Behavioral Psychology

One Step At A Time

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Your goals and dreams should be big or they’re probably not worth doing, but the problem is that the process can quickly get overwhelming precisely because so many steps go into large undertakings. You can easily find yourself at a loss for how to proceed, or worse become deflated to the point where you decide to throw in the towel.

One way to avoid this fate is to do what animal trainers do when they’re training a complicated behavior, which is to chop the final behavior up into smaller, more manageable parts that they can train in order of increasing complexity until the final behavior is reached, a process called shaping. By taking it one step at a time the animal feels less pressure and is always working in a range of competence that is difficult but achievable. It gets to feel a sense of efficacy and experience success at many points along the journey even though the real desired behavior isn’t performed until the very end.

You can use this exact same strategy on yourself. Take it one step at a time by writing down as specifically as possible the steps that will be necessary for you to reach your goal. If you have no idea what these steps are it’s a pretty good bet that you need to figure them out before proceeding. Consider your list to be like an outline, you’ll probably find that you need to tweak it many times as you go, but what the approach will do for you is make the whole endeavor seem more manageable and allow you to celebrate small victories you might not have noticed before, which is a reinforcing feeling.

We are more dependent on the external environment for how to behave than we like to believe. B.F. Skinner called these environmental cues contingencies of reinforcement. In the absence of much reinforcement from your environment while you’re working towards your goals the danger is that you’ll quit. Chopping the final goal up and positively reinforcing yourself for small accomplishments at the various stages is a way to artificially create these reinforcing contingencies while making the whole process seem more doable.