Earlier this week we had our third snow day of the year. The blistery -35 degree wind chill made it the perfect day to stay in and get some work done.
Now normally I dread a full day off (go figure). Like many others, I function better with a little bit of back pressure. If I know that there are 2 hours to get a task done, it will get done in that time frame. However, if there is an entire day it is easy to put off what you have to do by telling yourself there is still plenty of time in the day.
However, there are a couple of other tricks that can sometimes be quite effective at getting yourself going.
The two that I want to talk specifically about are called "behavioral momentum," and the "Premack principle." I am not sure whether one is more effective than the other, but if done properly you don't necessarily have to choose between them.
The idea of behavioral momentum has its roots in the experimental analysis of behavior, but has gained a lot of popularity in the treatment of individuals with disabilities. The basic notion is that behavior has momentum just like any object with mass, and once you get behavior gong it is likely to keep going.
Think of this procedure like priming a pump, you get behavior started with a few “high-probability” tasks, things you are likely to do or want to do.
For me I start with a couple of easy items to tick off the list. Do the dishes, write an e-mail, shave, that sort of stuff (yes I put shave on my task list).
Once you have a little speed going you can start putting in more stringent demands, or the “low probability” responses; writing a paper, making flashcards, and such. Research has shown this to be a very effective method for dealing with non-compliance behavior (see links above), so it translates perfectly to a grad student who wants nothing more than to bundle up and watch the snow-pocalypse unfold.
The Premack principle is also based on basic experimental literature, but it suggests a different course of action. The original research done by David Premack showed that in lab animals “high-probability” tasks can be used to reinforce “low-probability responses.” So if you follow up some particularly gruesome article with making lunch (provided that is something you like doing...), you are more likely to read that article quickly and with greater focus.
It is a pretty simple notion, but it can have very powerful effects and there are those who are strong advocates of this method. There are a number of people that advocate strongly for the use of this technique in the workplace.
What I think helped me to be so effective on this particular snow day was to use a combination of the two. It may seem that the two principles are a little contradictory, one states that you should follow low-probability behavior with high-probability, and the other states the opposite.
But, you can take this another way.
The Premack (high before low) principles assumes that you are willing to engage in the thing you don’t want to do in the first place. If you can’t summon the energy to move yourself from your blanket wrapped perch to get in front of the computer, you can't even start that task you are dreading.
When you are first starting out for the day you may need to build a little momentum to get things moving. Picking a few pieces of low hanging fruit off the tree might just help you to get the starting energy you need to begin. Be careful that you don’t do all the easy things first, because once you get momentum going you will need them to follow your harder tasks.
Each of these techniques are powerful tools, and can be leveraged in combination to even greater effect. I am still trying to figure out what combination of events came together to give me a high enough level of starting energy, but by starting the day generating a little behavioral momentum followed by some Premacking I was able to harness that motivation to great effect.
Also, I am happy to report, it has finally warmed up to the teens! and in perfect Michigan fashion I saw a guy walking around in shorts.
Till next time,