What are you waiting for to change your own behavior?

These are my notes from some of the lectures I attended at the 38th annual convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, which I attended in May.

Ian Ayres, a lawyer and economist who currently works at Yale Law School, gave this year’s presidential scholar address at the ABAI convention. Ayres’ research and writings focus on teaching people better ways to achieve their personal and professional goals. Much of his work has to do with motivation and incentives. His latest book is called Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. Ayres is also the co-founder of a commitment website called stickK.com.

StickK: A smart way to set and achieve goals

Ayres’ discussed his website stickK at length. StickK lets people set behavior contacts with themselves so that they can manage their own behavior and achieve their goals. Ayres explained that many people have trouble setting goals and sticking to them because of problems with “will power” or “self-control.” Economics research and behavioral research has shown that many times people will pick a smaller reward sooner, rather than waiting for a larger reward later. This is why it can be so hard to achieve goals that don’t have instant benefits, such as saving money, losing weight, or quitting smoking.

The stickK website helps people make commitments and stick to them. Right now, the site has over 100,000 registered users and a 75% reported success rate. How it works:

You: You (or anyone else in the world) can go on the StickK website and create a contract with yourself for a goal you want to achieve. The website lets you pace yourself, tracks your progress, and sends you updates and reminders.

The Penalty: Want to make sure you meet that goal? If you want, you can set a penalty, either monetary or something else. This is something you will pay or do if you don’t meet your goal. If you want to motivate yourself even more, you can select an organization you hate to receive the money (such as your rival sports team or a political party you oppose).

A Referee: Don’t trust yourself? You can select a friend to serve as a referee to help make sure you are sticking to your goal. Or, you can just stick to the honor system and be your own referee.

Supporters: Who is going to cheer you on? You can designate friends as supporters. These people will be able to monitor your progress and can leave encouraging comments on your account as you move closer to your goal.

Interestingly, Ayres discussed that the StickK framework is also being used by large corporations to promote health and wellness. Employees set their own goals and penalties, but many companies are also rewarding employees with money or points (that can be exchanged for things) if the employee achieves his or her goal.

What factors lead to effective self-control?

Self-management is much more than just setting goals, penalties and rewards. Ayres discussed three key factors that matter for effective self-management. These are other people, mindfulness, and frames.

Other people matter: Many people say they won’t relapse or go back to their old habit once they change their behavior. However, many do. Ayres discussed that supporters can keep you honest with yourself and encourage you to stay on track. It is much easier to meet your goals if you have other people supporting you, than if you try to change your behavior all alone.

Mindfulness matters: Are you even aware of your own behavior? Before you can begin to change your behavior, you must be familiar with the behavior you want to change—exactly how often does it happen and in what contexts? Although this seems simple, many people are surprised about their own behavior once they start tracking it and paying careful attention to it.

Rather than setting a goal to lose weight or quit smoking, Ayres’ suggested starting with a goal to just keep track of your weight or the number of cigarettes you smoke for two weeks. This gives you a good baseline of your current behavior and, as an added bonus, gives you a nice comparison to look back at later on.

Framing matters: Want to change your own behavior? Start by believing that you can change your own behavior! Ayres encourages people to be realistic and start with small goals and small changes. Sometimes, especially with goals that seem daunting, it’s best to just start by monitoring your behavior, before you make any goal to change it. Make sure you start with a goal that is achievable. Even if you are only making small, gradual changes, find a way to chart your progress so that you can see that you are making progress.

Many people get into trouble while trying to change their own behavior because they make goals that are too ambitious and that are too disruptive to their old patterns of behavior. This can lead to the person later backsliding right back to where the person started. Start with small changes and celebrate as you progress toward your big goal.

Which of your behaviors would you like to change? Do you think the stickK website would be a useful tool for you? What other factors do you think are important for good self-management?

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