Positive Reinforcement can help you improve your life dramatically, by providing incentives on your way to achieving any of the goals you set for yourself. Follow these 4 simple steps and learn how to use positive reinforcement to accomplishing anything.
But First…What Exactly is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is presenting a pleasant reward or treat to increase a wanted behaviour.
Lots of common phrases using Positive reinforcement are related to children. “If you get good grades, we’ll take you to Disney Land.” or “If you finish your vegetables, you can have dessert” and even “If you clean your room, you can go outside and play”. These all have positive incentives to motivate a behaviour that we want to improve (ie. better grades, eating vegetables, a clean room).
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Why doesn’t this work quite as well with adults?
In short, it’s because the incentives aren’t strong enough. As a kid, life is simple. Dessert is delicious, outside was where we truly wanted to be, and Disney Land is imagination come to life.
Formulating strong incentives boils down to goal setting. We set goals like “When I lose 5lbs I’m going to buy that shirt” or “If I eat healthy for 5 days, I get one cheat day”. These goals are too small and have no weight behind them to push ourselves forward.
Here are some ways to help you incentivize yourself using positive reinforcement. So you can get the carrots and avoid the stick.
Related Article: How to Achieve Your Goals
4 Ways to Use Positive Reinforcement to Achieve Your Goals
1) Go for the Biggest Carrot
Set BIG goals! Like, HUGE!
Humongous, out of this world, slightly unrealistic goals. Contrary to what you believe, these goals will be more attainable than a more realistic but less exciting goal you would normally set.
Whatever your idea, make it BIG! Don’t hold back. It’s important to note that the final reward is what you are working towards. If your goal is mediocre, then your efforts will be synonymous. This is why a BIG, slightly unrealistic goal is more attainable than a small one. The return on your investment – whether physical effort or mental capacity – is worth so much more to you than that extra slice of cheesecake on Saturday for working out 3 times a week.
For clarification, BIG doesn’t have to mean expensive. It just has to be something that gets you excited, motivated and fired up to achieve your big goal.
2. Make it Purposeful
Now, just because it’s a big goal, it won’t work if your positive incentive isn’t something you want to do.
For example, if a child wanted chocolate cake for dessert, and their parents told them if they finished their vegetables they would get a yogurt parfait, the likelihood of a vegieless plate is quite low. Unless they also loved yogurt parfait…
Similarly, if you’ve always wanted to skydive but settled on bungee jumping because it’s cheaper, your motivation to follow through with your plan is lower than if you scheduled a date to go skydiving.
Unlike the children’s scenario, you have control over your reward. You can pick and choose what you want to do, so make it count. Make it meaningful to you. Your bucket list is a good place to start.
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3) Match the Effort with the Prize
Your reward must be equal or slightly greater than your efforts.
Say you’ve been struggling with your weight your whole life and you’ve set a goal and successfully lost 20lbs in 3 months. That’s a big accomplishment. To match your efforts of losing 20lbs with 3 months of hard work, make your reward 20 days of travel.
Again, you won’t be willing to work as hard to lose 20lbs if your goal is to spend $20 dollars. Instead, make it $200 or $2000!
It doesn’t have to be a ratio or one-for-one. How about, for every hour of overtime worked for the next three months, the money goes into funding a big family trip for a week away from home. Or how about after taking language courses for 6 consecutive months, take that trip to the native speaking country for a few weeks and test out your new language skills.
Whatever your positive reinforcer may be, make sure the reward is worth your efforts.
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4) Set Yourself Up for Success
Lastly, and most importantly, the process is going to be hard.
Obstacles will reveal themselves. There will times when you won’t want to get off the couch. Times when you don’t want to pick up the phone, when your running shoes feel too far away and your appetite craves the bag of chips in the secret junk food cupboard.
Acknowledge it. Yes, those times will come whether you can control it or not. It’s how you deal with them that’ll determine your success. That’s where the power of the positive reinforcement comes in.
- Set reminders to tell yourself why you are doing it (Repeating your goal to yourself should work. If not, you might need to modify it)
- Put in place small escape routes and alternatives for those times of desperation (the chips call your name, instead you make kale chips or eat carrots to satisfy your crunchy cravings).
- Start small and gradually build yourself up (start with 15 minute workouts 1-2x workouts per week, and gradually work up to 4-5 sessions of 30min workouts).
- Keep track of the times you’ve given in (It’s okay, we can’t all have the will power of Superman. Simply write down the cheat food or missed workout, etc. in a notebook so you can go back and reflect on when the last failure date was. This’ll help make them few and far in between.)
- Tell everybody (chances are, your friends and family will remind you at every interaction and will be your prime movers in determining your success. It’s more guilt in disappointing others than disappointing yourself)
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Now it’s your turn to take action! Set out to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do.
Remember to make your rewards BIG and meaningful to you. Match your efforts with the size of the reward and failure-proof as best you can. By harnessing the power of positive reinforcement, we can avoid the sticks and feast on the carrots that make life so absolutely wonderful.
Take our quiz to find out if you’re a positive thinker.
Benny is a young man with big ambitions. Founder of Young At Heart Fitness, he sets out to deliver unique and creative content on fitness, education and lifestyle design to help improve the lives of others in an animated and youthful way. Think the adventures of Finding Nemo meets Arnold Schwarzenegger with a hint of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Originally published 6/10/13 and updated 5/16/14.
Photo by sweetonveg