Through studying the psychology of behaviorism and observing human and animal learning in nature (via natural consequence) we can start to understand the basics of how habits can be formed from behaviors that are either positively or negatively reinforced.
Wait just a minute … this sounds similar to how one trains their dog, or teaches a child how to avoid disruptive behaviors and practice good ones.
Bingo! It is exactly the same.
To get kids to brush their teeth, or use polite words, we do this little song and dance where we give them praise or maybe even a reward for doing the desired behavior. This is Positive Reinforcement.
Conversely, perhaps they strike you or another child and find themselves in the infamous “time-out.” This is Negative Reinforcement.
The same goes for our house pets as we are housebreaking them, or teaching them how to be off leash.
You may not realize it, but many of the habits you have today (poor and good) were formed over your life time through these modes of reinforcement, one way or another.
That being the case, it is also important to understand that humans are programmed for repetition. Ever heard the expression of being a “creature of habit?”
Like it or not, we ARE our habits, good and bad!
That all said, we are going to focus solely on Positive Reinforcement. I am a firm believer that you will always catch more fly’s with honey than salt. Plus, it just plain feels better, and the goal of changing a desired behavior or adding a desired behavior is for a positive outcome, no? So why not keep the negative out!
There are also two main categories of reinforcement to consider.
Intrinsic (coming from within; internal,) and Extrinsic (outside the psyche, a physical manifestation.)
Intrinsic reinforcement to give you some examples, could be receiving a compliment from someone, or having a general feeling of euphoria after having completed something. When we are intrinsically reinforced, we feel good for the sake of feeling good.
Extrinsic reinforcement on the other hand could be receiving a reward for a behavior. Example; Johnny brushed his teeth this morning, so he gets a prize from the prize box. Atta boy Johnny.
Intrinsic reinforcement is going to be your go-to for long term benefit and retention of behavior. In fact, it is the backbone of how I train my clients.
I tell them to throw out all they know about numbers, and what their body image is, and instead, begin to focus internally. “How do you feel?” When you start to feel good about yourself and what you are doing, you no longer run the risk of lapsing due to being discouraged by a lack of physical representation of reward, because your reward can not be taken away and you provided it to yourself.
However … latching onto those good feelings initially can be tough, and not everyone is equipped and or ready to jump right into that.
With that in mind, Extrinsic motivation can be the perfect spring board to get you feeling good and practicing intrinsic motivation.
To provide yourself a good extrinsic reward you should pick something that is meaningful to you. I do not recommend food. Food should be enjoyed as sustenance and using it as a behavioral tool changes its very definition. Because remember,extrinsic rewards can be taken away, and nobody wants their food taken away!
Instead, think more to the big picture. Perhaps you’ve been wanting that fancy new doo-dad all the kids are raving about, and you are trying to quit smoking cigarettes as your chosen behavior to modify. Put the money you would have spent on butts into a tucked away place, and use that to purchase your new toy! It will be doubly good because a.) you saved up for it, and b.) it was something you were already spending money on to slowly kill yourself!
So now that we have a firm grasp of the mode … where do we begin? What behaviors do we choose?
Well friends, that one is on you I’m afraid.
But let me steer you in the right direction!
First, make a list for yourself, of the top 5 things you would change about you (behavior wise) if you could snap your fingers and make it so. Perhaps you want to stick to a gym routine, or you want to stop eating fast food 4 times a week, or you want to be better with money, or quitting a bad habit, etc etc etc!
Once you have that list, concern yourself with just first one you named and every day when you wake up, I want you to remember to take 5 minutes to ask yourself, “What can I do today to make this change?” You don’t even have to answer the question! Just ask it, and the little hamster in the wheel in your head will slowly start turning. The more you repeat this process, the more mental power your brain will divert to solving this quandary.
Next, choose your extrinsic reward, and how to measure when you get it. What is the first step in completing your goal?
Finally, complete your step, get your reward and bask in your own glory! Now how did that feel? Because I want you to latch onto the feeling, and let your brain feel it again every time you move forward towards that goal.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this?
Change is tough. Making the change is tougher. We are creatures of habit and are less malleable the longer we repeat our routines.
But there is hope. By practicing the pillars of behavior modification and being mindful of the changes we wish to see and the goals we wish to accomplish we can always keep our feet moving in the right direction, and with the proper tools, nothing can stop us.
Keep working hard friends on using every day you have to make a better you than you were yesterday!