We are just a couple of weeks into 2021, fresh with a new year, new hopes, and new goals. But how do we keep the momentum moving forward into February, March, and beyond? Or, maybe you're reading this in the middle of the summer setting new goals for yourself for the new school year. It doesn't matter the time of year of what you're calling your goals, how can we bring the science of ABA into our everyday lives to master our goals and change our behavior?
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#1: Long-Term vs Short-Term Goals
Let's consider how we write programs for our clients. If we have a 4 yr old that is non-verbal, one of our long term goals is likely to have the child verbally communicate using age-appropriate sentence length, but our goal isn't going to be "Client will mand for items and activities using 3-5 words...". If they were going to spontaneously start requesting things they would have done so already without our help. While your long term goal might be to lose weight, your short term goal can not be "I will lose 30lbs".
Long-term goals are important and we should always plan out what they are and look back at them regularly to make sure we're on the right path, but our day-to-day must be focused on the smaller goals that will get us to that long-term goal. For that non-verbal client, you will likely start with eye contact or pointing as a mand, then start introducing simple 1-syllable sounds, then shaping that into word approximations, the actual word, and finally adding in a carrier phrase and descriptors to create a 3-5 words request. If your personal goal is to lose weight, don't focus on your end goal day to day, think about how you are going to get there; work out 5 days a week, cook meals at home instead of getting restaurant food, etc.
#2: Replacement Behaviors
In the book "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It" by Kelly McGonigal (I know, the title alone may make you cringe with its hypothetical constructions, but it's a great book!) the author talks about behavior change in the terms of "I will..." goals and "I won't..." goals. The thing that I found most interesting in this psychology-based book is that Dr. McGonigal talks about turning all of your I won't goals into I will goals...REPLACEMENT BEHAVIORS!
We know all about replacement behaviors, so why do we still make goals for ourselves to "stop going to Starbucks every morning" or "don't look at your phone every 5 minutes". Where are our functionally appropriate replacement behaviors? If you have any "I won't..." goals for yourself (i.e. behaviors you are trying to decrease), flip your goal into the replacement behavior which will result in the decrease you are seeking. Instead of "I won't go to Starbucks every morning on my way to work" change it to "I will program my coffee maker every night before bed so I have coffee to take with me to work in the morning". Don't forget, a dead person also won't go to Starbucks every morning #Deadmanstest.
#3: Data and Reinforcement
This is a bit of a 2-part bullet point here, but they go together. First, take data!!! Your goals must be observable and measurable, include a mastery criteria so you know when to move on to the next step (if there is one), and there must be data. You don't need to go around with a clicker taking frequency data on your behavior all day, though you certainly could if you want to, but you need something to track your progress. If your long-term goal is to drink 64 ounces of water per day (because you currently drink 64 ounces of coffee and diet coke), a progression of short term goals might be to 1) drink a glass of water with each meal for 6 out of 7 days for 3 consecutive weeks 2) continue goal 1 and replace soda with flavored sparkling water for 6 out of 7 days for 3 consecutive weeks. Notice that the goals do not require 100% perfection and build upon each other instead of stopping all soda and coffee and increasing your water intake...because those kinds of changes do not last. For those goals, you might do a simple + or - for the day or even track the ounces of water you drank, whatever gives you the best picture of your progress.
Reinforcement increases the behavior that it follows, so if you want to increase and maintain this new skill, you need to reinforce it. Some of our goals will reinforce themselves, like weight loss goals will lead to losing weight, budgeting goals will lead to saving money, etc, but we should still provide some relevant reinforcement at designated milestones in our goals. Maybe it's when you get to a certain mini-goal, like losing 10 lbs or saving $500, or it's at the end of every week that you meet your mastery criteria. Meeting these goals doesn't mean you no longer crave pizza or you no longer have the desire to buy everything on Amazon, so allow a small, controlled reinforcement in the form of a cheat meal or a purchase of something you've been wanting that without blowing all of your progress.
A Final Note
Be kind to yourself and don't give up. It's easy to give up at the first failure or set back, but don't. Think about our clients that we work with, how long do they work at something before mastering a goal. Think about your friends, if they had a rough day would you tell them to give up because they can't do it, or would you cheer them on and tell them to brush it off and try again?
“There is no failure except in no longer trying.” ―Elbert Hubbard
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