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!

What I’m Doing

You might be wondering what prompted a site/blog like this one.  Of course, as I said before, I have some bad habits that have affected my productivity and effectiveness as a teacher. But honestly, the motivation runs deeper than that. 

The Academy does awful things to us.  The quest for productivity means that being overworked and overtired is a badge of courage.  There is a fair amount of competitiveness in higher education. The Lake Woebegone Effect is alive and well in academia – everyone is expected to be above average in teaching, research, and service. 

A few years ago, someone close to me passed away suddenly.  His boss came by with a plate of break-and-bake cookies and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.  I need his computer back.”  This was one of those turning point moments. Another one was when my mother got sick with heart disease and cancer.  Before her illness, she was a fastidious homemaker.  One of my friends once remarked that she thought we were wealthy because our home was so clean.  When my Mom remarked she wouldn’t be able to clean her house anymore, one of her physical therapists remarked, “that is what you want your legacy to be?”

So what do these stories have to do with Fitness and Wellness in the Academy?  Well, I’ve come to realize that caring for yourself is critical if you want to stick around – and do the things you want to do.  Academia is unique in that we work A LOT, and we spend the rest of the time feeling guilty that we aren’t working.  To paraphrase a friend of mine, you have the flexibility to choose which 70 hours a week you want to work. There is also a hidden curriculum – how do you get it all done?  When is it ok to say no and when is it in your best interest to say yes? 

As a low (low-low) level supervisor, too, I’m hearing more about repetitive stress injuries,  increasing mental health issues,  and general anxiety of having to do more with less.  Yet when I look for resources on wellness and fitness for the unique needs of academics, I came up with nothing.  So, I decided to design this site. 

It is my hope that the resources I provide and the documentation of my journey is helpful and inspiring to you. My goal is to talk about the things no one is talking about with regard to healthy living in the academy.  I want to give practical advice – while there will be some links to meditation and yoga, I’ll try to keep those at a minimum.  Rather,  I’ll stick to evidence-based practices that will increase productivity and healthy living.  Leave a comment and let me know how I’m doing!