How I Used the “Temptation Bundling” Method to Finally Get My Exercise Routine to Stick

published May 9, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

I started listening to “Atomic Habits” on audiobook two years ago as I was painting the common areas in our house. To this day, I find myself remembering the strategies and techniques author James Clear discusses. The book made such an impression on me that I bought a hard copy for my personal library. 

My biggest takeaway from the book, which should come as no surprise because of its title, is that tiny changes can yield truly astounding results. It’s incredibly empowering to realize you have the ability to do whatever you want, or, as Clear would have us say, become whoever you want to be

One thing I’ve never been is an exerciser. But, listen, once 40 hit, especially because it hit during a pandemic, I started thinking about becoming one. 

I tried. I had so many fits and starts of things that sort of stuck for a little while. I went through a stint of walking 10,000 steps a day (it’s harder than it sounds when you’re a writer and you work from home!) and a couple months of HIIT training with an app. I even used my New Year, new start energy to do Yoga with Adriene for a good three weeks every night. But each of these attempts fizzled out before they could crystalize into a solid habit. 

One of James Clear’s strategies addresses this exact feeling of still not wanting to do the thing you are trying to do. Temptation bundling addresses this lack of willpower, harnessing your desire to do something you enjoy in order to spur action toward the habit you want to create. 

Clear writes, “Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need do.” He goes on to explain, “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.”

The practice might seem like you’re simply tricking yourself into doing something you hate (hey, I’m not above that!) but it’s actually rooted in a psychology theory called Premack’s Principle, which states, “More probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.” So this practice goes deeper than merely giving yourself a treat when you do something you don’t like doing. Rather, tying your desired habit to something you already enjoy makes it more likely that you’ll do it and even, as I discovered, want to do it. 

I tried this on my journey to becoming a person who exercises, and it’s been one of the most successful techniques yet. I began watching a show that I liked but only let myself watch it while doing my Couch to 5K on the treadmill. Premack’s Principle sprung into action: Before I knew it, I found myself craving a treadmill session. Who am I now?? 

Even if an exercise routine isn’t what you’re trying to implement, temptation bundling can serve you in any area of life you struggle to make consistent. For instance, you could choose an audiobook thriller to listen to — but only allow yourself to indulge while you tackle the laundry. Before you know it, you’ll be caught up on laundry perpetually. 

Forming habits isn’t about the sheer power of your will or the strength of your determination. Often, it’s about finding the way that works for you to make that habit easier. Temptation bundling is a powerful one.