Through the work of B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning theory (1983), we’ve learnt that behaviour is more likely to be repeated if you positively reward yourself for doing it.
By adding a rewarding stimulus (an operant) after a desired behaviour, that behaviour becomes reinforced and is therefore more likely to occur again.
There’s a lot more to Skinner’s theory, however the basic concept of positive reinforcement is that you reward the behaviours you want to see repeated.
If you want to change something in your life or form a new habit, then reward yourself for doing it. No matter how small the behaviour is, if you reward yourself for it then it will be more easily repeated next time.
We Are Simple Creatures
We like to think that we’re very complex creatures and we are in some aspects, but we’re basically still animals.
When you train a dog and they do something right you reward them with a treat, some words of encouragement or a pat on their head.
We’re no different really when it comes to our habits and behaviours. We do this same routine with children to install good behaviours in them. However, when we become adults our lives become busy and the reward process drops off.
Reward Yourself Along the Way
You may say to yourself that once you’ve done that big thing, then you’ll reward yourself with a big treat. But we want to make sure we reward ourselves along the way to reinforce the good behaviour as it happens. It’s the little treats that make the big difference.
Let’s say that you’re studying at university. You might say to yourself “if I get a final mark of 80% in my first year then I’ll reward myself with a holiday.” However, the holiday in a year’s time may seem too far away to provide motivation and reinforcement of behaviour happening now.
When a dog does something good you tell them straight away not a year later. Otherwise the dog would be left feeling confused. We are the same when it comes to our habits.
Reward Yourself in the Moment
You need to make sure that you reward yourself in the moment; as soon as you complete a piece of work you should celebrate.
By doing this you trick your brain into associating positive rewards with the hard work you just completed.
If you do this regularly, your brain will start to link pleasure to accomplishing the task and move towards it in the future.
Over time you’ll associate positive feelings with the task and the behaviour will be more pleasant and easier to do if your brain knows that it will get a reward straight after.
A better way of training yourself is to break the year long goal down into smaller chunks and give yourself smaller rewards along the way. For example, reward yourself with:
- A nice take-away coffee for attending a lecture
- A cake from a nice bakery for attending all your lectures that week.
- A meal out for completing your homework for the week.
- A trip to the cinema for finishing reading a course textbook.
- Drinks out with friends for completing a study session.
- A guilt-free afternoon playing video games for giving a presentation.
- A weekend break once you’ve completed an assignment.
The constant stream of smaller rewards will help to reinforce the desired behaviour as it happens, which in turn will help you to achieve your big goal.
Once you achieve your big goal, then you can claim your big reward.
Reward the Behaviour you Want to See More Often
The more often you are rewarded, the more motivated you will be to repeat the desired behaviour. Create your own list of small and large rewards and reward yourself regularly.
It might sound self-indulgent, but rewarding yourself for a job well done is healthy. Celebrating your achievements, big and small, will make a world of difference.
Give it a go and see how you get on.
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