The No-Fail Way to Motivate Yourself to Go to the Gym, According to Science

There's a gulf of difference between the things we know we should do and the things that we actually do on a daily basis. Sometimes, there's simply no way we can motivate ourselves to tackle the most pesky of chores, but what if there were a way to change that? If you're looking for a lifestyle change, you may just have found it.

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You’re on the trek home from the office and all geared up for an intense workout session. Your bag’s packed full with gym stuff and you feel pumped. Then something odd happens. As you walk toward the shiny glass doors of the gym, your feet seem to disconnect from your brain. Rather than heading swiftly inside, they change direction and start walking you toward your home. You don’t even fight it. “Oh well, there’s always tomorrow,” you think and resign yourself to yet another evening on the couch.

Whether it’s exercising after a long, grueling day at the office or spending just a few hours a week learning a new language, we all have things that we put off. It’s a bizarre paradox. We know that we should do these things and, in some cases, we actively want to do them, but that doesn’t mean that we’re willing to put in the time and effort.

If this scenario sounds all-too-familiar to you, the solution may be easier than you imagine. Katherine Milkman, associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, coined a term and theory that you can use to spur yourself on when it comes to these pesky little chores. ‘Temptation bundling’ is something that many people use without even knowing it. According Milkman’s theory, “Valuable healthy behaviors could be increased, while guilt and wasted time from indulgent behaviors decreased, through the use of temptation bundling.”

So, what exactly is it? In short, this theory means ‘bundling’ things that you want along with the things that you have to do. For example, you might only be able to have a tasty chocolate bar while you’re studying. Having the temptation so closely linked with the chore simply means you’re more likely to tackle it.

Here’s the science. Along with another Wharton professor Kevin Volpp and a Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia Minson, Milkman conducted an experiment with students as participants. Each student claimed that they wanted to exercise more, but lacked motivation. Next, the researchers split the participants into three groups. Participants in the first group had an iPod full of audio books they could only access while at the gym, while the second group had the audio books loaded onto their personal devices, meaning they could access them as they pleased. The third group (the control group) were simply given a $25 gift card and encouraged to exercise more.

By the end of the eight-week long study, those in the first group attended the gym 51 percent more than the control group and 29 percent more than the second group. “We find that attendance rates increased meaningfully and significantly with access to the temptation bundling program, suggesting that temptation bundling creates value,” explains the paper. What that means is that when people’s access to temptation was restricted to gym-only periods, they were more likely to workout.

Ready to make a change? The takeaway here is that by linking the things that you enjoy (be it audio books, snacks, or games) to the chores that you usually don’t do, you can change your lifestyle. If you’ve been looking for a little motivation in your life, you might just have found it.

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