TAGteaching Optimism?

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I saw a photo on Facebook the other day and it got me thinking. In the photo, a poster said they went to school with someone who used a clicker whenever they had an event or happening that made them feel good.  Then someone mused whether the clicker could elicit good feelings on its own when needed.

It makes pretty sound behavioral sense.  Clicker training has long been used with both animals and humans.  The idea is that the clicker is more precise than praise would be.  Here is a short video on an application of clicker training called TAGteach:

I’m a pessimist by nature.  In college, I was given a book 101 Reasons Why We’re Doomed. I got the message, but it’s still easy for me to see the problems and the reasons “why not.” According to the popular press, we are hardwired to see aversive stimuli and ignore the more pleasant stimuli in our environment.  I did a cursory lit review and didn’t come up with anything on that front, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence to support it.  Nor could I find anything about the praise-to-corrective ratio of 5:1 often talked about.  Of course, if anyone has any references, I’ll be sure to add them.

Why couldn’t it be used to help with positivity?  If TAGTeach has been shown to teach behaviors such as golf swings, dance moves, and yoga poses, why not use it to increase well-being and positive general outlook?

I think it goes without saying that we could all use a little more positivity in academia. It is, by its nature, competitive and filled with rejection. My colleagues in other settings are often amazed at things like day-long interviews and the peer review process. How does one stay above it? 

When there are no data to support a research question, what should we as behavior analysts do?  Collect data, of course! Of course, positive outlook isn’t observable or measurable, but counting the number of “positive happenings” in my environment is. I won’t say that increases in counts of positive happenings is a proxy for my emotions – only I can know that for sure.  But, this seems like a reasonable way to see if self-monitoring using a clicker increases reports of positive daily events.

Unfortunately, the mechanism for data collection I’ll use will also be my feedback tool. I plan on using a counter (often either called a “golf counter” or a “church counter”) to provide both the click and the count. Therefore, it won’t really be a controlled experiment. I am looking forward to charting my progress using a Standard Celeration Chart. That way, I can see if noting positive happenings increases. Not JABA worthy, I know, but hey, what do I have to lose?

Are you going to try it?  Let me know – share your chart on the Facebook page!

Diet tracker update

Diet-wise, I’ve decided to go back to my trusty Sparkpeople.  The interface is clean, the price perfect, it works on all my devices, and it has most of the bells and whistles that the other apps have. By moving to other interfaces, I’m trying to fix something that isn’t broken, it seems. 

I did learn some good things about myself and diet and exercise in general from my experiment, even if it wasn’t tightly controlled. We’ll just call this qualitative? I do best with social support. My goals, even though I am a behavior analyst and should know better, tend to be a little nebulous and vague. That said, there are a few things I would like to study a bit more. It’ll be interesting to see if there are some takeaways that I can incorporate into my daily routine:

  • Daily Weigh-Ins. I’m wondering if this is a good  idea or not – it was a little frustrating to see my weight fluctuate by two pounds every other day.
  • Virtual Coaching v. Having a Live Coach. Not sure if synchronous v. asynchronous coaching is what I mean on this one. Is having a real person on the other end who is dedicated to answering your questions and checking in with you better than pre-recorded motivational and informational videos? 
  • Types of Self-Monitoring. What types of self-monitoring are best.  Does the advent of apps and automatic monitoring devices increase the likelihood of generalized and maintained behavior change?  

Having done a cursory lit search for this blog, it seems that I could do a full-on search and study on each of these topics. I just might do that!  As always, if you have a question or comment, please leave it in the comments section below!

Movement Break Ideas

After realizing I needed more movement in my day, I began to look at ways I could move more and sit less.  Since I already incorporate Pomodoros into my day,  I thought I might try to re-visit the idea of 5-minute exercise breaks distributed throughout the day.  One of my biggest hurdles is motivating myself to do the exercise breaks, so creative solutions are always welcome.

Occasionally, I will go to Obstacle Course Training. About a year ago, one of the trainers introduced me to Sally.  Sally is not a person, but a training technique.  “Bring Sally Up” by Moby and Trevor Rabin is the ideal song for a short but challenging movement break.  You can do this with just about any move that goes up and down (abs, pushups, wall sits, even stepping), but I’ll put this video here for an example. 

