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Bill Bergeman


10 Creative Ways Operant Conditioning Can Help You Increase Discipline and Achieve Huge Goals

Operant Conditioning is a classic psychological method of modifying behavior using extrinsic factors to elicit change. Introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner, this method was the dominant area of psychology for the first half of the twentieth century, influencing ideas on everything from how to increase worker efficiency to how the Nazis were able to inflict unspeakable horrors on the European continent.

In Operant Conditioning, the extrinsic factors are broken down into two categories:

Reinforcement (positive stimulus to increase behavior)
Punishment (negative stimulus to decrease behavior)

Reinforcement and Punishment can be further broken down into two more categories:

Positive (application of stimulus)
Negative (removal of stimulus)

Positive Reinforcement
Application of a positive stimulus (ex: giving a worker a bonus for good work).

Negative Reinforcement
Removal of a negative stimulus (ex: letting a worker leave early for the day for good work).

Positive Punishment
Application of a negative stimulus (ex: cutting a worker's pay for poor work).

Negative Punishment
Removal of a positive stimulus (ex: rescinding a promotion offer to a worker for poor work).

We can use these principles to affect massive change in our lives, including the achievement of huge goals and an increase in personal discipline.

For instance, you can use these methods to pay off $50,000 of debt in one year. And in the process, we can move from rewarding ourselves for our newfound debt-reducing behaviors to instilling a longer-lasting internal discipline that will carry us through to ever-more improved habits.

    1. Create a vision.

    What direction do you want to go? How do you see yourself over a certain period of time? In this example, you want to envision a life without financial debt within a year.

    2. Set a goal.

    Once you know you want to live a debt-free life, the next step is to establish one or more goals to get there. In this case, you are going to set the goal of eliminating $50,000 of debt in one year.

    3. Outline a plan.

    You have a vision of being debt-free, and your goal is to offload $50,000 of debt in one year. Now it is time to create a plan to make it happen. Break down how much you need to pay off each month, including interest accumulation, to clear the debt in 12 months. Plan to set aside enough from every two-week paycheck to reach this goal.

    4. Engage your plan with Immediate Positive Reinforcement.

    Once you have your plan, use Immediate Positive Reinforcement to affect behavior change. For instance, every two weeks when you receive a paycheck, manually set aside a certain amount of cash from that paycheck toward paying off the debt. Then, allow yourself the reward of going out to dinner that evening at your favorite restaurant (just don't spend too much on it). This action is an immediate reward for your new savings behavior.

    5. Use Continuous Positive Reinforcement.

    Continuous Positive Reinforcement is the application of reward every time the behavior is engaged. So each time you manually set aside cash from a payday, be sure to use your restaurant reward as a reinforcer.

    6. Upgrade to Delayed Positive Reinforcement.

    After saving money for several pay periods, and rewarding yourself with those nice dinners each time, try to wait one day, or two days, before going out to that dinner. This is the first step in weaning yourself off the reward and internalizing the savings habit.

    7. Continue on to Partial Positive Reinforcement.

    When you use Continuous Positive Reinforcement, you receive your reward each time you engage in the desired behavior (saving money for debt reduction). With Partial Positive Reinforcement, you are going to reduce the number of times you receive your restaurant dinner reward. For instance, instead of going out to dinner every time you save, try to do it every other time; then, increase to every three times, then every four times.

    8. Apply Immediate Negative Reinforcement.

    Immediate Negative Reinforcement is the removal of something undesirable each time a behavior is engaged to increase the consistency of that behavior. In our example, you are now going to start automating your savings habit.

    The act of physically saving cash, as you have been doing, is more painful than simply letting your bank automatically handle the savings for you. By removing the physical act of saving cash, you are removing the pain of having to do it yourself.

    9. Graduate to Negative Punishment.

    Now we are getting advanced. You are going to cease rewarding yourself with dinner at any savings interval.

    Typically this form of behavior change is applied when you want to reduce an undesirable behavior, in this case, to save money for debt reduction. However, you are going to be creative and use it to test your willpower and internalize the savings habit. Are you relying too much on the dinner reward to keep you motivated toward saving? Or, are you now at a point where the habit is so ingrained that you do not need the reward to keep it going because you know it is good for you regardless of any external incentive?

    10. For the Yodas of the World: Apply Positive Punishment.

    If you reach this stage, you are ready to put your willpower to the ultimate test. Each time money is saved for reducing debt, you are going to purposefully punish yourself by fasting for a day - no food whatsoever.

    Again, like Negative Punishment, this method is typically applied when you want to reduce an undesirable behavior. This time, by intentionally punishing yourself for saving money to reduce debt, you will understand if you have the internal fortitude to continue your behavior sans any form of reward. It's worth noting that you do not have to do this forever; rather, it serves as a stress test to determine if you have truly internalized your new behavior and strengthened your discipline muscle.

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