I’m an endurance athlete with a busy schedule, and a wife terrified of cyclists getting hit by cars. That means a lot of my training goes indoors, including high-effort three-hour bike rides. This might be good for safety and convenience, but it’s questionable for sanity.
During these rides, I’ll catch up on reading about the latest health research for the first two hours, at which point everything (and I mean everything) starts to get uncomfortable. When that happens, out go the medical journals and in come T.I. and 50 Cent. The moment I make the switch, the same effort (measured very objectively by heart-rate and watts) immediately feels easier. I have no doubt that if I didn't have my favorite rap music, the quality of these workouts would suffer.
And there’s behavioral science to back me up. The phenomenon is called “temptation bundling,” which “simultaneously tackles two types of self-control problems by harnessing consumption complementariness.” In other words, take an instantly gratifying, guilty pleasure “want” experience (e.g., browsing Facebook or listening to your favorite pop music) and only allow yourself to indulge in it while you are in the midst of a difficult “should” behavior that yields delayed rewards (e.g., fighting through your workout when things get ugly). Temptation bundling says you’ll be more likely to complete the challenging behavior.
In a University of Pennsylvania study aptly named “Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym,” participants for whom access to “tempting, low-brow audio novels” was restricted to the gym, visited their local fitness center significantly more often than participants who had unlimited access to the same material. At the end of the study, a majority of participants said they would pay for iPods with special settings that could restrict content to a gym setting only.
Here’s how you can harness temptation bundling during your next workout:
Define the point at which your workout gets really, really hard
This is a moving target, and should change over time as your fitness level changes, so it is important to revisit this every few weeks.
Pick Your Pleasure
These should be indulgences that are not essential to your daily life, and that you’d probably benefit from doing less of. Be sure they are practical for coupling with your workout (i.e., watching Scandal or listening to Rihanna generally works better than eating burritos).
It has to be hard
Only allow yourself to engage in your tempting guilty pleasures at the point at which your workout gets really, really hard. This step is critical. If you watch Scandal or listen to Rihanna all the time, or if you incorporate these activities into your workout too early when things are not yet uncomfortable, the effect is lost. Therefore, you must be honest with yourself about how much suffering you can tolerate without aid, and like I alluded to earlier, this “capacity for suffering” should go up over time.
Brad Stulberg is a Population Health consultant for a large integrated health care system. His portfolio of work includes exploring innovative ways to keep people healthy. He moonlights as an endurance athlete. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.