Stay motivated at work with this behavioral trick.

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
President, bSci21Media, LLC
“Eat all of your vegetables and you can have dessert.” That’s Grandma’s Rule, and everyone grows up hearing it.  
Turns out Grandma’s Rule has its base in a scientific principle known as the Premack Principle.  Business Analysis Times recently wrote about it and Aubrey Daniels’ book Bringing Out the Best in People.  


David Premack first wrote about the principle in 1959, which states that certain behavior can reinforce other behavior.  More specifically, a higher probability behavior will reinforce a lower probability behavior if presented contingently after the lower probability behavior.  
So, stop arranging your work day with your high probability tasks scheduled first!  Doing so just increases the likelihood that you will burnout by the end of the day.  Instead, make an effort to do those things that you really don’t “want” to do but nevertheless have to do first thing in the morning.  That way, you are always looking forward to that high probability task at the end of the day.
Give it a try tomorrow and let us know how it works for you in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox.  


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

5 Comments on "Stay motivated at work with this behavioral trick."

  1. Hello!
    Great blog!
    However, I wonder:
    How does self-administering the Premack principle like this work when “self-reinforcement” as such does not exist?
    (Read e.g. Catania or Epstein)

    Is this an instance of self-monitoring adherence to a verbal rule to control oneself and do things in the “right” order?

    All the best!

  2. Reinforcement doesn’t exist either. Read our article on that. This is behavioral self management. I’m inclined to discuss this in terms of self generated rules and the rule class known as tracking. The question of what “exists” misses the entire point of behavior analysis as a pragmatic science of behavior change.

  3. Clumsy of me… Of course it doesn’t exist! I can just blame not speaking English as my first language 🙂

    Anyhow, I see that the two scenarios:
    1. My daddy brings out my playstation video game (where playing video games is a high frequency behavior) after cleaning my room (low frequency behavior). (Here the reinforcing behavior of playing is truly contingent on the low frequency behavior.

    2. I tell myself that I will play only after cleaning my room (there is no true contingency as I could at any time turn it on and play).

    Are two totally different beasts…

    In the 2nd scenario the playing (i.e. the reward) has nor reinforcing properties whatsoever, and the only reinforcement comes from following and monitoring the rule.
    It may be nice to reward yourself after cleaning of course, but there is no reinforcement of cleaning from playing, which makes me wonder why get old Premack involved at all. One could follow the rule and get the same reinforcement from following the rule with or without the reward.
    I mean that in the first scenario though, Premack IS used correctly.

    This is the same as if I were to give myself candy that I have available in my pocket after pressing a lever. There wouldn’t be any reinforcement from the candy here, as there is no contingency. There is a rule to give myself candy after pressing.

  4. Hmm . . . this strategy never really worked for me. I am more of a behavior momentum kinda gal, especially if there are a lot of items on my list (I am also the type of person that will add things to the to-do list that were not there if I happened to complete them just so I can see what I have accomplished so far). I started a procedure where you right down EVERYTHING you need accomplished in a particular interval and highlight them one of three colors. The first color is reserved for very short (aversive or not) tasks that can be completed relatively quickly, the second color is for longer, urgent tasks, and the final is for tasks that can wait until the others are done. Then, arrange the to do list with the first color at the start of the interval, followed by the second color, and so on. For me, completing the short tasks builds momentum for the lesser preferred or more involved tasks. If I start with the low probability task, I will most likely want to reward myself by stopping for the day (shame on me!). It is a matter of preference and wanted to share my other view.

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