Dear ZooFit readers,
Since I’ve been pretty busy with ZooFit Safari, I asked a fellow Optimize Coach to help a sister out. Thankfully, Chris Loper, creator of becomingbetter.org happily obliged. Chris is a behavior change specialist, and wrote an article connecting animal training practices with building healthy habits for ourselves. I thoroughly enjoy his writing, and I know you will find it insightful, too.
Enjoy Chris’ work, and visit him on his site as well.
Celebrations as Positive Reinforcement to Build Healthy Habits
Admittedly, I don’t know much about animal training. But from what I’ve read of PJ’s blog and from watching people train dogs, I know that positive reinforcement is a key technique in the animal trainer’s toolkit.
One way to do this is with treats. The animal does what you ask, and it gets a tasty snack. Simple enough. But while treats may have some impact, there’s a subtler yet more powerful way to do positive reinforcement.
As PJ has written about, a major component of positive reinforcement in animal training is the relationship between trainer and animal. If the animal likes you and wants to spend time with you – if there’s encouragement, playfulness, and mutual respect – then the animal will likely go along with what you want them to do.
(Side note: I’ve found the exact same thing to be true in my work as a tutor.)
If you’re trying to form healthy habits, then you’re really engaged in an effort to train yourself. Part of you knows what you need to do and tells you to do it, while another part of you resists. If only you could just obey your own commands, behavioral change would be easy.
Well, just as positive reinforcement helps with animal training, it helps with habit formation as well. And again, treats are not the only way to do this. Indeed, since treats are probably counter to your self-improvement goals, the other path is preferable.
This means cultivating a positive relationship with yourself, just as a trainer cultivates a positive relationship with an animal. Ultimately, you’re trying to get yourself to do things that some part of you is disinclined to do. And to do that, you’ve got to respect yourself enough to listen to the highest within you and do what, deep down, you know is best for you. Remember that you’re engaging in self-care out of self-love, not out of self-loathing.
So try to have fun with it. Be playful. And be kind to yourself when you slip up and otherwise give yourself permission to be human. Give yourself encouragement when you’re struggling, and celebrate your successes, even when they’re small, as you might high-five a good friend to congratulate them.
The Power of Celebration
BJ Fogg is one of the world’s leading researchers on the science of habit formation. He’s in charge of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford. In his great book, Tiny Habits, Fogg emphasizes the power of celebration to make new behaviors stick.
The idea is simple. If you perform the new behavior that you’re trying to install as a habit, you should immediately celebrate that you did it. This gives your brain a little hit of dopamine, creating a positive feeling that trains you to want to repeat the behavior.1
If you do this enough, you’ll rewire your brain to actually want to perform this behavior. In the long-run, the cravings you currently feel for unhealthy things can be replaced by cravings for healthier alternatives. Take my own life as Exhibit A: I used to crave candy, drugs, and video games; now I crave salads, meditation, and writing.
Negative Motivations Don’t Work
Another scientific finding that supports the use of positive reinforcement is something cognitive neuroscience professor Tali Sharot describes in her book The Influential Mind. Sharot and other researchers have found that rewards and positive emotions motivate people to take action, while fear and punishment primarily motivate inaction.2
But how do we normally motivate people to exercise and eat healthy foods?
We threaten them with heart disease, obesity, and cancer. But since fear primarily motivates inaction, these threats have failed to change most people’s behavior.
Furthermore, these threats are distant, whereas the reward of eating junk food on the couch is immediate. So if you want to motivate yourself to exercise and eat well, you need to focus on the immediate benefits that these behaviors bring. Luckily, there are plenty.
Exercise makes you happier, it gives you energy, it helps you focus, it makes you smarter, and it increases your self-esteem.3 The same is true for eating healthy foods.4
Weight loss and looking sexy and mitigating your risk of chronic illness are all fine goals, but the results are too distant to be motivating. You need a reason to do what’s best for you today.
Tying these two ideas together, we see the need for immediate celebration. Don’t wait until long after you’ve finished your meditation or your workout or your writing to celebrate that you did it; celebrate right away.
My partner and I often work out together in the morning, and we like to give each other a celebratory high-five at the end. It’s a small way of congratulating each other for doing what’s best for us.
If the task was cognitive – a work project or a writing session, say – then celebrate by putting on a song. Get up and move around. Dance if you’re feeling it. Or reward yourself with a walk in the park before moving on to your other work.
If you’re using a timer to help you overcome procrastination, celebrate as soon as the timer goes off. Although it might seem like that celebration would indicate that you’re done, the positive emotions it produces will actually make you more likely to keep working.
One great way to do this is to say “That’s like me!” as soon as you complete the task.5 This helps reinforce not only the behavior, but also the identity that goes with it.
But my absolute favorite technique for immediate positive reinforcement is “effort tracking.”
If I’m working on establishing a single behavior as a habit, as when I began my meditation practice, I’ll use a calendar chain. When I perform the behavior on a given day, I immediately put an X in the box for that day on the calendar.
If there are several different things that I’d like to do on a regular basis, I’ll use a weekly effort-tracking spreadsheet. Each week, I list all the activities/tasks in the left-hand column and set targets for each. Whenever I do one, I put a tick-mark in the box for that activity for that day. At the end of the week, I total them up and celebrate my progress.
Each time you down an X or a tick-mark, you’re giving yourself a little pat on the back for doing what you set out to do, and thereby encouraging yourself to do it again.
The Celebration Continues
While it is certainly beneficial to celebrate immediately after doing something good, it’s also powerful to reinforce that behavior at the end of the day when you’re reflecting on how you spent your time and the choices you made. The technique I use for this is called “pride journaling.”
It’s quite simple. All you do is write down one or more things that you’re proud of yourself for doing, such as:
“I’m proud of myself for doing my morning workout, even though I felt like sleeping in.”
“Even though I got frustrated this afternoon, I’m proud of myself for recovering my equanimity quickly.”
“I’m proud of myself for putting in some time on my writing project.”
Pride journaling can be done all on its own, or it can easily be incorporated into a preexisting journaling practice. Personally, I like to do it at the end of my gratitude journal entries.
Pride journaling not only reinforces the specific behaviors you make note of, but it also reinforces a better view of yourself. It counteracts the common tendency to see yourself as lazy and helps cultivate a stronger willpower identity.
A similar benefit is conferred by seeing all the tick-marks on your effort-tracker or seeing all the Xs on your calendar chain. It’s a clear record of the work you’ve done – hard evidence that you’ve been tenaciously pursuing your goals.
In the end, you don’t become better by chastising yourself for all your shortcomings. You become better by celebrating your successes. As one good choice begets another, you steadily transform into the person you truly want to be.
Chris Loper is the creator of becomingbetter.org, a blog devoted to the science and practice of self-improvement that actually works. If you liked this article, check out his other work and be sure to subscribe to get a new article each week. Chris is also an academic coach and blog writer for Northwest Educational Services and the owner of South Cove Tutoring. He lives in Issaquah, WA.
1 Fogg, B.J. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
2 Sharot, Tali. The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others. Henry Holt and Co., 2017.
3 Ratey, John J., M.D. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown & Company, 2008.
4 Loper, Chris. “Brain Food.” Northwest Educational Services. August 26, 2019.
5 Johnson, Brian. “That’s Like Me!” How to Optimize Your Self-Image. +1 #62.