When Willpower Isn’t Enough (Ep. 200)

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(Photo: d26b73)

(Photo: d26b73)

One of the most compelling talks I saw at this year’s American Economics Association conference was by Katherine Milkman, an assistant professor at the Wharton School at Penn. She holds a joint Ph.D. in computer science and business, but her passion is behavioral economics — and, specifically, how its findings can be applied to help people in their daily lives. Milkman and her research are the focus of our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Milkman’s AEA presentation came during a session chaired by Richard Thaler, who is widely (and justifiably) considered the dean of behavioral economics. (Thaler, a co-author of the excellent Nudge, has a new book out this spring called Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics; I’ve read an early draft and eagerly recommend it.) Whereas Thaler and his peers used to have to spend a lot time persuading their fellow economists that there was room in their field for psychology, it was obvious that, for a younger scholar like Milkman, persuasion isn’t part of the pitch. As we’ve noted in a few recent podcast episodes (namely “Hacking the World Bank” and “The Maddest of Men“), behavioral economics has been so broadly embraced that we’ve dispensed with the justification of it and moved on the applications.

Milkman’s research is motivated by personal experience. “In short,” she tells us, “I struggle a lot with willpower. And I find it difficult at the end of a long day to get to the gym, I find it difficult to stick to my diet, I find it difficult to stick to my goals more generally. And … one of the things I’ve found curious is why, and what I can do to solve those problems for myself and for others. And that’s where a lot of my research focuses.”

In the podcast, we talk primarily about two of Milkman’s ideas:

1. “Temptation bundling”: the idea of tying together two activities — one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. Or, as Milkman describes it in a research paper (co-authored with Julia Minson and Kevin Volpp), “a method for simultaneously tackling two types of self-control problems by harnessing consumption complementarities. The paper is called “Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.” Among the examples Milkman gives in the podcast: “So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favorite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of.”

2. The “fresh start effect”: here’s how Milkman and co-authors Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis explain it in “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior”:

The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks. If true, this little-researched phenomenon has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment. Across three archival field studies, we provide evidence of a “fresh start effect.” We show that Google searches for the term “diet” (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3) all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the outset of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday). We propose that these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.

Along the way, you’ll hear Milkman present evidence that the fresh start effect and temptation bundling actually work; you’ll also hear from plenty of people who’ve tried such tricks on themselves. One thing they all have in common: they’ve come to accept that sometimes willpower, as appealing a trait as it is, sometimes just isn’t enough.

Special thanks to Shira Bannerman and Tyler Pratt for reporting on this episode.


This podcast made me think about something that I've been doing for a long time, but could be considered "temptation bundling". I like to run for fitness, but it can be hard to find the motivation to get out the door. I also like to do stuff with friends after work, but that often meant that I didn't get to the gym or out for a run. Then I started running with a running club, and the people I run with became good friends, and now running and hanging out with friends are the same activity! The fact that I've now run 7 marathons is confirmation that this form of bundling works.


I don't think that's really temptation bundling, at least if I properly understood the concept. TB is combining something you enjoy with a chore, no? So if you actually enjoy running, that's the temptation that you'd bundle with something else. Just as I have to exert a certain amount of willpower, and bundle the temptation of getting paid, to avoid skipping work to go hiking, biking, skiing &c.


Joanna's example is on the mark, James. “Temptation bundling”: the idea of tying together two activities — one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive." Neither activity has to be "a chore."

Stacy Braslau-Schneck

Loved this!

But I can't believe the name "Premack" was never once mentioned!


A minor, and somewhat off-topic, question with the exercise experiment. I find that when I try to listen to things, or have other distractions while working out, that my workout seems much less effective. (I think because it distracts me from the visualization component.) Was there any attempt to track how effective the various groups were?


I listening to this entire podcast while walking to the train on my way to work. Both the walk and the podcast were about 30 minutes. The closest 'el stop for me is 6 minutes away. What accounts for the other 24 minutes? I walked north, three stops away from my local stop. What does this have to do with your podcast? I realized that what I was doing was a kind of negative incentive. I dislike the crowds at my local station, especially first thing in the morning. The platform is jammed and there's a scrum at the door to get the best seat. Two years ago, I started walking to one station north of my house. Last year I started walking two stations north. The unintended (but happy) result was that I have lost almost 10 pounds and dropped a couple of sizes. If I had decided to take the longer walk for my health, it wouldn't have lasted. But since I'm doing it because I am somewhat misanthropic, I'm perfectly happy to continue to do it. No, I never skipped a day because of snow or cold and in Chicago these past three years, that's saying something.



