Given my interest in want/should conflict and in improving decisions, it was perhaps inevitable that much of my work would eventually focus on decisions relating to health. A 2002 paper published in Health Affairs highlighted that behavioral patterns are responsible for 40 percent of premature deaths (compare that with environmental exposure, which can be blamed for only 5 percent of premature deaths). If we could just convince people to make less impulsive choices—to exercise more, to eat better, to quit smoking (or never start), and to visit their doctors for advised checkups, we could extend so many lives! 

So I began doing research with the goal of convincing people to make healthier choices. First, I ran experiments with a company called Evive Health, which sends thousands of people reminders to take valuable preventive health measures like getting a flu shot or a colonoscopy when it is medically advisable to do so. My co-authors and I found that something as simple as including a prompt in a reminder letter encouraging people to think through the exact date and time when they planned to engage in a given health behavior (i.e., getting a flu shot or colonoscopy) significantly improved follow-through. 

I later ran a study at my university’s gym to prove the value of an idea I’d long employed to increase my own gym attendance. To explain the idea, let me divulge two of my shortcomings: First, I wish I exercised more but lack the willpower, and second, I have a thing for trashy novels (think Twilight) but feel guilty wasting my time reading junk. Through a strategy I’ve dubbed “temptation bundling,” I can solve both of these problems: I only allow myself to read trashy novels while exercising at the gym. As a result, I’ve stopped wasting time at home on literary garbage and started craving trips to the gym to find out what happens next in my latest trashy novel. Not only that, but I enjoy my novel and my workout more combined—I don’t feel guilty reading the novel, and time flies at the gym. 

Related media content: 

Temptation Bundling (video)
Katherine Milkman
Wharton’s “Iron Professor” Competition

☛ How to Keep Your Resolutions
Katherine Milkman and Kevin Volpp
The New York Times