Remember: I’m just putting these up here as ideas. Consult a doctor, PT, or trainer for specific advice, and follow theirs if it contradicts mine.  

Catchy tune, isn’t it?  It doesn’t hurt that I am a huge prog rock fan and love Trevor Rabin’s contributions to Yes. 

Here is a stretch video that might be nice after grading that “what was I thinking when I assigned THIS” set of papers.

Last but certainly not least, if you are looking for something intense and you aren’t afraid to face-plant, here is a 5-minute HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training, not to be confused with Super High Intensity Training). This one I have not tried, but it does not look like it is for the faint of heart.

If you give one or all of these a try, I’d love to hear your feedback!  Have a great weekend – and take some time for you!

Working from Home

Cartoon of sloppy women working from home. Sweatshirts, hairy legs, old clothing, no bra, and ponytails.
Can you relate? 

I am fully dressed as I write this blog, so no one needs to cringe inside, promise.  But I do have my signature hoodie on and yesterday’s jeans. 

The thing about not having a commute is that I start working as soon as my butt hits the couch.  The ability to work from home is great, and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity to do so.  But as with all situations, some uncomfortable issues can arise:

  • The lack of fashion represented by the cartoon above – no one will know if I brushed my teeth before I sent that email.
  • Even less movement than if I were sitting in the office.  My data say somewhere between 2000-3000 less steps. Yikes, that isn’t good at all.
  • The perception that I’m home, so I can: 1) get household chores done; 2) run errands; 3) be available in general for personal things

Can anyone else relate?  I don’t tend to have the TV on when I work (I’m more drawn to the siren’s call of Facebook), but clearly working from home is wreaking havoc on my health. 

I found this review by A.I. Tavares that examined how telework affects health.  Some of the advantages of telework that Tavares cites are:

  • Scheduling flexibility
  • Less office politics (I’m not so sure about this one in academia)
  • Increased job satisfaction and quality of life

Some of the disadvantages included:

  • Difficulties with boundaries between work and home (ya think?)
  • Social isolation
  • Working when it might be ill-advised to do so, such as when sick or hungry or under-caffeinated
  • Lack of presence affecting promotion and recognition for efforts (again, not so sure about this one in academia)

So how does telework affect health?  There are definite health advantages to working from home, such as less stressful evironments and less exposure to poor air quality.  That said, working from home may create issues with repetitive stress and other musculoskeletal injuries.  There is no social pressure to sit up straight or take a break, leading to injury.  The lack of structure may lead to overwork, stress, burnout, and depression due to social isolation. (Unless you are a social vegan who avoids meet.) While telework has the potential to improve work-life balance, the opposite may also be true. 

Other surprising issues that emerge from telework include increases in gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, and metabolic disorders.  It makes a lot of intuitive sense. 

In a future post, I’ll talk more about possible solutions to the work-from-home-inertia.  I’d love to hear your experiences and solutions in the meantime. 

Food Tracking

I stepped on the scale this morning and ouch. 

About this time a few years ago, I made a pledge to myself to get healthy again.  I was depressed, homesick from moving to a new town, and out of shape. Picked up Dr. Pam Peeke’s Fit to Live. I lost 25 pounds, got into shape, and started running Warrior Dashes. 

Then I stopped.

There was a major life trigger, as well as health reasons.  I found out that I had all kinds of digestive issues related to Ehlers-Danlos. These life events resulted in me taking medications that not only promoted weight gain, but also made me sluggish and inert.

My losses have been negated.  Such is how life goes. 

I’ve tried MyFitnessPal, Sparkpeople, and WW and had success with all three, but not this time around for some reason.  So, I decided to try Noom to see if it would be different.  

My original thought was to use an alternating treatments design to determine which one to keep and which ones to scrap.  I was planning on spending a week on each one,  seeing how much weight I lost, then repeating the process a few more times to determine the winner.  However, Noom is a little different in its approach so that won’t be possible. 

They have a plan that is very compatible with ACT as well as Pam Peeke’s plan.  They start with a values clarification exercise, or what Pam Peeke calls a “Power Why.” You then set out on a customized plan based on caloric density, or the water content in foods. We’ll see how that works, since Glycemic Index is considered a more evidence-based approach. 

