Unless you’re Tony Robbins, finding the motivation to exercise can be tougher than the actual workout itself. Your willpower can be easily defeated by the demands of a family, the responsibilities of work, or even the enticing glow of a TV.
That’s probably why dozens of studies over the last three decades have all found that more than half the people who start an exercise program quit within one year.
Lack of motivation may also play a large role in the reason why 68.8 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.
So are we all screwed? Or is there a way to keep motivation consistently flowing?
The key may be a process called “temptation bundling,” according to a study in Management Science.
The process pairs two activities—one you should do, but avoid; and one you enjoy, but isn’t necessarily productive, explained lead study author Katherine Milkman, associate professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at The Wharton School.
In her 7-week study, Milkman found that participants went to the gym significantly more often when they were given audio books to listen to during their workouts than when they weren’t given them.
The simple act of bundling exercise (the activity you avoid) with an audio book (the activity you enjoy) increased the participants’ willpower to stick to a workout regimen, Milkman explains.
But they weren’t listening to War and Peace. “These books were pre-rated as addictive,” she explained. “So you had books like The DaVinci Code, The Bourne Supremacy, Hunger Games. They were cliffhangers.”
In essence, they were tempting, so the participants looked forward to going to the gym to listen to them.
And the motivational effect was even stronger when the bundling was withheld between training sessions, instead of being self-imposed, Milkman said.
When Milkman’s team locked the audio book devices away in a locker between training sessions, participants worked out 60 percent more often. That number dropped to just 40 percent when the participants were allowed to listen to their books outside of the gym, too.
If you think temptation bundling sounds starkly different from the “No pain, no gain!” philosophy that conventional wisdom has taught us to employ when it comes to exercise, you’d be right.
Instead of forcing yourself to do something you don’t like, you’re turning the activity into a positive one. One that you actually look forward to.
And that’s a much more sustainable approach than telling yourself to just “suck it up!” all the time.
It works so well, in fact, that 60 percent of the study participants said they’d be willing to pay a monthly amount for someone to restrict access to their audio books in order to increase their motivation. On average, the participants said they’d pay $7 to have their temptation locked up.
One participant, however, said they would pay as much as $100 a month.
Stop to think about that: People struggle with workout motivation so much that they’d actually pay someone to take away their own possession if it resulted in more willpower.
You can use temptation bundling outside of the gym, too, Milkman said.
For instance, you could watch an episode of the latest season of Homeland every Sunday night as you iron your work shirts or fold laundry. You could pay bills while cracking a cold beer and tuning into the Monday night game.
Or you could finally catch up with your annoying relative at a restaurant that serves the burgers you always crave, Milkman said.
You can use temptation bundling for almost anything, she said, but you should take into consideration the actual date you start.
Milkman’s co-author, Hengchen Dai, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, has found that temptation bundling may be most effective when it begins on a temporal landmark—or a moment that signals a transitional point in our mind. Think: a new year, your birthday, or even the start of a new season.
“You may feel psychologically different on this day than any regular day,” Dai said. And therefore, “more motivated to start or engage in an activity that helps you reach a goal.”