popcorn at 8 p.m. every Thursday, then eventually “8 p.m. on Thursday” means relaxation and entertainment. The reward gets associated with the cue, and the habit of turning on the television becomes more attractive.
You’re more likely to find a behavior attractive if you get to do one of your favorite things at the same time. Perhaps you want to hear about the latest celebrity gossip, but you need to get in shape. Using temptation bundling, you could only read the tabloids and watch reality shows at the gym. Maybe you want to get a pedicure, but you need to clean out your email inbox. Solution: only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” In other words, even if you don’t really want to process overdue work emails you’ll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.
How to Create Your Temptation Bundle
There is a simple exercise you can use to boost your willpower and figure out your own temptation bundling strategy.
You're going to create a two-column list:
In column one, write down the pleasures you enjoy and the temptations that you want to do.
In column two, write down the tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but often procrastinate on.
Take your time and write down as many behaviors as possible. Then, browse your list and see if you can link one of your instantly gratifying “want” behaviors with something you “should” be doing.
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