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Stimulus Bundling for Good and Evil

If you enjoy something, you’ll tend to do it more often.

Obviously.

However, there tend to be a lot of things that you know are good for you, but that aren’t exactly enjoyable. Today we’re going to try to fix that through a technique I call Stimulus Bundling; the goal of which is to make those healthy but boring things more enjoyable.

The example I’ll be using today is exercise, but it can also apply to any number of other things: cooking rather than eating out, working on your side project or hobby, reading instead of watching TV, etc.

The basic idea is simple: bundle together something you genuinely enjoy with something you want to enjoy.

We can also use this technique for the opposite case as well, for trying to eliminate things you know are bad for you but that are enjoyable. I’ll discuss that at the end.

People vs Dogs

All we’re really doing here is using Classical Conditioning, AKA Pavlovian Conditioning, to modify your response to stimuli. You have probably heard about it from the example of Pavlov’s dogs.

Ivan Pavlov ran an experiment in which he conditioned dogs to salivate in response to a totally unrelated stimulus (a buzzer, as it’s usually related, though I couldn’t find a direct confirmation). He did this by setting the buzzer off every time the dogs were fed so that later the dogs began to anticipate food whenever they heard the buzzer. The dogs learned to associate the buzzer with food directly.

Humans are smarter than dogs [citation needed] but the same general principle applies to us as well. Bundle together the things that are good but boring with the things you find enjoyable. Eventually, you will be trained to enjoy them both.

Positive Training In Practice

At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m an idiot, because obviously everybody knows that. Lots of people set up rewards for themselves whenever they stick to their goals. Whenever they workout they reward themselves with a smoothie, or ice cream, or a day off of working out.

Well, that’s not the same thing. That methodology (of rewards and punishments) is Operant Conditioning and while it can be used to influence behavior it doesn’t necessarily encourage you to enjoy the act.

The goal should not be to mollify yourself after you’ve done something you don’t like, it should be to train yourself to start enjoying it.

Classical Conditioning can help us do that. And once we start enjoying it we’ll start doing it more without having to exert any unnecessary Willpower.

Classical Conditioning works best when the two stimuli are done either concurrently or very close together (i.e. on the order of seconds), so rewarding yourself after the fact isn’t going to help. The goal then is to find something you can do concurrently with the difficult activity.

What you pair with your difficult activity is up to you, but you should pick something that is enjoyable and is not directly bad for you.

I’ve always found that the best things to pair with exercise, or other relatively monotonous work, are things you can listen to or watch while your exercise. For example, you could listen to or watch:

  • An audiobook
  • Your favorite TV show
  • An informational podcast
  • Or music

After a few sessions, you’ll start to associate working out with the enjoyment you get from those entertainments. And every time you see references to your entertainment you’ll start to crave a workout.

This effect sticks around for quite a long time. For a month or two back in college, I listened to one particular album on repeat while working out on an exercise bike a few times a week. It was probably 10-20 workouts total.

It’s been half a decade but I still feel like working out whenever I hear those songs.

The real key to building this association is the more difficult part: whatever you pick, do it as little as possible outside of your paired activity.

Keep them exclusive as much as possible. If you’re watching your favorite TV show(s) while you’re on the treadmill, don’t watch them while you’re not. You’ll get the added incentive to go workout just so you get to see what happens next, and you’ll cement the association faster.

Negative Training In Practice

As much as you can use this technique for making healthy activities enjoyable, you can also use this for making unhealthy enjoyable things even more addictive.

Using the same principle above, what do you think happens when you spend a few evenings a week watching your favorite TV show and eating dessert?

Those two things become very enjoyable for you. A few days a week turns into every single day, and it becomes difficult to only watch TV and not eat dessert with it.

This is what fast food companies catch you with using a combination of sugar, salt, and fat. Bars take it a step further by adding alcohol into the mix too.

This is what movie theaters do when they teach you that movies must be enjoyed with popcorn and soda. If you have them both together often enough you’ll always need popcorn at the movies or it will feel like something’s missing.

And it’s also what you do to yourself whenever you take your unhealthy things in groups.

Just be aware of what you’re doing to yourself, of how you are conditioning your own expectations.

Rules to Live By

What you need to learn from Stimulus Bundling can be broken down into 3 simple rules.

  • Pair a healthy, boring stimuli with something else that is enjoyable and non-detrimental.
  • Never do one without the other.
  • Don’t pair two unhealthy, enjoyable stimuli together.

Also published on Medium.