The most basic set-up for establishing a new behavior is using the ABC’s of operant conditioning. Establish an antecedent, a criteria for behavior, and a consequence. But some habits are little more complex. For instance, going to the gym. Yes, GETTING to the gym is often the hardest part of establishing a habit. Implementing an ABC system to get to the gym may be beneficial. But what about what to do once you get there?
Often, those starting a fitness program jump too far, too fast. They want the full benefits of exercise and go from 0 to 10 in their first session. This would be like training a dog to sit by telling them sit and expecting them to just know what to do.
This is where a training plan is incredibly helpful. If your goal for working out is to establish a habit of working out 3 days a week, for 45 minutes each day, you may find breaking the completed behavior into smaller steps will help. And not just in establishing the habit, but maintaining it longer than going gung-ho and burning out. Preventing burnout is especially important when you are new to working out on a regular basis, or eating a certain diet.
There are two ways to create your training plan. Working forward, or working backwards. With the forward approach, consider your current state as your starting point. What is the absolute easiest, simplest step toward where you want to be in establishing a particular habit? That’s step one. Then figure out what the next smallest step toward your goal is, and so on and so forth, until you have all the steps from beginning to end of how you will develop your habit.
So, say you wanted to drink less soda, and more water. If you are currently drinking no water, and only soda, you might start with slowly cutting out one soda each day, and replacing it with water. You may find you need to break the behavior down further, and slowly replace soda with a less sugary beverage, such as unsweetened tea, coffee, or flavored water. Slowly you gradually reduce your soda intake, and increase your healthier beverage intake. If you want to ultimately drink just water, after you have completely weaned from soda to healthier beverage, you can then start reducing your tea or coffee and switch it out for water.
The other way to create your training plan is working backwards. This is taking your ultimate goal and figuring out the next simplest step below that goal. Then the next step below that, and so on, until you reach where you are currently. It’s almost like creating a checklist, which creates steps you take to reach your goal.
Creating a meal prep habit can be worked backwards. If your goal is to eliminate fast food or reduce how much you eat, you may want to start with the end-goal in mind. That may look like you having a large batch of a yummy salad, soup, or pre-made entrée in your fridge or freezer, ready for you to grab and go.
You may ask yourself:
- What supplies and steps do you need to achieve this goal?
- Do you have containers to put your salad in?
- What about the ingredients?
- Do you need to go to the store?
- What ingredients are you using?
- Do you have a recipe?
- Do you need an idea for a recipe?
- Go to the library, or the bookstore, or go online. .
As you ask each question about what you need, you are creating small steps which you can use to help you achieve your goal. These steps don’t need to take months to accomplish. Creating a meal prep habit could be established as quickly as one afternoon. Once established after multiple meal prep sessions, you don’t need a checklist or a plan to get you going
It may seem counterintuitive, working backwards. But honestly, it is a common method trainers use to create their behavior plan. It can be super helpful and inspirational to see where you want to be, and see what steps you need to achieve that goal by working your way backward. Once you have your steps laid out, it is often easier to follow this method, as you have visualized it with the goal in mind each step of the way.
It’s important to note that the plan isn’t written in stone. In training, the animals don’t read the training steps, so sometimes it’s necessary to deviate from the plan and go at the pace and the learning style of the animal. The plan is strictly used as a guide to help trainer break down the behavior into small approximations and understand how the process will progress.
Say you want to go to the gym for 1 hour, 4 days a week. At first, you may have broken down your behavior in the increments of time, but focused on only 1 day a week.
Your behavior plan may have looked like this
- Go to the gym for 10 minutes, once a week.
- Go to the gym for 20 minutes, once a week.
- Extend to 30 minutes, once a week.
- 40 minutes, once a week.
- 1 hour, once a week.
- Go to the gym for 1 hour, twice a week.
- 1 hour, three times a week.
- Go to the gym for 1 hour, four times a week.
After your second step, you realize it may take months to work up to the hour long duration, and this entire time you are only working out once a week. You can easily change your plan to reflect your new found revelation. Instead of increasing your duration of workout, you start to add days of the week.
Your new and improved plan may look like this:
- 10 minutes, once a week
- 20 minutes, once a week.
- 20 minutes, twice a week
- Go to the gym for 20 minutes, three times a week
- 20 minutes, 4 times a week
- 30 minutes, once a week, and 20 minutes the rest of the week.
- Go to the gym for 30 minutes twice a week, 20 minutes twice a week.
- 20 minutes once a week, the rest of the week 30 minutes
- 30 minutes, four times a week.
- 40 minutes once a week, 30 minutes the rest of the week.
- Go to the gym for 40 minutes twice a week, 30 minutes twice a week.
- 40 minutes, 4 times a week.
- 50 minutes once a week, 40 minutes the rest
- Twice a week go for 50 minutes, twice stay for 40.
- Go to the gym for 50 minutes, four days a week.
- 60 minutes once a week, 50 minutes the rest
- Half the week go for 60 minutes, the rest 50.
- Go to the gym for one hour, four times a week.
This process may go slower than you anticipated. It involves more steps and more approximations. But because you worked at your level and your pace, and because you had a plan in action, this habit becomes a lifestyle change, not a quick fix which you forget and abandon within a couple months. But now that we have some basics down, it’s time to really go have some fun.