By Shirin Oreizy
If January is the month of giddy good intentions, April is the month of sober realities. Gyms report getting 12 percent of their entire year’s worth of membership in January. By late February, regulars can count on getting a turn on the StairMaster again. But even if you’re off course, don’t fret. Use some simple psychology to get back on track.
In my design and marketing firm, we look to the latest research in behavioral science -- the study of how people really make decisions -- to create sites and marketing strategies that help companies connect with and motivate their users. It turns out that understanding consumer psychology isn’t just good for corporations -- it can also help people transform habits.
During one of our strategy sessions, we tapped into behavioral science to help our team meet some of their more elusive goals. In particular, we honed in on a self-control strategy called “temptation bundling,” published in 2014 by Katherine Milkman.
In the study, people wanted to listen to an audio version of “The Hunger Games.” Their "should" was working out at the gym. The study made sure that the only way the subjects could access their favorite page-turner was by hopping on the treadmill. By linking their "wants" to their "shoulds," the temptation bundlers visited the gym 51 percent more often than those in the control group.
Consider applying this simple intervention to your own goals. Productivity has never been so pain-free.
Step one: Create a list of seven to 10 things you want to do. Watch trashy TV? Check. Order pepperoni pizza? Yep, put it down. Getting paperwork together for your taxes? Uh, no. Don’t even think about it. Even if they’re overdue, your taxes have no business on this to-do list. The idea for the "want" column is to acknowledge the things that give you pure pleasure. (So actually, if you’re a numbers dude, you theoretically could go ahead and put your taxes down here. No judgment.)
Step two: Create a list of things you should do. Write this column right next to the "wants" column. Keep it even. If you only have eight "wants", limit yourself to eight "shoulds." Remember, this list is totally up to you. At Next Step, we've noticed that the same item -- cooking -- showed up on both sides of the column, both pleasure and pain. For our copywriter, cooking was a joy; for our CEO, it was another chore to knock off an already long to-do list.
Step three: Connect each "want" with a "should." The idea is to bundle pleasure with productivity. You could do this step on your own, but we found that having another set of eyes on your world really helped expand it (both in making new connections and facilitating team bonding). Some weird but effective results of our team’s temptation bundling:
- Every time our project manager calls her mom (a should) she gets some pizza (a want).
- Every time our developer goes out shopping (a want) she gets there by riding the city’s hills (a should).
- Every time our founder sorts socks (a should) she watches Netflix (a want).
Why does this simple trick work? Because bundling temptations helps you overcome “time inconsistency,” the notion that we all tend to value immediate rewards much more than future ones. (It’s far easier to binge-watch “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” than brighten up a resume).
How’d we do? Like the research group that boosted its gym attendance, our experiment also generated some positive results. The good news is that Molly’s mom is finally up to date on her daughter’s skyrocketing career. The bad? She’s gained three pounds.
Shirin Oreizy is the founder of Next Step, a design firm that uses the latest research in behavioral science to create websites, user interfaces, brand identities and campaigns that drive user behavior.