Skip to content
Personal Growth

Use Behavioral Economics to Trick Yourself into Breaking Bad Habits

If you’re the kind of person who chronically abandons New Year’s resolutions, try “temptation bundling” in 2016.

If you’ve committed yourself to a New Year’s resolution, it’s imperative to set yourself on a path to success. It’s one thing to say you’re going to do something; it’s a whole other to plan it out.

Fans of the Freakonomics podcast are probably familiar with the work of behavioral economist Katherine Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School at Penn, as well as the focus of said podcast’s 2015 New Year’s re-broadcast:

Milkman’s research sets a keen eye on willpower by examining ways in which regular people can establish incentive-based systems to help improve their lives. For Freakonomics, Milkman summarized a study in which her team tested an idea called “temptation bundling,” described as the coupling of two activities, “one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive.” 

Many people already employ a system similar to Milkman’s temptation bundling. Maybe you reward yourself with a beer after you clean your apartment, or indulge in a piece of chocolate post-workout. In Milkman’s system, those two activities become exclusively entwined.

“On average, the first group of subjects maintained their exercise regimen over a longer span of time than the two control groups, presumably because they had become engrossed in a very addictive book.”

Her experiment involved three groups of students who expressed interest in getting more exercise. One of those groups was given access to an iPod with the audiobook version of The Hunger Games, and was encouraged to listen to it while working out. The catch was that the subjects could only access the iPod when they were at the university gym, meaning that if they wanted to know what happened next in the story, they had to exercise to find out. The two control groups either were given The Hunger Games on their personal iPod or were simply encouraged to exercise at the gym. 

On average, the first group of subjects maintained their exercise regimen over a longer span of time than the two control groups, presumably because they had become engrossed in a very addictive book. The urge to learn what becomes of Katniss Everdeen served as the temptation that carried them to the gym. 

If you’re a Freakonomics fan, or just want to learn more about the hidden side of regular life, check out our videos featuring Stephen J. Dubner:

Milkman notes that the study was not a complete success. As the experiment occurred over a semester’s length of time, the time off over Thanksgiving broke many of the students’ new exercise habits, indicating that perhaps the bundling technique requires a certain degree of routine to work. There’s also the fact that people with less willpower can probably circumvent the system. How hard would it be to just download The Hunger Games audiobook on your own device?

Still, Milkman’s system proves to be an interesting look into how someone can tinker with the power of incentives in order to help build new habits. Other examples offered on the Freakonomics podcast include only listening to your favorite music when doing chores and only eating at your favorite restaurant if you bring along a family member with whom you should be spending more time.

If you’ve set a New Year’s goal, perhaps think of a way to incorporate temptation bundling in your battle plan. If the resolution is to lose weight, think of something fun to lump together with exercise. Then, instead of making the resolution the focus of your endeavor, allow your struggle to be with maintaining the bundle. Instead of worrying about how your diet is going, concern yourself with how you’ll only watch Netflix when eating vegetables.

By recontextualizing the pursuit of your goals and toying with incentives, you can set yourself on track to beat the odds and keep your resolutions.

As many as 25 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions abandon their goals after a week. That number spikes to around half after a few months, as old habits and inertia reconquer the lives of irresolute commitment-makers. An unsuccessful resolution is almost always a failure to replace an old habit with a newer, more desirable one, and this failure, in turn, is almost always the result of poor planning.

Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin recently spoke to us all about the nature of habits and how we can overcome them: 

Photo credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock


Robert Montenegro is a writer and dramaturg who regularly contributes to Big Think and Crooked Scoreboard. He lives in Washington DC and is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Twitter: @Monteneggroll. Website:


Up Next