Avoidance Behaviour, Setting the Bar Low, and Why I am Challenged by the World of Blogging (Part 4 of 4)


People who make jokes about four-part trilogies may in fact be attempting to distract from how much they can blabber on…but regardless, I appreciate the investment you made to get this far (my darling wife) and I promise to attempt to wrap up this particular commentary without resorting to the crutch of the five part trilogy.

We left things off in part 3 at the point where we were discussing practical ways to use behaviour management principles to change our own pattern of behaviour and reinforcement (as a part of attempting to keep this one less long than previous, I’ll encourage you to skim the previous posts to get more details, rather than repeating things here.)

How do we apply these principles and this framework in a practical way?  A big first step is to understand the behaviour that we are trying to develop in ourselves.  This always involves doing something differently (don’t get me started on the number of situations I see where individuals and organizations firmly believe they can achieve different results by doing what they’ve always done.). To help us to understand what needs to be different, we need to know:

  1. What is wrong with the existing situation?  In other words, why is it we want to make a change and what benefit do we expect in making the change? This is essential, because at some point we’re going to need to associate something very positive with making this change.  We need to understand the new result we believe we’re going to get out of making the change.
  2. What behaviour (or behaviours) are we going to need to change, and why we do them?  Whether it’s for a reward or to avoid an unpleasant consequence, we need to know the pattern that exists currently and what maintains it.
  3. What new behaviour (or behaviours) do we need to engage in in order to achieve the result that we want to get?
  4. What is it about our current environment and pattern of reinforcement/punishment/avoidance that prevents us from engaging in our desired behaviour?  There’s a reason we’re not doing what we think we should be – we need to understand why. Most commonly the reason will relate to just how much reinforcement we’re getting out of our existing behaviour pattern, vs. our belief (often low) that a greater reward awaits us for the new one.
  5. And here’s the big kahuna in the process:  How do we tie our new behaviour and that glorious result that we want to achieve, directly together?  In other words, how can we create a pattern of new behaviour and then reward that is powerful enough to supplant our existing one?  This is simple in theory, but is (of course, because nothing worthwhile is ever easy) difficult in practice.  Usually this is really a combination of using both the rewards, AND the threat of punishment to get the change you want.

Let’s talk about a real world example.  And because I’d rather not expose too much more of the twisted inner workings of my own head, I will use a situation with my wife.  She doesn’t like to talk about it, but many years ago…wait a minute, I may have trapped myself here with implications about age…..let’s go with recently, but not too recently, she used to be a smoker.  Somewhere in her mid-teens, the perceived coolness of sucking the fumes from burning tobacco into her lungs become so rewarding to her that she overcame the unpleasantness of the act itself, and gradually managed to get herself up to more than a pack a day.  All this despite being fully aware of the negative consequences of smoking cigarettes.

This is easy for me to say (and hence why I’m using her as an example, not something from my dark past), as someone who has never smoked.  Her smoking lasted for about 6 years, until she decided that smoking simply did not fit who she was.  In a future post we’ll deal with the concept that stress results from acting in a way that violates your self image.  But for now, we’ll keep it simple by summarizing:  despite the immediate reinforcement smoking provided her, she decided she wanted to find a way to quit.

Let’s take a high level look at the situation she faced.  And yes, I will be doing a little summarizing and simplifying to keep this example smaller than novel-length.

1)    What was wrong with the existing situation? She believed that smoking was going to shorten her life – either via cancer, lung disease, heart disease, or some other nastiness that hadn’t been identified yet.  As with everyone in the First World, she already knew this, but a series of life experiences between ages 15 (when she started) and 21 (when she decided to quit) had made this conclusion more real for her.  These involved first hand exposure to people with cancer, emphysema, and other health issues attributed to smoking.

However, as a smoker, she was in a situation where a far-off, low probability punishment was competing with an immediate gratification situation; we all know what wins out in that contest.  That smoking also held the theoretical possibility of far off negative consequences was simply not meaningful.  However, she eventually came to feel that in the moments between the bliss of satisfying the nicotine craving and the physical reinforcement smoking provided, that the bad consequences were out there.