You also get a personal coach, which means I now have a life coach, a weight loss coach, and a writing coach.  Pretty much I have a personal team of coaches.  I kind of feel like a celebrity!  With this type of support, if I go wrong, I might just be a hopeless case. 

Hopefully, this is what I need to jump-start my journey back to healthy living.  I’ll keep you posted along the way.


BONUS:  Here is a blog by Erin Lusby-Donovan about healthy holiday living, ABA style!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it yesterday.  I was able to get caught up enough Wednesday night to have a guilt-free, pajama-clad morning.  My original plan was a Turkey Trot, but registration was full by the time I got around to it.

There has been a lot of talk about gratitude in the popular press.  Authors such as Rick Hansen and Tara Brach say that gratitude is one of the gateways to happiness.  So, I thought I would do some research in what behavior analysis says about that.

I think the best way to start is looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (said as the word, not the acronym) posits that much of human suffering comes from rigid, rule-bound behavior. For those of you who are struggling to see the connection to behavior analysis, let me try to break it down for you.

So, there are basically two ways to get a new behavior into your repertoire – either by learning a rule about it or by experiencing reinforcement.  A rule can come in many forms – signs, instructions, songs, even past comments.  If someone told me,  “teal is your color,” I might wear more teal.  However, if I learned the rule that bikinis make me look fat, I might not wear them.

Think of all the things you probably learned through rules:

  • Dress codes
  • What you eat for breakfast versus what you eat for dinner (Lentil soup for breakfast is gross in the U.S. but standard in other cultures)
  • Traffic and other laws

Let me give you some proof – “Ma Na Ma Na.”  You’re welcome for what comes next. What are the things that come to mind?

For those of you saying “huh?” I will teach you.  Watch this video and come back to this post either tomorrow or later today.

Here is the strange thing about rule-governed behavior – even when the environmental events change, that behavior doesn’t.  At least not easily.  Let’s say someone has a history of abuse.  The rule might have been, “don’t speak up or make waves, or trouble will start.”  Later in their life, they have trouble asking for what they need or want because the rule is you don’t do that. 

Much like riding a bike, you never forget your rules, because they become part of a network called a relational frame.  Train a few rules up in the right way and a whole new set of networks emerge without much training. Sometimes this is good, like in cases where you use your filter before speaking or stop at red lights.  Sometimes they can get sticky and rigid and sometimes irrational.

Here are some awesome videos that describe the phenomenon of relational networks and how they affect mental health, by the Great Steve Hayes:

So my long-winded post – what does ACT have to do with Gratitude?

I can’t seem to find anything published, but my guess is that if we expose ourselves to grateful experiences on a regular basis (also called multiple exemplar training), we’ll form a network of them.  That way, when we see similar situations, we’re more likely to think, “ahh, this is something that fits into the gratitude network.”

Anyway, I’m grateful for all of you readers, as well as my colleagues and clients.  You make all my chains concurrent.  (TLDR; Lots of reinforcement available at the same time for lots of different behavior)

A little digression into time management

I read an article today that I think might be helpful enough to digress from standing desks and momentum to time management.

I read this article today in The Guardian (am I the most stereotypical prof or what? For the record, I also wear hipster glasses and hang out in craft breweries). The advice here is from Julie Morganstern, one of the OGs of organization. Meggin McIntosh has done a nice job of translating the principles into ones that are do-able for academics. 

Why do I read these things and pass them on to you?  You probably have this idea that I have a perfectly organized office, no chaos, and that I’m smiling and organized all the time.  Nope.  I’m working the programs just like you are.  I find when I use these strategies, they help, and when I don’t, well, I’m a mess.  Progress, not perfection, right? 

So what are some of the takeaways I got from the article? 

  • Disorganization takes precious time and resources from you – time you could be spending somewhere else
  • Put things in the most efficient places – for example, keys in a basket by the door (which, for the record, I already do, just not neatly)
  • You have to know what you have to declutter. Oy, yes.  Raise your hand if you have seven million tote bags, post-its, and pens from places you will never work? Conference swag and attendee name tags?  Tee shirts with nerdy phrases that sounded fun when you were with fellow nerds?  (Anyone still have a “f**k mentalism” tee from the late 90s ABA conferences, before the I was added)?
  • Sometimes you have to schedule time to do nothing.  Having some time to just hang out is a form of self-care. Don’t schedule your life so tightly.

