Woman with headphones

Increase your motivation with temptation bundling

Today was supposed to be a "go out and exercise" day. But it's cold. And raining. And this bed is warm. And I don't want to go out and exercise.

Ever had this conversation with yourself? If you are anything like me, you have probably had the debate repeatedly. The barrier: there is no reason for me to go out and exercise. Why would I want to?

Long term gain provides little comfort

I discuss the benefits of exercise in my book Technical Anxiety. And, of course, we already know most of them anyway. Let's recap:

  • Exercise makes you physically healthier
  • Exercise makes you less likely to be ill
  • Exercise improves your mental health
  • Exercise reduces depression and anxiety
  • Exercise will make you live longer

These are all brilliant benefits. Who would not want them? However, they are also far in the future. We know, in an academic sense, that working out will benefit us, but where is the benefit right now? Why should I get out of this bed this moment? There is no immediate reward.

It is not strictly true that there is no immediate benefit: once we get out there, we feel much better. Anxiety is a memory disorder, though. Our memory conveniently omits this fact when it is helping us make the decision to go out or not.

What we need is some desire to go out. That is the dream, right? To wake up and think "I really want to go out and exercise today!".

How can we create this desire? One solution may be temptation bundling.

What is temptation bundling?

Temptation bundling is the idea that we put something that we desire, in with something that we are not well-motivated to do. For example, let's say you have a very engaging audiobook on your MP3 player. What if you could only listen to this at the gym?

The idea is by restricting yourself to only getting the gain in certain situations, you are more motivated to put yourself in that situation. "It might be cold outside: but I desperately want to find out what happens next!".

It is not a reward: something you get after working out. It is something that you get during working out, that make the whole experience more pleasurable.

Does it work?

Yes, it does. The situation I described, the audiobooks at the gym, is the exact experiment carried out by Katherine Milkman, Julia Minson and Kevin Volpp.

They gave participants some tempting audiobooks and told them they could only use them at the gym. The result? Those with the restrictions spent far more time working out than the group who were told they could listen to the audiobooks whenever they wanted.

They published the study in a paper named Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling1.

We do not have the benefit of people in lab coats telling us the rules. However, it is worth noting that participants were not under close supervision, so could have cheated if they had wanted to.

How can I use temptation bundling in my life?

The key is to find something that you like and bundle it in with something you want to do, but encounter resistance. Below, I have outlined some examples.

Temptation But only when...
Listening to your favourite music Going for a run
Playing games on your tablet You are out in the fresh air
Wearing your favourite outfit You are in challenging social situations
Checking Facebook At the library studying


Temptation bundling can be a powerful tool for motivating yourself. Cultivating a desire to exercise and look after yourself is considered the dream elixir to many of us, and temptation building could be the key.


Published 3 April 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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  1. Katherine L. Milkman, Julia A. Minson, Kevin G. M. Volpp. Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science 201460:2, 283-299. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784 ↩︎