She had some other, more immediate negative consequences to deal with.  Smoking was expensive.  Her apartment smelled funny.  She was (in a strange contrast) big into aerobics, and felt that her lung capacity was being impacted. Again, these were not new, but during the initial stages of her smoking habit they had been competing with that immediate gratification factor and not doing well.

The benefits she expected from quitting smoking were pretty simple – reduce the risk of dying. Plus smell better, spend less money (on cigarettes), work out better, ultimately feel better. 

2)    The behaviour she needed to change was pretty obvious, but given all of the stuff in the answer to question one, why was she still smoking?  Why didn’t she simply stop? Dealing with this situation is where many of us have our greatest challenge.  There were a few reasons leading to NOT stopping:

·      The most significant: she found the act of smoking to be incredibly reinforcing.  And that reinforcement was available whenever she wanted it.  Getting yourself your own little piece of heaven at a moment’s notice?  Who doesn’t want that??  Almost makes me want to teach myself to li-e smoking.

·      She discovered that there were other very significant elements of her situation that led her to continue with this behaviour.  They seem obvious, but pretty much every situation comes with them, and we frequently try to make behavioral changes without recognizing the impacts our environment has.  To wit: her boyfriend smoked.  Her friends smoked.  Her work acquaintances smoked.  Hell, her grandmother smoked.  At work there was a routine established – at break time the smokers gathered to drink coffee and socialize.  On Friday night, friends gathered at the bar to smoke.  Visits with her grandmother (with whom she was extremely close) included a cigarette.  Yes, that last one sounds weird when I write it, but keep in mind that our attitudes toward smoking have evolved a lot in the last several years.  AND, you just don’t know what another person finds reinforcing.  

So in addition to the act itself being incredibly reinforcing, she found that much of her social life included the act of smoking, and by association, all of that reinforcement.  There were other elements of her situation that supported the behaviour, but we’ll cut things off here to get to the next step.

3)    Next up, how is the behaviour going to be different?  First, the response from Captain Obvious – she had to stop smoking.  Which meant not only did she have to stop putting the cancer stick in her mouth, flicking the lighter and touching the flame to end, and inhaling luxuriously as the sweet aroma of tobacco filled her lungs, she had to think carefully about all the behaviours that surrounded and supporting smoking: buying cigarettes and keeping a stock at home.  Having a lighter around.  Having ashtrays around.  She had to throw out all of her cigarettes.  She had to get rid of her lighter.  Ditto the ashtrays around her apartment.

Identifying the behaviours she had to stop wasn’t the complete picture.  She looked around for what behaviours could replace at least part of the immediate gratification associated with smoking.  It is very common for people to gain weight when they stop smoking – eating provides a certain amount of the oral stimulation and gratification that becomes a substitute for cigarettes.  She was determined not to go down that route, so she starting laying in stockpiles of carrots and celery so she’d have a substitute behaviour (and one that would be aligned with her desired result) when the need to smoke struck her.  There were other examples, but you get the point.

4)    What about the environment around her?  She thought carefully about all the things she did that involved cigarettes, and realized that she’d have to consciously change her environment if she was going to be successful.  She had to stop going for coffee with her work friends.  She initially cut down on socializing with friends who smoked.  And perhaps most importantly, she convinced her boyfriend to quit smoking also (I’m definitely not going to go into that process.) And to kick it all off, she decided to remove herself completely from her environment when she first quit – taking 2 weeks off and going on a road trip with only the also-quitting boyfriend for company.

5)    The last and most would say, most difficult part of the process was finding a way to tie the rewards or benefits from quitting smoking from possible and far away, to immediate and certain.  Never, EVER underestimate the power of immediate gratification on your behaviour.  And remember that you will always go with the thing that either gives you the most immediate gratification, or avoids the most immediate negative consequences.  So when my future wife was saying ‘no’ to a friend offering a cigarette, the internal or intrinsic reward she received from that choice HAD to be greater than the reward of lighting up.  Alternatively, her fear of death by cancer or lung disease, and the associated avoidance of that fate brought about by not smoking, had to outweigh whatever that cigarette would bring in the here and now.

