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Temptation Bundling, or why broccoli with ice cream doesn’t work for me

August 19, 2015

The Temptation of St Anthony – unknown artist

I very rarely have a visceral reaction to a business fad that causes me to describe it as codswallop – or worse. But so it was when I read a piece in Business Insider about how “A Wharton professor discovered a psychological trick that will help you stop procrastinating”.

The theory, it seems, is that if you bundle two activities – one that you don’t enjoy and are forever putting off, and another that you love – you will end up doing the thing that you would otherwise avoid.

Professor Kate Milkman came up with this stunning concept:

“I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done.

And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems.”

Other examples quoted include listening to audio-books while working out, clearing work emails while getting a pedicure, only watching TV favourites while doing the ironing, and combining a meal  at a favourite restaurant with meeting a difficult colleague.

The fancy name for this technique is temptation bundling.

That the Wharton professor is a woman is probably not surprising. When I ran some of these ideas past my wife, she thought they were great. She already irons while watching TV, and would be very happy to do what she does with her IPad while her feet receive some welcome attention. She is, in other words, a dedicated multi-tasker. The good professor can’t teach her anything.

I, on the other hand, have great difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time. While I was writing this, I was listening to some music. I had to switch it off so that I could concentrate on a serious subject. No great loss, because I wasn’t really listening to it. It just got in the way.

What really sends me into orbit is the idea that for every pleasurable experience we should have to go through pain, and that the pleasure and the pain should be administered at the same time. What kind of rubbish is that? The same kind of rubbish that we dish out to our kids when we tell them that they can watch TV for half an hour after they’ve eaten their broccoli, but with a particularly cruel twist. While they endure the ordeal of chomping through mouthfuls of green mush they can watch Sesame Street. How can anyone enjoy Sesame Street when they’re eating broccoli?

So I’m supposed to refrain from eating in my favourite restaurant until I have the company of my least favourite person. How, pray, am I going to enjoy an exquisite pasta when I have some weasel-faced waster in front of me whose every utterance makes me want to pour the food over his head?

Let’s consider some other temptation bundles that might put us on the path of rectitude. Eating an ice cream while mowing the lawn, perhaps. Sorry, doesn’t work – the ice cream melts into the mower and you get splattered with red and white goo. Having endless skype business calls while on holiday? Done that all too often – the combination degrades the call and the holiday. Answering emails while on a date? I haven’t been on a date with anyone other than my wife since before emails existed, but I can imagine the enthusiastic reaction of the object of my desire.

Enough! To hell with productivity and to hell with procrastination. If something is worth doing, be it pleasure or chore, it’s worth giving it one’s full attention. We half-do too any things in the name of efficiency. Perhaps that’s why we don’t spend enough time considering whether something’s worth doing in the first place.

All of which perhaps explains why I could never be a Wharton professor or an inspirational speaker. I’d end up laughing at the nonsense that came out of my head. And anyway, ironing and watching TV at the same time is way too complicated for a man with my limited powers of concentration.

The only temptation bundles I’m really good at are combining pleasure with other pleasure. Obligations and chores don’t get a look in. Enjoying a good cheese and gazing at my lovely wife. Guzzling ice cream at the cinema. Seafood in a restaurant overlooking an Aegean bay.

That kind of multitasking I’m really good at. Anything else, it’s one task at a time. Self-flagellation while indulging in a pleasurable act has far too many overtones for my taste. So I will continue with the fight against procrastination in my own way: do nothing, have an ice cream and hope that the broccoli goes away.

From → Business, Social

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