One way to change behavior patterns is to disrupt the reinforcement pattern. What’s a reinforcement pattern? Simply put, it is a reward or punishment which accompanies or follows an action. Positive reinforcers are things that promote more of the behavior. Negative reinforcers are things that tend to create less of the behavior. Although this is not the ONLY way to change behavior, it can be a powerful tool.
When we think about changing the behavior of procrastination into the behavior of persistence, we need to dissect the reinforcement patterns to see what drives the unhealthy behavior in the first place. Then we can decide how to disrupt this pattern with a more powerful reinforcer.
For most people who procrastinate, a powerful reinforcer for putting off the task is the immediate sense of relief one feels as the job is delayed. “Oh, yeah,” you say to yourself, “I’ll rake the leaves later cause the big football game is one now.” Boom. You have just experienced a powerful psychic reinforcement by substituting immediate pleasure and delaying the stress of raking leaves. In a contest between yard work and TV Sports on the couch with snacks, your brain will vote for procrastination every time because you experience a temporary relief from work stress. OK, so you’ve spotted the reinforcement pattern that needs to be changed. So now what?
If the procrastination gets you into trouble in some way, you will want to substitute a pattern of persistence instead. So that means you need to restructure the task so that there is a lot more positive reinforcement for persisting and a lot more negative reinforcement for procrastinating.
Let’s make a list of positive reinforcers. Feel free to add your own.
Time to relax.
Shorten the task list.
Time with Friends.
Special dinners or desserts.
Approval from others or self.
Time for hobbies.
Purchase stuff you want.
Vacations and breaks.
Learning something new you like.
Okay. Look at that list. What’s the fastest and easiest reinforcer on that list? Yup, you are right. It is approval from yourself. This is also called self-validation. Or giving yourself props. It is a VERY useful tool for changing behavior. It is instant, free, moral, legal and non-fattening. And you don’t have to wait for anyone else to notice your good deeds! You can take control of your reinforcers!
But the other things on the “nice” list are great, too. However, sometimes it isn’t always practical to take a vacay to the Bahamas every time you clean your kitchen, right? It is possible to include some variation of those positive reinforcers in your tool kit, so we won’t ditch them. Just modify them as needed. Think about how you could take a “break” as a small vacation instead of buying a plane ticket. What does that break look like? A bath with scented candles? Playing catch with your kid?
So pick three positive reinforcers that you want to include in your new pattern to become a persistor. Got them? Now write them down:
Now, write down 3 reasons WHY you want/need to accomplish your task. Make these positive, and inspiring. These are your WHYs.
Now, write down at least 3 HOWs to break down the task into small pieces. Like, “Go to the store and buy the wrapping paper and food for the party.”
Now, here’s how you use your positive reinforcers and your WHYs and your HOWs.
- Every time you think about doing the task, say aloud one of your WHYs. “I want to get this party planned early so I can relax and have a great time.”
- Now imagine yourself having a good experience playing around with the task – being successful, being relaxed, being confident.
- Now take the first HOW and do SOMETHING to accomplish it – it doesn’t have to be totally completed, just begin it. Just tell yourself you’ll only do it for 5 minutes or something totally painless.
- Now use your positive reinforcer to reward yourself for taking action. Small action = small reward, right? “Hey, I really did a great job of finding bargains at the store! And I’ve checked off a box on my HOW list, too! Great Job, Samantha!”
Wait a little while, then repeat the steps and notice how fun it is to be a persistor rather than a procrastinator. Give yourself props all the time about your new persisting patterns! This stuff really works, guys!
The reason it works, is because you have successfully reconfigured the reinforcement pattern that rewards persistence rather than procrastination. You now have an important tool to change your own life and fortify your resilience!