Three Steps to Effective Self-Management


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

President, bSci21Media, LLC

At first glance, the term “self-management” sounds antithetical to a science of behavior. We usually talk about behavior as a function of the environment…that a reference to the individual as a change agent must go further — to an analysis of the individuals learning history. After all, we want to predict and influence behavior, right?


Self-management has long been embraced by behavior analysts, including Skinner himself (see Clayton, 2006 for a brief primer).  To self-manage means to apply behavior change principles to your own behavior to bring about desired outcomes.  The probability that one will do so is a function of one’s learning history coupled with present circumstances.

The Aubrey Daniels Institute outlines a straightforward three step self-management procedure that you can use to either increase behavior you want to do more often (e.g., studying, writing, exercise), or decrease bad habits (e.g., smoking, drinking, or that annoying thing you do with your hair all the time).

Step 1 – Define the behavior.

Do so in a way that is easy to quantify over time such that you can measure it’s rate of occurrence per day.  For example, if you want to increase “exercise,” be clear on what you mean, and it can mean different things to different people.  To one person, “exercise” could mean jogging five miles a day.  To another person, it could mean getting off the couch and walking to the mailbox.

Step 2 – Establish a baseline.

In other words, measure the current rate of the behavior.  Many times you will be surprised by how often (or not) the behavior occurs once you take data on it.  The duration of baseline is not set in stone but a few rules of thumb are: collect at least three data points, and go longer if the data is variable in order to see trends.

Step 3 – Arrange the consequences.

Remember, consequences include reinforcers as well as punishers.  In self-management, sometimes it can be easy to give yourself a break here but don’t do it!  If you need to, have someone else dole out consequences for your self-management plan.  Consequences can be as simple as a “good job” from a friend, to the donation of money to a political cause you vehemently oppose if you fall off from your plan.  Better yet, if you can arrange your program such that natural consequences of your behavior take control quickly, your chances of success are greatest.  Whatever you do here, do it consistently.

Tell us about your experiences with self-management 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

About bsci21 703 Articles
President, bSci21 Media, LLC Editor,


  1. In case your potential reinforcers include hearing “good job” from a colleague… Good job! I really appreciate how your thoughtful blogs are making behavior analysis accessible and interesting for my Facebook friends! Even my mom is finally starting to ‘get it’ after I have been in the field for more than 20 years! Thank you! Keep it up, please!

  2. I’ve been a habitual nail biter for as long as I can remember so when I read Andrew Craig’s article on self management and nail biting, I could finally liaise with a BA that understood the “compulsion” to bite. I implemented the procedure outlined in his study ( with good success. There has been maintenance issues over time when I needed to revisit self management, but overall it turned out to be an effective tool for reversing my habit of nail biting. My daughter with autism also self-manages her rituals and routines across her day thanks to an excellent PhD out of WMU who taught me to use self-management with children with ASDs. The quality of our life has improved signficantly with self-management interventions.

  3. Don’t forget about antecedent manipulation!

    Antecedent manipulations that evoke desired response
    1. Presenting the SD or supplemental stimuli that have stimulus control over the desire behavior
    2. Arranging an establishing operation such that the consequence of the desired behavior is more reinforcing
    3. Decreasing the response effort for the desirable behavior

    So for exercising:
    1. A visual graph of your behavior data put out where you will see it might be an SD for exercising. I know some women will hang their bikini where they see it all the time as a cue to exercise. Putting out your workout clothes before going to bed might be an SD to exercise when you wake up the next morning. Or maybe writing out a list of workout choices and posting it where you will see it. You might also dedicate time in your schedule to exercising, and write it in on your agenda as a cue.

    2. Keeping a graph of data or charting progress might make exercising more reinforcing. Arranging to work out with a friend might also make exercise more rewarding.

    3. Make it easier! Pack up gym clothes the night before and bring them to work. Instead of going home, go straight to the gym. Going home to change makes it a lot less likely that you make it back out to the gym. Choosing exercise activities that are preferred may also make the response effort lower. Or initially only working out for a short period of time and then slowly increasing that time.

    At the same time, arrange antecedents that make undesirable competing responses less likely.
    1. Remove SD or cues for competing behaviors
    2. Present an abolishing operation for the outcome of the competing behavior
    3. Increase response effort for the competing behavior

    So, for exercise, what are your competing behaviors? Maybe it’s going online or watching TV. Here are
    some ideas:

    1. If there are too many cues for competing behaviors at home, don’t go home! Drive from work straight to the gym or change into your workout clothes at work and stop at a park to jog before going home.

    2. An abolishing operation for this might be telling friends/roommate/spouse about your goals and having them check in with you to see how you are doing. This might make watching another episode of Game of Thrones less appealing if you know you will have to tell the person you didn’t work out. (Although Game of Thrones IS highly reinforcing!)

    3. While it might be hard to remove the TV from your house, you can have a friend/partner/roomate hide the remote from you and they will only tell you once you exercise. You *could* try to find it, but the
    effort to do that might be more than your willing to put in, and exercise may win out.

    For more great information on Self-management and behavior modification, I highly recommend Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures (6th ed.) by Miltenberger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.