How Productivity is Like Puppy Potty Training: Temptation Bundling

If you give a puppy a treat every time she pees outside, pretty soon she’ll put two and two together. Rather than pee in the house, she’ll hold her urine until she can cash it in for treats. Now the question is, can we humans trick ourselves into the same kind of behavior? Can we create a reward system that motivates and incentives us to do things we don’t want to do but know we should?

Tricking Yourself Into Getting Stuff Done

Two researchers from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and one from The Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University, came up with the term “temptation bundling” to describe a new way of creating motivation. They thought there might be value in coupling “should” behaviors with “want” behaviors. 

For example, maybe you should call you mother back, but what you really want is a pedicure. The solution? Get a pedicure and call your mother at the same time. You end up rewarding yourself for calling your mother, and you start to associate calling your mother with luxurious foot massages and toenail painting.

In their study, the researchers, led by Katherine Milkman, bundled working out at a gym (the “should”) with listening to audio books (the “want”). Some participants were restricted to only listening to audiobooks when they were at the gym. Others got the audiobooks and were encouraged to listen to them while working out, but they weren’t required. A third group of participants were the control group.

The audiobook-gym setup is intriguing in relation to productivity because going to the gym ought to be a long-term behavior, and it requires will-power. Exercising is only valuable if you do it repeatedly and often, and the benefits are largely long-term. 

Similarly, the audiobooks that participants in this study heard while exercising were, as the researchers put it “low-brow, page-turners.” 

Also, audiobooks are in chapters, designed to hook the participants in wanting to come back for more. If you were to only listen to the audiobooks without exercising, you might think of it as being a guilty pleasure and a waste of time. But when you bundle it with exercising, the workouts become tempting, or so the theory goes.

Does Temptation Bundling Work? 

Did temptation bundling work? 

It did! 

Well, it worked at first. 

Those who could only listen to the audiobooks at the gym went 51 percent more often than the control group, and the group that was encouraged but not required to listen to the books at the gym went 29 percent more frequently. The results were all well and good until Thanksgiving, when the effects declined.

One final interesting note from this study is that after it was over, “61 percent of participants opted to pay to have gym-only access to tempting audio novels.” In other words, they noticed that the setup was indeed motivational, and they wanted some kind of gatekeeper (a fee in this case) help their future self stick to the rule of only listening to the audiobooks while working out.


Milkman, Katherine L., Julia A. Minson, Kevin G. M. Volpp (2013). “Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.” Management Science, Articles in Advance, pp. 1-17, INFORMS.

Photo by Henrie Tsai, CC.


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