That last one, and the idea of “buckets,” were game-changers for me.  Buckets are clustering similar work into one time frame, based upon your natural energy patterns.  I’m not talking how you align your chakras; what I mean is your natural patterns of productivity.  For example, late morning to early evening are my most productive times. I tend to be what we call in my house a “second shift” person.

By working with your natural patterns, the probability of success goes up. All of my other attempts at time management consisted of filling every waking hour with productivity.  Up at 5:30 and go until 9pm.  These changes rarely lasted more than a week.  Now, I have time for things I would have railed at before, and I don’t feel as pressured.

Am I perfect?  Nope.  As I said earlier, I’m “face down in the arena” just like everyone else.  But good enough is better than perfect, because often perfect never happens.  That’ll be a post for a later time. 

Behavioral Momentum Meets my Couch

In my last post, I introduced you to the phenomenon of behavioral momentum.  In my case, once I sit down and start writing, doing email, blogging, or whatever, I’m sitting for a good long time.  It’s hard for me to break that momentum, switch gears, and do something new. 

The Pomodoro Technique helps, but so far only for writing.  That, and the Academic Ladder challenge chats, where a group logs on and holds each other accountable for solid blocks of work. I’m thinking that in this case, I’m more using the Premack Principle, or the “do this first…then you get to do this” strategy than momentum.

Sidebar: So should you do easy tasks then more difficult ones to build momentum, or more difficult tasks and use the easier ones as incentive?  I think we can clearly see the answer is:

It depends.

But I digress – back to my couch.

If I have build a comfy (read: reinforcing) area and I tend to stay put when I get there. I need to do something to make things less comfy, right?  According to the literature, ways to break momentum are:

  • Stop making the area reinforcing (extinction).  Considering that I need my computer and I’m not willing to redecorate, that one is out.
  • Sit so much I get sick of it (satiation).  Hasn’t happened yet, so I have my doubts on that one.
  • Punishment – maybe make sure nails stick up in the place I usually sit?  Have someone come over and slap me or call me and yell at me when I sit there? Post my Rate My Professor reviews on the wall? (Alas, I have no chili peppers.) Doubtful as well.
  • Time-based reinforcers (so maybe Pomodoro does work here) or providing incentives for some other behavior that is just as reinforcing (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative/Incompatible Behavior or DRA/I). I could do that.
  • Distraction or redirection. Also a possibility.

DRA/I or distraction sound like the most reasonable of interventions. What would be an alternative or incompatible behavior that is just as reinforcing as sitting on my couch? What would be such a good distraction that I don’t want to sit there?  This is where my quandary lies. Stimulus preference assessment must commence.

There are many types of preference assessments, but I’m thinking that a variation on a trial-based preference assessment would work here.  Try each scenario out and see what works best.  Here are the ones that I’ve come up with, based on the peer-reviewed work of Dr. Google:

  • Standing Desk. I can already rule out the standing desk for more than 10 minutes.  My back and knees end up aching, and I have yet to find one that is the right height and doesn’t aggravate my kyphosis. But, for short intervals I could do it.  Maybe on my breaks. 
  • Treadmill desk. So, I’m a professor in one of the most expensive areas of the country.  Nope.  Although if I could make that one work, I would be happy to try it.  I did try a stepper in the office and ended up with hand nerve impingement.  Maybe I should bring it home, though?
  • Bar Seat. This one might actually be feasible with the standing desk.  Perch myself, work, stand, perch.  I just have to make sure not to slouch.
  • Walk Around for Breaks. I already do this sometimes, but I need to find a better reinforcer for doing so. Checking Facebook or Pinterest is way more reinforcing.
  • Use a Zafu and sit on the floor. A Zafu is a meditation cushion.  You can also purchase benches for mediation that do essentially the same thing.  The idea is to put you into a comfortable yet ergononically correct posture. I don’t think using one is cultural appropriation, but if it is, please comment and I’ll amend this post.

