A Quick Guide to Self-Management

If you want to consistently achieve personal goals, you must first learn to manage your behavior. The field of Applied Behavior Analysis has developed a set of procedures to help you do this. We call these strategies self-management.

Define Clear Goals

1. Ultimate outcomes:

Focus on a few goals that are important to you or the people around you. These goals should be lifestyle changes. Some areas to consider include (a) home, (b) work or school, (c) leisure or social activities, and (d) health.

In her article, “The Science of Setting Goals,” Nadia Goodman describes a helpful strategy to identify goals. She recommends you ask yourself at least three times, “Why do you want that?”. The purpose of this exercise is to go beyond behavior changes.

Here is an example:

    1. Why do you want to exercise more frequently? - to lose weight
    2.  Why you want to lose weight?” - to be healthier.
    3.  Why do you want to be healthier? - to see my children grow up and meet my grandchildren.

The final response is a great ultimate outcome.

Nadia Goodman also recommends framing your goals positively. She writes, “Focus on what you want to bring into your life - not what you want to avoid.”

2. Intermediate outcomes:

Choose intermediate goals that will bring you closer to your ultimate outcomes. These intermediate goals could be either behavior or lifestyle changes. They must be specific, measurable, and time-bound. For example, “I will lose 15 pounds by December 15th.”

Develop a Plan

Any successful plan requires a change in action. As Thomas Edison once wrote, “Vision without execution is a hallucination.” There are two types of behavior changes relevant to self-management: (a) something you would like to do more frequently, (b) something you would like to do less frequently.

1. Find what’s already working:

Sometimes we spend too much time trying to analyze the problem when the solution could be right in front of us. Look for situations in which you tend to engage in the right behavior(s). What do those situations have in common? Use this information to re-create those situations as much as possible. By placing yourself in situations in which the right behavior(s) tend to occur, you will increase your chances of success.

Also, look at other people who are successfully achieving similar goals. What strategies are they using? What behaviors can you duplicate?

2. Write a contract:

Consequences play a major role in any attempt to change behavior. Thus, you should arrange them. Involve the people around you. They can keep you honest and provide encouragement when you need it.

Write a contract and make it public. Your contract you should state a behavior you need to complete before you can access a preferred activity - “If (behavior), then (consequence).”

3. Make change easy:

Any successful plan would promote the right behaviors by making change a little bit easier. Let’s look at some ways to do this.

Decreasing the effort to do something: The simplest way to make change easy is by selecting small wins. Make the change small enough, so you can quickly reach it. Once you start meeting your goals, you can gradually increase the effort.

In their book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath recommend selecting small wins that have two traits:

    1. (a) They’re meaningful.
    2. (b) They’re within immediate reach.

And they add, “If you can’t achieve both traits, choose the latter!” Frequent immediate successes will keep the right behavior(s) going.

Complete the early steps in a sequence: Another strategy is to break down a task into steps. You don’t have to complete the whole task all at once. Complete the first steps in a sequence. That way, you will be reminded of the steps you have already completed and you will be more likely to finish the remaining steps.

For example, get your exercise clothes and leave them ready next to your bed. Prepare your favorite pre-workout drink or snack the night before. When you wake up in the morning, everything will be ready for you to start your day and workout. This will make it more likely you will exercise.

Create good habits: It is really easy to continue doing something that is already embedded in your routines. Create habits that will sustain over time.

A good strategy to create a habit is to designate certain areas for specific activities. We might call these areas “zones.” We can have a “work zone,” a “lounging zone,” etc. Creating this habit will increase your motivation to engage in the appropriate activity when you are in a specific “zone.” For instance, if I want to be more productive when I study, I could designate a specific chair for doing school-related activities. When sitting on this chair, I will only focus on completing school work. The environment will promote this “school work behavior.”

4. Set reminders:

Arrange the environment to remind you to engage in the desired behavior. Set alarms in your phone, use a visual schedule, ask others to provide you with reminders, use sticky notes, and so on. The options are almost limitless.

5. Eliminate temptation:

In the same way, we want to promote the right type of behavior, we need to make the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.

Avoid situations in which you are less likely to be successful. If you are more likely to drink around a certain group of friends, you should avoid them if your goal is to stop drinking. If you tend to eat junk food and you are trying to eat healthier, you should eliminate junk food from your refrigerator.

As Chip and Dan Heath write, “Environmental tweaks beat self-control every time.”

Make Progress Visible

There is no better way to visualize your progress than measuring your own behavior. Find a portable, easy, and consistent way to collect data. Today’s technology has made this process really simple. There are many apps and devices available to record progress.

Looking at your graphed data will remind you of the progress already made. Seeing gradual changes towards your goal could be rewarding. This might be enough for change to occur, a process referred to as reactivity.

Find the Support of the People Around You

Find people who will support your behavior change, or who are going through a similar process. They will provide frequent encouragement and keep you on the right track.

Make your progress public to recruit the support of others. Involve them by sharing what you are trying to accomplish and how you are doing. They can offer invaluable help. They can prompt the right behavior(s), provide social consequences when you meet or don’t meet your goals, and provide feedback when you need it.

Finally, remember that change isn’t an event; it’s a process. Preparing for setbacks is important. When they happen, don’t give up. Look at your graphs, make sure you are going in the right direction, and think about how you can change the situation to your advantage. Be persistent and change will start to occur.

The people who change have a clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.

Check the Self-Management Planner.

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