e all have reasons that we follow through on activities and reasons that we don’t. Part of becoming more self-aware is taking the time to dissect what those reasons are so we can identify how to overcome the obstacle if we deem the activity worthy of our effort.
The reason I am spending some time talking about this is because we often know the actions to take that will get us closer to our goals, but we still find ourselves not taking the action that is needed. There is often a gap between knowing what to do and then actually doing it consistently. Understanding this one principle was actually one of the driving factors that helped me in my decision to go back to graduate school. Before pursuing my doctorate, I had spent 10 years or so studying personal development and performance, yet I found that I wasn’t following through 100% on any of the actions I needed to take, and I didn’t understand why. I knew what to do, but yet I wasn’t doing it. You could say this became the burning question I wanted to answer.
So, let’s spend a few minutes breaking down what drives human behavior and motivates us to take consistent action.
At the very basic level, we engage in behaviors that produce pleasure and we avoid behaviors that produce pain. Now, when I say pain- I’m not speaking literally- for the most part. Pain can be literal pain if we know we have to go do a training run, for example, that we know is going to be hard, or it can mean a non-preferred activity like making sales calls that will likely lead to some rejection. Either way- the activity itself is not producing pleasure.
Now behavioral scientists have shown time and time again that people respond more favorably to positive reinforcement rather than punishment. We see this key principle of behavior change used all of the time. Anyone who has ever been to Sea World and seen any of the animal shows has witnessed this firsthand. The only way to get a 6,000-pound killer whale to do tricks is to first develop a trusting relationship with it and then provide positive reinforcement when it does the behavior you’re wanting to see more of.
Now you may be asking yourself what this has to do with you and why you’re not following through on the behaviors that you know will bring you closer to your goals. Hang with me- I’m going to tie this all together.
Have you ever procrastinated? I’m going to guess the answer is yes because you’re human. Procrastination is the delay of a perceived non-preferred activity because whatever you were doing at that time was providing more pleasure to you in that moment.
Most people don’t particularly enjoy brushing their teeth, for example, but they value the behavior because they know the pain of not brushing their teeth is bad breath, probably some social judgment, getting a cavity and having to go see the dentist where they have to use that very punishing drill. So, we engage in the behavior to avoid pain.
Getting in shape is another great example of this principle of pain and pleasure at work and the challenge with consistency that many people face. Starting and maintaining a fitness program requires effort and some level of discomfort if you’re hoping to see any type of result. The time commitment and the pain of engaging in this activity requires some type of reinforcement to consistently do it. Unfortunately, the reinforcement that we seek, either weight loss or muscle gain, or some other health benefit takes longer to realize, and we are left only experiencing the “pain” of the activity. In the moment, the pain of the activity is more real and immediate than the pleasure that we will receive eventually.
So how do we turn all of this around and start taking consistent action?
Now that you know, at least at a basic level, what drives human behavior, it’s time to pay attention on purpose to what is happening before the behavior or activity that you know you should be engaging in and what is happening after. For example, if you know you should be getting in a certain number of fitness sessions to hit your personal fitness goals or making 5 extra sales calls each day or leaving work on time so you’re home for dinner, first write down the “pain” that you associate with the activity. Is it physical? Is it the potential rejection? Is home not a reinforcing place to be when you first get there? Write it down. Then, look at the activities that you are doing instead of what you should be doing because it is those activities that you find more reinforcing, at least in that moment.
Next week, I will go through some strategies that you can use to receive more immediate reinforcement for the non-preferred behaviors that you know will lead you to your goals.
I hope you found value in this article and I invite you to share any specific strategies that you use to increase your awareness in the comments below.