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Improve your productivity and accountability with temptation bundling

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Many of us have grand ideas floating around in our minds – a business we want to start, a promotion we’re eyeing at work, a desire to spend more quality time with our kids despite hectic schedules, or a better-looking body. None of these is easy to do. Accomplishing a goal, taking action on an idea, or forming a new habit all take dedication. They don’t happen overnight. But it’s tough to break out of our routines and take the initiative to make real changes because it’s uncomfortable and typically involves upfront work that’s simply not fun. Enter temptation bundling.

The concept of temptation bundling

Temptation bundling is the notion of linking together two activities to accomplish something in our lives. The first activity is something we need to do or should do, but want to avoid or have the tendency to postpone for as long as possible. The second activity is one that we enjoy doing. It’s a hobby we love, a time waster, our “guilty pleasure,” or whatever we do to relax.

The concept of temptation bundling was publicly introduced in a talk by Katherine Milkman at the American Economic Association meeting a couple years ago and then popularized on the Freakonomics podcast.

The main idea is that you can find a way to connect the activity you like doing with the thing you’re dreading or procrastinating on. For example, maybe your house is in dire need of cleaning and you’ve been putting it off for weeks. You’d rather spend a Saturday morning watching Netflix. A bundling solution could be to turn on your Netflix show while you’re dusting the living room furniture. Or watch it on your iPad while you’re cleaning another room.

The result is a win-win-win. You get some cleaning done, you catch up on your favorite series, and – when you do finally slump onto the couch – it will feel twice as nice because you’ve been so productive.

Temptations in the medical profession

The practice of medicine leaves many physicians with “temptations” that lend themselves to this technique. Many of us work long hours, but fail to make progress with certain professional goals because we’re so wiped out at the end of the day. Or we tell ourselves we need to prioritize family time, but urgency of the pile of charts we bring home from work takes precedence time and time again.

These problems often stem from our tendency to let our jobs run our lives. Jobs bring in the paycheck, after all. The truth is, though, that we own our time and we choose how to use it.

3 steps to get started

1Write down your temptations in one list. In another, write down your procrastinations, exasperating obligations, or goals that never seem to come to fruition. Here’s a few possibilities to get you started:


  • Going out for happy hour at the end of long week
  • Vacationing in nice places
  • Crashing in front of the TV after working all day
  • Pursuing social media without any intention
  • Sleeping late on a Saturday morning

Aspirations or behaviors we want more of:

  • Networking professionally
  • Finding a side hustle or extra source of income
  • Increasing knowledge or skills on a certain topic
  • Reading books that will help you professionally
  • Taking concrete steps toward your business goals

2While it’s easy to come up with simple bundles related to healthy habits, using the concept temptation bundling to make real change in our professional lives is a more of a challenge – but worth it. A good place to start is to create a sense of urgency for tasks or projects that don’t have a deadline or tend to take a back burner in your everyday life. For example, maybe you have an idea for a book. You’ve been thinking and jotting notes about it for the last few months, but haven’t gotten yourself to sit down and actually formulate an outline or start writing any sections. And you definitely haven’t seriously considered how you’ll publish it, market it, and other logistics. It’s simply not urgent. Work, laundry, cooking, paying bills.. those all take priority on a day to day basis.

A temptation bundling solution might be to turn a vacation into a writing retreat. Rent a cabin in the woods or a condo at the beach where the surroundings are inspiring and comfortable. Set hours each day when you’ll hold your nose to the grindstone and write the book, blog, or presentation you’ve been putting off. Send the rest of your family out to do something fun during your designated block of time. Without your usual distractions of home, you’re bound to make strides in your writing goals. Being in a location with fresh sources of creativity will make your writing that much better.

The concept is the same if you have zero interest in writing. Hopefully the example gets your mind flowing.

3Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by making drastic changes or lofty bundles right off the bat. Implement something small. Bundles can be simple and still have a substantial impact on your productivity and overall health and happiness. Transformations start with small changes.

Here’s a not-so-drastic example from my own life. I have a voracious sweet tooth, and would have no objection to replacing entire meals with cookies, chocolate, and the like. Clearly, this would not be advisable. As a preventive medicine physician, it would border on hypocritical. A simple temptation bundle allows me to oblige my dessert-loving side while simultaneously meeting the USDA’s hefty daily recommended veggie servings.

My bundle:  I sneak veggies into unhealthy food I make whenever possible. Muffins? They probably have grated zucchini in them. Mint chocolate chip ice cream? Most likely is green due to pureed spinach. Cookies? You can bet they’re full of pumpkin puree if it’s any time between September and December.

Own the changes you make in your life

A final word. Don’t expect your life to change without you actually making any changes.

The main challenge with this idea is that temptation bundling itself requires willpower, planning, and deliberate actions. But there are no high-quality, easy solutions to healthy habits or doing non-fun tasks that need to be done. Like fad diets or get-rich-quick schemes, the easy way out is often not successful in the long run. If you want something in your life, you need to accept the hard work and dedication that’s required to make it happen. Temptation bundling is merely a tool to help you do this.

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