Monday, February 24, 2014

"Chunking" is a Great Work Ethic

Assign Specific Rewards to Each Item on Your To-Do List for Motivation

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"Chunking" is a plan that I used when I was teaching teenagers in a high school.  To get them to actually do homework assignments, I taught them to work in 15-minute bites, then give themselves a treat they'd decided on in advance to reward themselves for their efforts.  I ran the class that way to get them into the habit.  Eventually the 15 minutes would grow to 30, 45, and on up to a complete assignment in one try.  It worked for them, and it works for the rest of us and our horses, too.

The key is to know that there's a time limit--that whatever you're doing, no matter how noxious or unreasonable it seems, will only happen for a pre-determined period of time.  We can all get behind that, I'm sure.  Just this morning I got through the entire horse-feeding and barn-cleaning in -7 F weather by promising myself that if I wasn't done in an hour, I'd quit and have breakfast and finish in the afternoon when it would be a smidge warmer.  Fortunately the horses don't make as much mess in the cold--probably because they burn the hay for heat instead of processing it for my mucking pleasure--so an hour was more than enough.

There's not an animal of any species, human included, that looks forward gleefully to endless unpleasant activity.  We all do it if we have to, but not willingly.  Eventually, enough of that unwilling labor turns into anxiety and depression all around.  I recall with stunning clarity the first morning I woke up crying because my job at that time was so onerous (worse than stall mucking is a teaching job where you're guaranteed no progress and ample abuse every damn day) that I would have rather signed up for a daily colonoscopy than get my body to school.  I went every day because I also liked to eat and pay the rent.

Just so, the animals in our lives like having a job but also like feeling that their efforts are worthwhile and not endlessly unrewarding.  Zip, for instance, likes to jump and run poles and barrels.  He could live without dressage...totally.  As his manager and the human in charge, I get that there's a place for flat work and discipline in his training if only to get him fit all over and not just in the jumping and running body parts, so he knows that if we get through, say, ten minutes of warmup and one full Training Level test, he will get to run the poles, the barrels, and jump cross-rails immediately.  All of that is already set up in the ring, so he can see his reward in advance.  No, that's never going to do us any good in a dressage show, but we stopped showing long ago.  If I were to start up again, there would be some adjustments to the routine to expand the work time gradually and teach him to delay gratification until we're at least out of the dressage ring so he won't run over anyone.

Cliff assembling the new grill.  Note the
joy in his expression....not!  But there is a
reward on the table, so he keeps working.
 There's absolutely no rule, written or unwritten, that we need to punish ourselves or our animals with pointless effort and no reward. That's a guaranteed fail.  I've written before about positive and negative reinforcement vs. punishment, and unrewarding work is pure punishment.  Remember, we extinguish a behavior by not rewarding it.  You want your equine partner to stop walking willingly into the ring and giving you his all?  Just make him do it over, and over, and over without even the negative reward of an end to the work.  At very least he needs to know that if he does the job the way you've taught him, the job will end. That's his payoff, and that's how negative reinforcement works.  If he doesn't work or he balks or he does the Spanish Walk instead of halting at X, he knows he's going to have to do the job over until he gets it right.  Avoiding that is his reward.
I totally get behind the idea of rewarding
myself, as here my reward is visible.  I did
organize the parts of the grill first
and open all the boxes.
Yay, me!

I'm not a huge personal fan of housework, so I do it as quickly as possible and in the smallest chunks I can get away with.  Between chunks I drink coffee or read some email or play with the animals.  If I don't finish the job, however, next time I don't take a break.  I'm human.  I'm capable of self-abuse, crazy as that seems, and I use that ability.  Animals don't do that.  They're not programmed to feel shame and despair if they don't cover ever inch of their grazing area in a day.  And they don't feel those emotions when they don't do their best at whatever job we've given them, because little of what we ask actually makes any sense to a horse (or a dog, or a cat, or a neurotic cockatoo) no matter how we try to label it "natural".  So for them, the reward is everything.  Find your currency--what reward you're willing to work for--and use it.  Do the same with your family, friends, and animals.  You'll get a much better result than if you simply grind away and make them do the same.

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