I believe that operant conditioning is one of the most powerful tools we can use for rapid personal growth. The basic idea is that any behavior that is reinforced will likely be repeated, and any behavior that is continually reinforced will become automatic.
The key is to use positive reinforcement immediately after the desired behavior occurs, and to increase requirements for reinforcement in small steps. By doing this you can create complex chains of behavior by taking things a step at a time and gradually reinforcing the desired behavior until you get the result you want.
In this article, I share how I personally use operant conditioning, or behavioral shaping, to get out of my head, stop being bogged down by an onslaught of negative or irrelevant thoughts, and be more present in my daily life.
A few months ago, I decide that I am thinking too much. I am constantly overanalyzing things and as a result, I am not being fully present. As a result of not being present, I’m paying attention to the world around me, and interacting with myself instead of the task at hand. I have to start paying attention, and using my senses instead of relying on the stream of consciousness rabbling going on in my head.
So I decide to use one of my favorite tools and topics, shaping, to change this.
Getting Started With Operant Conditioning
First, I pick a reward to use as a reinforcing tool. It can be anything from chocolate, to peanuts, to a pat on the back. I decide to use wasabi peas because I love spicy food, and they are small enough to consume quickly and allow me to rapidly reinforce behaviors in quick succession.
Next I start to reinforce the desired behavior. I want to use my senses more to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I don’t want to overwhelm myself. So I first start by conditioning my sense of hearing.
What I do is walk outside to my back yard, with a baggy of wasabi peas in my hand. I close my eyes and just listen. I pay attention to the sounds around me, and every time I consciously notice one, I give myself a reinforcement immediately after noticing it.
I hear the wind blowing the leaves – reinforce immediately
I hear a bird chirping – reinforce immediately
I hear a lawn mower start off in the distance – reinforce immediately
I hear an airplane fly overhead – reinforce immediately
I hear a rustling in the bushes a few feet away – reinforce immediately
I start walking forward and hear my feet crunching the grass underneath me – reinforce immediately
You get the point. While this may seem simple, it is extremely effective and I recommend you try it. After a while you start to raise the standards and difficulty, only reinforcing yourself when you make an improvement. In this case, all of the things I mentioned above I can still hear; airplanes flying overhead, lawn mower starting, leaves rustling, etc. I pay attention to these still and remain present, but now I only reinforce myself when I hear a new sound enter my awareness.
A dog barks in the distance – reinforce immediately
I hear my neighbor next door coughing – reinforce immediately
As you continue to train your senses, you notice more intricate and subtle sounds in your environment. For me, I notice that when the wind is blowing, the leaves of different trees make different sounds, so I reinforce myself for noticing this.
After you train your hearing for 10 minutes or so, with 25 or so reinforcers take a break and pat yourself on the back. Reinforce yourself for this training session by giving yourself a handful of reinforcers to chomp on. For me it is a handful of wasabi peas.
Later in the day, or whenever you feel like it, focus on your other senses.
Here are a few examples of how to reinforce yourself for sight and touch:
Feel the cool, wet grass under your feet in the morning – reinforce immediately
Feel the wind on your face – reinforce immediately
Walk out in the rain and feel the raindrops dripping down your face – reinforce immediately
Take off your sweatshirt and feel the sleeves slide off your arms – reinforce immediately
Pick up a pine cone and feel its textures – reinforce for each sensation you feel (hardness, prickliness, flexibility and ridges, shape in your hands)
Look straight ahead and notice the dominant color. In my back yard it is green – reinforce immediately
Look at the color of the tree bark – reinforce immediately
Are there flowers? – if so reinforce immediately and separately for each color or type you see
Notice the color of your skin on your hands – reinforce immediately
Live in a hilly or mountainous area – notice the form and terrain around you – reinforce immediately
What you reinforce and what you even notice will differ for each person, and it doesn’t matter what you reinforce for, as long as it is something out in the environment and not a thought in your head.
This is the actual method I use to get out of my head, and it works wonders. Now when I am out with friends, working, or enjoying leisure time I am more mindful of my surroundings. I notice a beautiful girl’s long eyelashes, I notice how old a street is by the wear and tear and potholes, I notice how firm someone’s handshake is, as well as the callouses on their hands. I notice how calmly or panicky someone’s breathing is.
This training takes only 10-15 minutes a day total. Break it down into 5 minute sessions to start. One for each sense: sight, hearing, and touch. Doing this opens you up to the world around you and gets you plugged into your senses, allowing you to enjoy life and the people around you more.
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