There are some other ideas on this site, but the ones above are the ones I’ll try for now.   As always, the data doesn’t lie. 

Results of my Baseline

I vacillated between reporting the data and vaguely telling you the results of my analysis.  I’ve decided on the latter because my journey needs to have some sort of anonymity to it.  Let’s see what interesting things I’m finding out about myself and my behavior: 

  • I spend too much time on the couch (everyone say “duh”)
  • Once on the couch, I stay on the couch
  • I’ve never crossed off more than 5 things on my to-do list during a day (over promising and under-delivering to myself)
  • My nutrition data explain a bit about how and why I’m not feeling as well as I could (especially in terms of low potassium levels – bring on the bananas and the potatoes)
  • I could be more hydrated
  • Most of my couch duty behavior is escape-maintained (which is surprising because I thought it would be more socially mediated) – in lay terms, I’m trying to escape the world as opposed to needing some external reinforcement. 

So what should my plan be?  I tell my students not to take on more behaviors than they can handle at one time, and never more than 3.  I’m going to take this slowly and do one thing at a time.  Starting tomorrow, I will try to increase my hydration and increase my intake of potassium-rich foods.  I’m hoping that combo will increase my energy levels, and we’ll see if the escape behavior is in the same response class.  If it is, I should see more increases in the couch potato area without intervention.  Somehow I doubt that, but the data never lie. 

I’m also wondering what role behavioral momentum has with regard to my couch potato lifestyle.  You might remember momentum from high school physics (I’m sorry if that evokes nightmares – we had phun in physics where we phailed, too).  Anyway, momentum refers to the tendency to stay in motion once motion is initiated. Same thing with behavior. The same behavior tends to persist unless it is disrupted in some way.  Let’s test this out:

Say roast 10 times as fast as you can.  I’ll wait.  What do you put in a toaster?

If you said “toast,” that was behavioral momentum at work. Once we are positioned, working, and the reinforcers flow (in my case, getting that work graded and those papers written), it keeps going, and going, and going… You get the idea. 

Now, most of the applied research is about how to get a response going – for example, getting a child with developmental disabilities to respond to commands.  The most famous of this is the Hi-P sequence.  Similar to the “Roast” example,  you do a bunch of high-probability responses and then throw in a non-preferred one quickly.  See Lee, 2010 for more information (this article is behind a paywall).

In the next post, I’m going to see how we can use behavioral momentum to (maybe) get me off the couch and into the world.

Goal Setting and Baseline Tracking

I’m currently sitting on my couch reading about how sitting on your couch takes years off your life.  This is enough to motivate me to start this project.  de Rezende, Lopes, Lopez, Matsudo, and Luiz (2014) found that sitting and watching TV increases risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and Type 2 diabetes. Not as comforting as the down blanket I’m under.

I’m not an active person by nature.  My friends would probably be surprised to know that physical activity does not come naturally to me.  In high school, I smoked a pack a day, listened to tapes, and played my Fender Telecaster knock-off.  Later in College, I found Step aerobics which I did pretty religiously for about a year.  After some serious surgery in 2000, I put on weight and got very into Spinning.  Then around 2010 I started martial arts.  My bursts look very much like Fixed Interval Scallops, where bursts of responding surround some sort of achievement/reinforcer, then drop off.  All animals do this, and it is a natural part of life.

So, I’m back in a rut. What, exactly do I want to accomplish this time around?

  • Eat better and drink more fluids (I have Positional Hypotension so I pass out when I’m dehydrated or stand up too fast)
  • Increase the amount of exercise I do in a week
  • Get back into a consistent martial arts schedule
  • Eat better with a 30/30/30 distribution of macros (fat, carbs, protein)
  • Not look like an idiot at the Soldier Field 10-miler I’m doing with other behavior analysts in May

In order to make a change, though, I need a baseline of where I am now.  So, I’m in the process of taking data on my current habits. The app I’m using is Countee, and I’m taking Antecedent-Behavior Consequence data on my own behavior.  Amanda Kelly, a/k/a Behaviorbabe, has created this tutorial on ABC Data collection. 

Stay tuned for the data!