Discovering your Why for fitness and wellness is just the first step in our journey. Once we have a better idea of WHAT we want and WHY we want it, the process of creating habits which will support these ideas gets significantly easier.
For animal professionals, the process of teaching a new behavior to an animal usually involves a training plan. This is the step-by-step guide the trainer uses as the animal learns the new behavior. Rather than wondering what to do with the animal once they have perfected the latest step, the training plan allows the teacher and learner to keep progressing, smoothly and consistently.
Because you can’t train to lose weight (you can only train the healthy habits which will result in weight loss), you may find there are quite a few habits you need to work on. Breaking them down into steps will make the process of establishing multiple habits easier, and a lot more fun.
When it comes to animal training, most trainers focus on one new behavior at a time. It’s not that the animal can’t learn more than one behavior at a time, but at the very least, focusing on one behavior each session makes it significantly easier and more successful, for both the animal and the trainer. When you are first starting out, it may behoove your success to focus on one habit at a time, until you have a few under your wing, and you become more adept at creating healthy habits.
Whether you are wanting to ultimately run a marathon, change to a healthier, greener, more sustainable diet, drink more water, or develop amazing abs, the habits you create will follow one main simple formula, the ABC’s of operant conditioning.
The ABC’s stands for the three aspects of learning- Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. Interestingly, you don’t NEED to know the concept of antecedent, behavior, and consequence for it to be working in your life. Every day we are inundated with stimuli which elicits behavior. Everything from table manners, daily routines, to bodily functions actually follows the ABC’s of learning and behavior.
Have to go to the bathroom? The pressure in our bladder is our cue to go relieve ourselves. The consequence is an empty bladder and a feeling of relief, which reinforces our behavior of complying every time our body tells us we have to go to the bathroom. But we don’t even have to think about this process, it works for us automatically.
Using the ABC’s to train ourselves to develop a new healthy habit is trying to make the behavior as automatic as our reflexes. When we get our cue, our antecedent, we don’t even have to think about what we’re going to do, it’ll just be automatic. It’ll be as easy as ABC.
For A, we have the Antecedent. The antecedent is the cue or signal. This does not cause the behavior to occur. In animal training, it lets the animal know if they do the behavior paired with the cue, they are very likely to receive reinforcement. In fitness, it serves more as a reminder than a command. You can set a timer to remind you when to workout, or get out of bed, or even go to bed. Or place a post-it note to tell you not to forget your vitamins or floss your teeth after you brush them.
Setting up a specific cue for your new habit is usually only temporary. Once the habit is established, your brain will often take over and you won’t need physical reminders anymore. If you are trying to establish a habit of flossing after you brush your teeth, you may use a post-it or another reminder as your cue, but eventually, once the behavior is ingrained, you will almost instinctively grab your dental floss after you finish with your toothbrush.
The B is for Behavior. Again, let me reiterate, the antecedent does not CAUSE the behavior. It signals when the behavior can be performed. It’s like a green light on the behavior at hand. The sky’s the limit when you are dreaming up new habits you want to establish. It doesn’t even have to be fitness or health related. You can have a desire to read more, or do daily art.
Let’s say you are wanting to be more creative and one of your new habits you want to develop is to do art every day. The best way to accomplish that is to set a time of day you are going to dedicate to doing art, and then set up an antecedent/signal to remind you of your commitment. For the first few months, you may need that reminder to do your daily art. But the longer you continue, you will have it ingrained, and you will instinctively know when you will start art for the day.
It will also help to have a set amount of time or quantity to designate a minimum criteria for your goal. If you want to do art every day, what does that look like? Are you completing a new piece of art every day? Are you doing art for 30 minutes? This criteria will help to determine whether or not you feel the behavior is completed.
I started a habit of writing in 2016. At the beginning, I made it super easy and simple, so I couldn’t fail. Every day, I wanted to write 250 words. I could definitely go over the minimum if I felt so inspired, but I wanted 250 to be my goal so I could determine I wrote that day. Slowly, over time, I gradually increased my minimum daily word count. As of this posting, I am at 500 words a day minimum. 500 may not seem super high, but I want it to stay achievable and within grasp, even on super busy days.
If you are looking to create a healthy habit for fitness, you will also want to set some criteria as well. Starting to go to the gym? Set a minimum amount of time you will be in the gym. It can be 5 minutes, but set a criteria for you to meet each time you go. Want to drink more water? Setting an alarm will help, but how much water are you going to drink when your alarm goes off? Establishing your criteria will help you complete the behavior.
After you have your behavior, your criteria, and your antecedent, you can start your training for a new and healthier you.
But wait. We forgot one last important component- the C. C is for Consequence. For every action, there is a response which will either increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again (reinforcement) or decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again (punishment). Since we are discussing the creation of a new habit, we want to increase the likelihood of the behavior, so our response to performing our new habit will be a reinforcement.
In a few more posts, I will go more in-depth why we want to focus on reinforcement, and positive reinforcement, but for right now, just know we are going to INCREASE the probability of repeating that behavior, so reinforcement is the consequence of choice.
This doesn’t have to be a ginormous gesture. You don’t have to buy a new car each time you log your meals. I mean, unless you have that kind of cash, which, more power to you, then. Lots of research is showing to affect behavior change, positive affirmations is effective in improving behavior performance.
Whenever you complete your healthy habit, give yourself a pat on the back, a fist bump, or look in the mirror and say “I’m awesome”.
The number of habits you can establish from using the ABC’s of operant conditioning are endless-
- Drinking water. When my alarm goes off, I will drink a cup or sip of water
- Flossing. When I rinse my mouth from brushing my teeth, I will pick up the dental floss and use it
- Small chores like dishes or laundry. When I am finished with dinner, I will start on dishes.
- Micro-win workouts. Before I start my writing, I will row 500 meters.
- Chain of healthy habits. When I am finished with my writing, I will turn off my computer. When my computer is off, I will change into my bed clothes. Once I’m in my bed clothes, I will brush my teeth (and floss). When I finish flossing, I will meditate. After I meditate, I will go to bed.
Even some complex and challenging behaviors can be broken down into smaller steps using the ABCs. It makes healthy habit building as easy as 1-2-3.