Several times a week, I will coach a parent, teen, or adult patient about how to use the principles of behaviorism to change his or her behavior or the behavior of someone else. This year, I finally have found some success applying it to myself! I have been wanting to get more active for a long time both to improve physical and mental wellness. I often have created goals for myself, even created a worksheet to fill out on my refrigerator with a reward system. However, change would last for a couple weeks at the most. By combining enough behavioral principles, I finally found some movement (literally and figuratively) . I had bought a pedometer months ago hoping tracking steps would motivate me..not so much. What does motivate me, though? Chai lattes! (positive reinforcer). I started by just monitoring how many steps I was getting on average per day. The answer was, quite low. Using the principles of shaping, I decided to set my first week goal to just a little higher than my usual average in order to start with some success. Knowing that some days I have too many patients and meetings to meet my goal, I allowed myself one day to miss my goal. At the end of the week, if I met my goal 6 out of 7 days per week, I get a new Peets card to use. It has been about 4 weeks and I have been able to increase my weekly goal by 2,000 steps, have felt more energetic, have been sleeping better, and actually lost a little bit of weight. In essence, I finally practiced what I preached. Some of the key points here are first to monitor where you are at. It would have been too much to expect 10,000 steps per day when I sometimes barely made it to 2,000. Next, think of a reward that will actually reinforce you to change your behavior and make sure to implement the reward. Even better, I sometimes will get half of my steps in by walking to Peets to use my reward! It is helpful to give yourself “partial credit” so that if you cannot do the behavior every day you still get some sort of reward (ie. 6 out of 7 days per week). Once you master one step, keep moving toward your final goal (ie. shaping). That is why I am now 2,000 steps higher and plan to increase my goal by 1,000 steps next week. A final help can be the accountability factor. My partner and I both set steps goals and update each other daily. He also holds the Peets cards so I cannot reward myself if I do not meet my goal and I get the pleasure of asking for my reward at the end of the week!
This article is helpful on discussing how to shape someone else’s behavior: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/fashion/what-shamu-taught-me-about-a-happy-marriage.html. You can also read a book that was recommended in my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) training called Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training. So, next time you are hesitant to set a new goal for yourself, just remember, just because you did not have success before does not mean you will not have success in the future. You may have asked for too big of a change right away or may not have picked enough reinforcers for yourself to change the behavior. I still am not sure how I feel about the fact that humans can train ourselves and others just like we can train animals, but I’m not thinking about it too much as I sip on my delicious Chai Latte!