Temptation bundling still actually requires a good deal of will power, though.

Alison S

I enjoyed this podcast, but noticed that some of the examples your listeners gave weren't temptation bundling - they were delayed gratification. I wish I could apply temptation bundling to my violin practice, alas it requires a lot of concentration and the gratification of seeing any improvement in my performance is definitely delayed.

Matt Sodoma

It does still require a lot of willpower, I think that is where her conversation on having apps or some other system of control to monitior the content/tempting activity comes in. The app would need to make it somewhat difficult or painful to unlock the content, not sure how it would work that is for someone much smarter than me to figure out. It would also need to lock you out on other devices that the app is not loaded on. But essentially, if there were an app that controlled when audible, scribd, or netflix content was available to you based on geographic location (gym) or potentially time specific (only after 8pm). Or even somehow if it was integrated with areas of your home, content is only turned on inside of certain areas of your home (like your home gym), or in your kitchen (meal prepping). Other options would be using the fitbit, only when over a certain # of heart beats per minute the content is available - AKA if you are dogging it in your workout, the show may temporarily stop until you pick up the intesnsity. Would be fun to try out if someone were to develop something like this and actually get it integrated with major media.


David Glance

Unfortunately, as Milkman has shown, temptation bundling does not persist. This is because it is believed that will power is a finite resource and that we suffer from "ego depletion" - basically, if you exert any form of will power or self-control, it makes it harder to do any subsequent task requiring will power.

You can get more detail here where I cover gym attendance and taking online courses


Rachel Crees

I've enjoyed your episodes about Temptation Bundling and Commitment Devices, both of which have focused on personal motivation. I'd love to hear about any research into similar techniques aimed at public service decision making - this stems (pun intended!) from my experience in STEM policy development in the Australian public sector, where the long-term benefits of investment in STEM research and in developing public scientific engagement and literacy repeatedly struggle (fail?) to gain traction in the short-term electoral cycles that motivate elected officials. It strikes me that this is very similar to the nature of individuals to prioritise short-term, "instant gratification" activities (e.g. a shopping spree) over long-term, slow-ROI ones (e.g. saving money).


Enjoyed listening to this podcast. I think there's a lot of truth in Milkman's temptation bundling theory. We probably all do it to a degree. After listening to this podcast, I think I'll be more aware of my own temptation bundling habits. More importantly, I'll try to see if I can get myself to do more temptation bundling in areas of my life that I really want to improve. This raises the question: Why do I temptation bundle with certain things in my life, with notable success, and with other areas I don't use TB to help myself accomplish the things that I want to achieve? There's an author that would be another great person for Stephen Dubner to interview about the topic of habits and how to change them. His name is Charles Duhigg. He wrote the best selling book titled, "The Power of Habit." Just a thought.


The concept of Milkman is not new, but it is good that somebody has done some research on it. There is already even web-app to organize our habits, dailies, to-do and... rewards. I have started using it around 2 weeks ago and has already make a good habit of not being late everywhere (:))


Yep, of course, I forgot link to mentioned app: https://habitrpg.com/


I tried to forward the temptation bundling podcast to a friend using Stitcher and he got the Suicide Paradox. You might want to fix your link on Stitcher. At this point I'm more worried about his health and well being. I'm not sure if he's still alive :)
If this method is proven to be effective in knocking off friends then as you can imagine I've got a few other folks I may introduce to your podcast thru Stitcher.


Can I get a list of the addictive books?

Caroline English

You can find the full list in Table A.3 (p. 298) in Katherine Milkman's paper "Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling": http://pubsonline.informs.org/stoken/default+domain/freakonomics/full/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784




I live in Melbourne, Australia and we have an interesting use of the fresh start effect. At the end of daylight savings when you change your clock back, our fire authorities also ask us to change the batteries in our fire alarms - change your clock, change your smoke alarm batteries. It's always on a Sunday night, it's April, so summer holidays are over and it's just before winter which is the peak for house fires. It's a great strategy.


I typically listen to your podcast while cleaning or working in the garage. While I as in the middle of thebroadcast I realized it reminded me of a book that I had learned about while listening to another NPR show. The book was called "The Power of Habit, why we do what we do in life and business," by Charles Duhigg. Admittedly I did not finish the book. However, the first three chapters are about the habits of individuals and the reward cycle. It seems to me that the way the book talks about changing your habits by using the reward cycle, is similar to tempatation bundling. Thanks for the great topic.