Increasing Meaningful Behaviors

For most of us in the US and for many throughout the world, our lives have been turned upside down by stay-at-home orders. We’ve lost access to many of our favorite places to spend our time.  For me personally, I have lost the ability to be onsite with my clients, to access my gym, to eat at my favorite restaurants, to go climbing, and to participate in my social group.  I am sure you are experiencing similar disruption to your preferred activities.  From a behavior science perspective, what we have lost are sources of reinforcement.  

What does this mean for us? Two things come to mind.  First, when sources of reinforcement are removed, there can be a tendency to decrease one’s amount of daily behavior.  For example, you might replace the gym with just sitting on the couch or taking a nap.  Second, we look for and behave in ways that produce other reinforcers.  It’s here that a trap is waiting for us.  

The “trap” is what types of behaviors and reinforcers we use as replacements.   Some low-effort behaviors produce high rates of reinforcement but add no value to one’s life.  Let’s call them “Junk Behaviors.”  Examples of junk behaviors can include playing on your phone, engaging with social media, reading click-bait articles, surfing craigslist, watching TV, eating mindlessly, etc.  Decreasing behavior or increasing the amount of junk behaviors might fill a momentary void, but might also produce behavior patterns that are meaningless upon reflection.  Both of these scenarios will leave you feeling increasingly unsatisfied at the end of the day.

So what should we do now that we have gaps in our typical routines? Why not invest in discovering and increasing values-based behaviors?  Values-based behaviors are deliberate actions one takes to live out his/her values.  For instance, if one of your core values is intimacy, then engaging in a deliberate action like “cooking a candlelit dinner” for your significant other may be something worth doing.  

I have written about discovering your values before here in the context of leadership but core values are just that, core to you as a human being.  Your core values are the direction or purpose in life; they are qualities you strive for in all aspects of what you do.  The article, and values work within it, provides a simple framework for discovering new and meaningful actions to fill the gaps in what we are doing on a weekly basis.  Clarifying and acting in accordance with your values can leave you feeling like you truly accomplished something at the end of the day.  That sounds much better than a day mindlessly scrolling though pictures or arguing over fake facts.

While we all have had our typical behavior patterns turned upside down, this is an opportunity to work on yourself and become someone who is more aligned with who you want to be.  So for those of you that value learning, pick up that book; creativity, try fly tying; compassion, figure out which of your neighbors need help and do something about it; contribution, start sewing masks and give them to the local hospital; or Leisure, take that backpacking trip.  I cannot tell you what you truly value, but I hope I have inspired you to discover those core values and set yourself up to live them.  Behave wisely my friends.        

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.