Achieve Your Goals with These Reinforcers
Let’s say you have a habit that you’d like to change. You don’t like that feeling of being overstuffed after dinner. You decide to implement an action of serving yourself a smaller dinner portion and setting the rest of the food out of reach to deter grabbing more. It was a bit of a challenge but you successfully do this every evening for a week. To reward yourself, you decided to go out to eat with some friends.
Initially this sounded like a reasonable indulgence but soon after finishing a great tasting meal, as pleasant as eating with your friends was, you are reminded of how uncomfortable it is when you eat too much. Rather than a “reward” it feels more like a relapse, and even makes the success you had earlier in the week seem moot. Perhaps this wasn’t such a great way to reward yourself. In this article I am going to explain the concept of reinforcement rather than reward and provide some examples and advice on how to reinforce healthy eating.
As discussed in a previous blog, making lasting change requires planning, discipline, support, and patience. I recommend starting with small, well-defined, realistic, daily actions and progressing them over time into regular practices, which in turn lead to lasting results. Appropriate reinforcement, or strengthening, of these actions can make a huge difference in your success. For instance, let’s say I dislike talking on the phone but would like to maintain contact with a far-away friend. I build myself up to call, I do, he answers, we have a great conversation. My action of using the phone to contact him was reinforced when he answered and we spoke.
I got what I wanted, an enjoyable conversation with my friend, and by acknowledging this benefit, I am more likely to overcome my dislike for the phone and call again. The important thing to get here is the acknowledgement. My friend may not always answer, it could take several more call attempts to get him again. If I do not take the time to acknowledge or otherwise remind myself of the benefits or why its important to me, the chances I continue with this action will drop. This concept can be applied to my eating habits as well.
Some ideas for reinforcers
Let’s go back to the original example. You are trying to improve your eating habits at dinnertime because you don’t like the feelings you get from overeating. You’ve started to put smaller amounts of food on your plate; and limit yourself to that one serving (no going back for seconds). Doing this daily feels doable for you. How can you reinforce this action without relapsing? Here are some ideas:
- The success chart- You know teachers use this to help young students stay on track with assignments. A simple success chart could be your calendar (for those of us who still hang them up at home), or any simple grid-like design where you can stick a gold star for each day you successfully perform your action. Proudly hang this in a visible place. After a certain number attained, you can opt for something with more impact. Maybe a new scrapbook to collect all of your charts. Perhaps you can snap a pic and share your success each time you finish a chart.
- Hit the streets – Take a walk after dinner. Notice how “light” you feel since you are not being weighed down by an overfull stomach.
- Use your reward points– Each week write down the amount of $$ saved on your food bill from eating less. Perhaps write it on a calendar or other visible place. Save that money and when you reach a certain amount, use it to donate to a favorite charity. If that’s not your thing maybe it can be used for a new pair of walking shoes? How about some tech, perhaps a tracker you’ll use periodically to keep your actions in check. Perhaps some fancy 9″ plates you saw on QVC, which upon using will assure that your servings stay small.
- Look inside – Simply sitting and reminding yourself what you have been accomplishing and what small positives steps you have taken, is a powerful way to reinforce your actions. Do you have a vision board, or destination letter (If you don’t know what these are, see my last post on Capturing the Wellness Vision? Maybe revisit these periodically when you succeed to remind yourself what you are working toward.
- Start a penny jar– I have a client who drops a couple dollars (a bit of an increase from a penny) each time he has a quality practice session with his guitar. His goal is to buy himself that new electric guitar he’s always wanted but didn’t buy because he feared it would be fun for a day then collect dust. If he practices five days/week, he’ll have enough in six to nine months. Idea being if he plays that consistently for that long, he’ll likely keep it up with the new guitar. A penny (or dollar or quarter) each day you succeed could add up to something you’ve been wanting but didn’t want to be impulsive.
- Befriend the environment – Is looking for more ways to be eco-friendly on your list? Take those leftovers and put those biodegradable/reusable food storage bags to good use. Or use that glassware (eschewing throw-away plastics!) that you invested in. Each time you succeed at eating less you put environmentally friendly products into good use and process less food overall (you don’t need to cook or order out everyday).
When working on a new action, take a minute to think about what sort of thing would be an effective reinforcer. It should make “sense” for you. For example, if you dislike shopping, then the QVC plates may not be a good reinforcement for you. If your neighborhood isn’t friendly for walking (you live on a busy street perhaps), then taking a walk may not help too much. Each of these ideas serves as a reminder of why you are performing the new action and in turn reinforces it. When I put on those new, comfortable walking shoes, I’ll be glad I am walking more often after dinner, as my stomach no longer “weighs” me down. I’ll be happy I gave my food bill savings to that charity, as that cause has always resonated with me. With each of these we are “rewarded” by feeling good about what we are doing, which also is a powerful way to reinforce an action or behavior. Look for these commonalities when coming up with your behavioral reinforcers. Which of these ideas resonate with you? Any I left out that I should add? Feel free to use the comments section below to let me (and others) know what you come up with. For even more fun yet, try this brief quiz to see how well this blog “resonated” with you. Thanks for your attention!
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Published by mattktraining
I am currently the Owner of my soloprenuerial company Matt K Training. Through my fitness and nutrition programs I help adults develop skills and practices that help them eat, move, and recover well. Over the past 20 years, in various roles such as a Personal trainer, Exercise Physiologist, Clinical Researcher, and Health Coach I have helped hundreds of adults reach their health and physical performance goals. When not working, I enjoy active pursuits such as playing right field for the Charlton Giants (in a 38+ competitive baseball league), playing tennis, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. I also enjoy indoor activities such as playing strategy board games, reading and discussing science fiction literature, dabbling with my guitar, finding creative ways to eat oatmeal, and being a good dad.