Temptation Bundling in the Practice Room

Temptation Bundling in the Practice Room

What is “temptation bundling” and how can we use it in the practice room?

Temptation bundling is when we take something that we’re not excited about doing and pair it with something that we really want. Katherine Milkman, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, defines temptation bundling as

the coupling of instantly gratifying “want” activities (e.g., watching the next episode of a habit-forming television show, checking Facebook, receiving a pedicure, eating an indulgent meal) with engagement in a “should” behavior that provides long-term benefits but requires the exertion of willpower (e.g., exercising at the gym, completing a paper review, spending time with a difficult relative).

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured host Stephen Dubner interviewing Katherine Milkman about how temptation bundling can encourage us to make better choices (“When Willpower Isn’t Enough“). In her research at the University of Pennsylvania, Milkman found that people were far more likely to reach their exercise goals when going to the gym was paired with listening to an addicting book on tape. (Holding the Hunger Games Hostage At the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.)

As I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking about how musicians can use behavioral economic theory in the practice room.

Temptation bundling is appealing because we tie something pleasurable with the work that needs to be done. (I talked about this somewhat is the blog post about how I motivate myself “Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.”) Some examples of temptation bundling in the practice room are

  1. Giving yourself a small reward for reaching a practice goal. This could be something small like eating a piece of chocolate or playing a few minutes of your favorite electronic game.

    temptation bundling

    massage balls

  2. Keep your instrument and music next to you while watching TV. When a commercial comes on, mute the TV and practice until the commercials are over. This works equally well for adults and kids. For every hour of broadcast TV, there are about 15 minutes of commercials!
  3. While practicing, roll massage balls under your feet. I like to do this while I’m practicing long tones.

“Commitment devices” are a cousin of temptation bundles. When we use commitment devices, we are setting up things that help us practice. Unlike temptation bundling, the linked activity does not have to be pleasant. Stephen Dubner and co-author Steven Levitt define commitment devices as “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” These can be useful sometimes, but we have to be careful not to over-use the unpleasant ones. Some examples of commitment devices in the practice room:

  1. Scheduling practice time in your daily calendar. Add an alarm to help you remember.
  2. Set a timer and don’t let yourself get up from the chair until the timer goes off.
  3. Tell someone about your practice goal(s) and ask them to keep you accountable. To make the commitment even stronger, you can create a punishment if you don’t reach your goal. I read about a man who told all his friends he was going to quit smoking. If he failed, he would give a large sum of money to “a horrible little communist organization.” He hasn’t touched a cigarette since.


Ultimately, our practicing needs to be internally motivated. We play because we love music. It moves us. It makes us better human beings.

But sometimes I’m not feeling very spiritual about my practicing. There are bad days when practicing feels like the last thing I want to do. However, musicians know that we must practice regularly to keep our muscles strong and our skills sharp. For those days when we don’t feel like practicing, “temptation bundling” and “commitment devices” might be the only way I am able to drag myself into the practice room. Those massage balls are sounding particularly nice right now…

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