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It’s cold outside and you’re too lazy to roll out of the warm blankets to hit the gym. That big report deadline is looming, yet you keep putting it off. The fresh vegetables you bought at the top of the week are slowly spoiling, yet for the third day in a row, you order in instead of making a nutritious home-cooked dinner. Sound familiar?

Isn’t it strange how we constantly have to trick our brains into completing tasks that are actually good for us in the long run? This is because our brain prefers the status quo, or the way things are right now. This is a type of cognitive bias or an error in thinking that can make people more likely to pick options that maintain things as they currently are – like ordering in for the third night in a row instead of using those fresh vegetables sitting in the fridge to cook a nutritious home-cooked dinner. Or skipping a gynae appointment because, hey, there’s nothing wrong with me so why go through the effort?

But the problem is that procrastination, fear, or lack of will prevents us from seeking the help we need before an emergency or making lifestyle choices that are best for us.

For example, in 2020, there were 2.3-million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 deaths globally. Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer amongst women globally, followed closely by cervical cancer as the fourth, with an estimated 604 000 new cases and 342 000 deaths from that form of cancer in 2020. However, every year we make excuses not to visit a health practitioner at least once a year, more frequently above the age of 50. 

The science of rewards and incentives toward good health

Science tells us that it would be less ‘painful’ to do the right thing if you combine the task or what you have to do, with something you enjoy or what you love to do. Wharton Professor Katy Milkman calls it ‘temptation bundling’, a strategy designed to get us to do the things that we’re not so excited about.   

As an economist, Milkman has studied behaviour-change extensively. “The lens is really grounded in some of the basic tenets of economic theory, which say people are rational decision-makers and can weigh costs and benefits and come up with the right calculus to make their choices. What behavioural science adds to that mix is really a recognition that people sometimes make mistakes and that this can happen in systematic and predictable ways, and once we understand that, we can help people make better decisions,” said Milkman, in an interview on the award-winning Big Brains podcast.


Dr Mosima Mabunda, Head of Wellness at Discovery Vitality

Here’s the trick

Temptation bundling is a strategy designed to mobilise us to actually get the things done that we’re not so excited about. A study found that pairing visits to the gym with listening to an audiobook resulted in participants visiting the gym up to 51% more than a control group. The theory is that by bundling access to a hedonistic experience with exercise, exercise is made tempting and more appealing while wasting time and energy on potentially regret-inducing activity is prevented.

With my dreaded annual pap smear and my bi-annual mammogram due, the thought of finding time to make two separate appointments was the excuse I kept using to put it off. So, this year, I booked a massage directly after my pap smear. And I can tell you that temptation bundling works! Because instead of dreading the appointments, I’m looking forward to getting them over and done with so I can get to the business of pampering myself. I’m going to do this every year from now onward. 

Our actions are about creating change

Productivity techniques aside, as Women’s Month comes to a close, women’s health must remain in sharp focus. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta once said that women are the backbone of the family and the bedrock of the nation. The health of a family, a community, a nation is inextricably tied to that of a woman.

And a strategy that has long been advocated as one of the most beneficial is preventive health screenings. Not only can you increase your life expectancy without increasing healthcare costs, you can improve the quality of your life – and also give yourself a fighting chance by detecting potential life-threatening diseases early enough to intervene and prevent premature death.  

It’s important to note, Milkman writes, that while temptation bundling may not be a permanent solution, bundling an inconvenient but necessary and potentially life-saving chore with a treat is the stepping-stone to building good long-term lifestyle habits. It needn’t be a costly exercise, and your treat could be something small – like some new slippers or a luxury bath product – but you will be surprised at how effective it can be. DM/ML



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