For most of us, this long term reward or reinforcement is not the reason we engage in a behaviour on a moment by moment basis (my two year old didn’t avoid birthday cake because he knew that was the healthy thing to do.) We often do get some ongoing reinforcement or satisfaction from the knowledge that we’re doing the ‘right’ thing, particularly once we’ve completed a substitute behaviour, or avoided the one we’re trying to eliminate.  But in the moment, the more powerful motivation relies in the immediate reinforcement, so we need to have identified alternative behaviours that come with their own rewards, we need to have changed our environment to remove as many of the external rewards for the undesirable behaviour as possible.

Why does our son eat so well and exercise so much?  Because in the moment, he finds that very immediately reinforcing.  There is no question he is also reinforced by the knowledge he is doing good things for himself, but when his legs are burning and his lungs are heaving as he finishes his sprint to the top of the hill (for the 20th time in 7 minutes) those feelings of what we might initially classify as ‘discomfort’ are reinforcing the crap out of him.

That being said, the knowledge that what we’re doing moment to moment IS tied to the greater good as a reinforcer.  The question is how do we keep that connection in front of us.  People tackle this in a variety of ways.  A big one is they change their self-talk.  Every time my wife had the urge to smoke, she repeated a mantra: smoking is killing me, smoking is killing me.  Every time she ate a celery stick instead of smoking, she told herself what a good thing she had done.  And every time her boyfriend avoided the smoking behaviours, or engaged in an alternative, she verbalized praise for that behaviour, ultimately reinforcing it in herself. 

She also kept track of how she was feeling, how her aerobic capacity was functioning.  And she paid close attention to all the positive physical changes that she associated with quitting smoking (one of the ones that always struck me was that her eyesight seemed to clarify and get brighter.)

Listen, if this was easy, I wouldn’t be writing this down, and we’d have a lot fewer infomercials.  We’d all be running marathons, winning Nobel Prizes, and modeling swimsuits. But it’s hard, we’re not all doing that stuff (thank God, because how boring would that be??), but an understanding of the fundamentals of what drives our behaviour can help us make changes in a positive direction.

My wife’s story has a lot more detail to it (including deciding to have all of her wisdom teeth out the day she quit smoking and the day before her vacation, a massive infection giving her lockjaw, and a strange encounter with a tea towel in a motel) but in the end, it had a happy ending – she quit smoking and all these years later (let’s just say that she’s now ‘30’, to be safe) she hasn’t started again.  She changed her behaviour and reinforcement pattern around smoking and it continues to hold.  And although she didn’t have an explicit understanding of behaviour management, she got some coaching on quitting smoking from someone that did.  This person helped my wife translate the principles into a practical plan, and luckily the desired result was accomplished. 

These same basic principles apply to whatever we’re trying to change – at work, in our personal life, in the boundaries in-between.  It applies whether we’re trying to influence the results of a team, or ourselves as individuals. 

And now full circle to return to the blogging behaviour I’m trying to foster in myself, my fear of failure, and how I’ve managed to overcome it. 

It’s a case of a similar but much less dramatic, much less interesting story than my wife and her battle with cigarettes. Which is why I spent many words on her story, and why in the end my story is such a small part of this blog. 

In the case of blogging, it has been a combination of self-talk (mostly talking to myself about the definition of failure), booking a regular appointment on my calendar (I’ve started blocking time early in the day to write.)  My work life is ruled by my calendar, and booking writing time as an appointment takes advantage of the pattern of obligation I already feel around anything that occupies a time slot in my calendar.  I’m also putting myself in a different physical environment when it’s time for the writing appointment (I drop my stuff at the office, and then head out to a coffee shop with my iPad.)  And on a weekly basis (at least) I reflect back on the volume of words created and allow myself to feel good about that as an accomplishment.  

Boring, still not easy (but let’s face it, not hard like quitting smoking), but by following the basic principles, it’s allowed me to change my behaviour, and create a different result. 

And because I know you’re wondering about my own addiction issues, my need for Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards continues unabated. I deal with it by never going near a Dairy Queen, and making sure my self-talk doesn’t include any references to ice cream, Oreos…crap, I’ve gotta run out for a second…


Comment on this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *