What if one click of acknowledgment could reinforce the skill, craft, or project you’re working on?

Why not reinforce the best of what you do, while letting the rest, well, fade away?

The limits of willpower

In working alone on my book, blog, or podcast, I sometimes need to rely on willpower to keep going. But that elusive resource eventually runs out, leaving me struggling to keep my engines going. 

Willpower is definitely overrated. Imagine the results (my guess: zero) if we asked our dogs (or staff) to stay motivated on willpower alone. Fueling on willpower is too hard. 

Treats and rewards can be much more helpful…but I’ll come back to that later.

We all need acknowledgment and positive reinforcement, and I’m learning just how important that is from my new ventures into dog training.

A new (older) foster dog recently joined us, the irrepressible Jackson. A bit of training was in order and we hired a coach who specializes in “Clicker Training.” I’m hooked. I want to use Clicker Training on me.

It’s is a form of positive reinforcement that comes out of Behaviorism, a branch of psychology I used to criticize. Rats working in boxes weren’t my thing.

But I’m reconsidering now.

Basically, you click to reinforce behaviors you want so that they will increase. You ignore or don’t reinforce negative behaviors and they decrease. That may sound manipulative, but Clicker Training works a lot better than the punish and reprimand school of dog training. 

A clicker is a small device you hold in your hand and immediately click when your dog does what you’ve asked for (or makes a credible try). You click to reinforce his good choice and always follow with a small treat.

Your massively intelligent dog thinks, “Wow, I did something right, yum, treat is coming,” and feels reinforced for doing the behavior you wanted.

Clicker training has been used to shape the behavior of a tiny crab and to train champion sheepdogs. It works.

Our new dog, Jackson, at ten years old, is on for the program. He believes all treats are good.

I’m now wondering if I could clicker-train myself?

Click to train leaders

As I think about it, I suspect a sizeable chunk of management literature has borrowed liberally from behaviorism, such as Ken Blanchard’s classic The One Minute Manager, in which he advocates “catching people in the act of doing something right,” or Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, in which a series of cues are set up to shape a habit you want to develop.

Maybe a lot of management consulting could be replaced with clicker training. Hmmm. Just an idea…

How we might click to train ourselves

I’m no expert on Clicker Training, but I’ve distilled a few principles to try:

Relaxation first

Our dog trainer, Maggi McClure, exudes ease when you’re with her. You relax and  shift from thinking, “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe that (bad) thing our dog just did,” to “Let’s have some fun together.” This definitely helps the dog.

For people: Since over-efforting is my M.O., I could use more ease at the start of my workday. A little breathing, meditation, or relaxation would surely improve my focus.

Plus, fun makes me more functional.

Become more observant

We often think we see what dogs are doing, or focus on what they “should” do, and miss what they’re actually doing. Clicker trainers become very observant. Is that waggy-tail a show of happiness or a reflection of stressed over-excitement?

For people: I often don’t see my own behavior. I don’t notice that I’m tensing, demonstrating signs of stress, “over-adrenalizing,” or making a project harder than it needs to be.

Focus on the positive

Clicker trainers catch dogs in the act of doing something right, even if it’s the smallest beginning step of a command, such as a head turn. They still occasionally reprimand. But they’ll try to substitute a positive pathway for your pooch’s knock-guests-down-at-the-door behavior.

For people: Some writing coaches feel it’s their job to rip apart student writing. Actor/writing-coach Ann Randolph uses only positive reinforcement to power up her improv-writing courses. She finds something interesting to highlight in each participant’s writing. You learn to build on your successes and, even more importantly, you’re motivated to keep writing.

Be specific

Clicker trainers break down actions into the small steps required to succeed with a command. It takes artistry to break a skill into manageable bites. For example, before a dog will come to you, he needs to look at you.

For people: Big goals can give you a direction. But I’ve discovered that a broad goal like “I want to write a book” is too general to help me focus my day. I’d be better off identifying the specific steps I need to take or break apart the particular skills I need to learn. 

Acknowledge

In clicker training, the click tells the dog immediately that it’s got the right idea. (Timing is key.)

For people: I wish someone would click to tell me that I’m doing my life right. (God, are you listening?) Short of that, I have to be my own clicker and find friends who can remind me of the positive steps on my path I’ve made.

Reward

The clicker is always followed by a reward.

For people: Give yourself more rewards. You deserve them. They don’t have to make you fat. (Jackson is on a strict diet.) Make a list of the best low-calorie treats, breaks, or special experiences you could use to reward yourself for even small progress. (Send me your list, please…)

Keep the sessions short and focused

Maggi recommends lots of 2-minute dog training sessions and tells us to end with a win while the dog is still focused.

For people: Determine how long you can sustain deep focus and schedule accordingly. For me, it’s about 25 minutes. After that, I’ll perform better after my reward!

Build on success

As a dog becomes more successful, clicks and rewards can become more intermittent. If he’s mastered one behavior, you add a new challenge. If that new challenge proves too big (“don’t chase squirrels” would almost always be too big),  you ease back to a place where he can again experience success. You keep the overall experience positive. 

For people: Count all the ways you’ve improved so that you can remember on one of those dark “the-sky-is-falling” days.

Go off duty

When a dog is not in training, he’s off duty.

For people: Go outside and play.

Obviously, not all learning can be built around stimulus-response. Some deep learning may require years of thought and questions. Or, it may come in one unplanned Eureka moment.

Yet, the idea of identifying a lot of small positive steps, and giving myself lots of specific acknowledgments and rewards is appealing to me.  I’ll just have to be my own clicker.

Ruff!


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