Putting an End to Groundhog Day

Like Bill Murray in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, every day for some people feels like a repeat of the last. Seemingly no matter what they do, nothing changes. Each day greets them with the same frustrations that they had the day before. Whether it’s nagging the kids or a spouse, continually asking or reminding a colleague, or picking up the slack for coworkers, people often find themselves in their own Groundhog Day. Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Having to constantly hover and nudge can be exhausting. “Helicopter parents” of teens know this firsthand. By taking on the responsibilities of their teen children, these well-intentioned parents suppress their children’s independence by limiting their ability to learn from their mistakes. Every day is the same for the parents—check, remind, nag, and finally do for them with great exasperation if the nagging doesn’t get things going. There is a lot going wrong in these kinds of situations. Antecedents lose all meaning and effectiveness because they are never paired with consequences. Doing anything other than what’s requested is often reinforced when the helicopter parents swoop in and does the requested tasks themselves.

People can create their own Groundhog Days at work too. Some are in a perpetual state of frustration because they never seem to get the level of cooperation they need. They fret about the absence of teamwork and wonder why everything seems to be left for them to do. They don’t get what they need from others until the last minute, and then what they get often misses the mark. Like the helicopter parents, they talk a lot about the way things should be, what others should do without being reminded, and how others should take initiative and pride in their work. But they also orchestrate their own Groundhog Day by continuing to use the same ineffective, antecedent-heavy strategy and by unintentionally reinforcing the behavior they don’t want.

Other times, Groundhog Days don’t involve anyone else at all. They are more like personal traps. Another day of oversleeping, being late for work, procrastinating, Web searching, working late, and grabbing fast food on the way home. The day ends with promises that the next day will be better: early rise followed by exercise, diligent focus on the priorities at work, and home in time for a healthy dinner.   But if the self-promises aren’t backed by behavior change, then the same behavior patterns recur, and every new day seems like a replay of the last.  In every case, it’s the person who is experiencing Groundhog Day who is relinquishing control. It’s not until that person starts to do things differently, to pay attention to the effect his or her behavior is having on himself and others, and to make incremental changes in that behavior, that the cycle will change.  Just as Bill Murray gradually changed his behavior and escaped the drudgery of a recurring bad day, we all have the ability to have a significant impact on what awaits us each morning by what we do each day.

If you want to put an end to your Groundhog Days, let Punxsutawney Phil sleep in, and put your trust in the science of behavior. Follow these tips to help create the kind of day you want to wake up to:

  • Define the what, when, where, how, and why of your expectations. Then have the other person paraphrase the request in his or her words to ensure a shared understanding of what’s expected.
  • Link your antecedents with consequences. The best antecedents for behavior are those that predict the consequence of performing the behavior.
  • Don’t repeat unanswered requests and expect a better outcome. Shape the behavior you’re looking for through positive reinforcement. If needed, get the desired behavior going with negative reinforcement and then immediately and consistently provide positive reinforcement for the behavior. Avoid getting yourself so emotionally worked up that you’re too upset to positively reinforce the behavior once it does occur.
  • Change your own behavior. If you do the same things day in and day out, don’t expect the outcome to be any different today than it was yesterday. You get what you reinforce. Look at the effect your behavior is having on others. If you’re not getting the behavior you want, look for ways to arrange the environment to reinforce it and/or directly reinforce it yourself.

Posted by Tom Spencer, Ph.D.

As President and CEO, Tom actively works with ADI staff and clients to create positive change and achieve desired business goals. For nearly 25 years, his experience and ideas have shaped pragmatic and integrated approaches to applying the science of behavior to the workplace. Tom has written extensively on topics related to leadership, consequence management, performance fluency, and technology development. When not leading ADI, Tom enjoys trail running and following the WVU Mountaineers.