A few years back, my colleague and good friend James Parnell showed me a video about a weekend cowboy named Ray Hunt.
James is a weekend cowboy himself, but as he showed me this video, I couldn’t help but wonder why in the world was I watching a cowboy video at work. But it was worth it. Thanks, James.
James wanted to share with me what Ray Hunt had learned about behavior modification and reinforcement from spending time training show horses. Ray grew up in the west and was doing OK in his training profession until he learned a better way to train.
Ray started “Turning Loose” the horses, as he called it. Turning the horses loose meant that Ray stopped using force, coercion, and punishment as his main training technique and went to a more engaging, connecting and reinforcing style of training.
In effect, he started making the right things easy and the wrong things difficult.
For example, the old cowboy way to get a young horse into a trailer was to use many chokers, ropes, and whips to force the scared colt into the travel trailer—a brutal process to watch, let alone participate in. Instead, Ray figured out that he could use one rope, one small whip and never hurt or punish the colt but simply make sure the colt knew which direction was the right direction.
By working this new way, and to others’ surprise, Ray was able to train the horses in less time and the horses and trainer enjoyed the process a whole lot more. Ray went on to train several champions in his day. Many of his followers today still use his “turning loose” methods. See a short video below.
So what does this have to do with us if we aren’t horse trainers?
I suggest at least 3 application areas for continuous improvement students:
- Personal Habits
Kids are like horses: If you force a child to do something, you usually end up getting bucked off or in a fight. But when you apply the principle of making the right things easy, you end up with endless creative ideas and methods.
My wife is the perfect example of making the right things easy with raising kids. Cheryl was the master at giving our children two good choices. She would ask questions like:
- “Do you want your bath with bubbles or no bubbles?” This avoided the dreaded drag-your-kid-up-to-the-tub scene.
- “Do you want peanut butter and honey or peanut butter and jelly on your sandwich?” Two good choices helped make the right answer easy and avoided turning lunch time into a restaurant.
I am sure you parents can think of many other applications of these ideas.
As a leader, how can you make the right things easy and the wrong things difficult?
Let’s imagine that a few of your employees have a hard time making it into work on time. One option is to put expensive tracking systems in place. You could levy heavy discipline letters and “3 warnings and your out” letters. But that response is likely going to get you bucked and lose you valuable morale points.
How can you make the right thing easy? Instead of punishment, do a raffle at the end of each week and give out Starbucks certificates for those on-time all week. Have donuts out in the morning and put away after starting time. You get the idea.
How about for a more difficult task, like getting people to do their paperwork?
Every busy business I have ever known struggles with getting some of their employees to do timely and accurate paperwork. Whether it’s a policeman filing a report or a sales rep updating their automated lead tracker or a machine operator who has to either track or hit a button to properly code downtime, the struggle is the same.
How do we apply this principle in this situation? How do you make the right thing easy for proper paperwork?
Make it fun. You could have random giveaways at the end of the week for the best employee. Or maybe the employee gets to pick the radio station for the week. Whatever your group thinks is fun, let them win.
Inversely, how do you make the wrong thing difficult but not too painful? When you have regular rule-breakers, talk to them in private without public embarrassment. Take away some simple perks until the paperwork is done properly. Think creatively—the limits are determined by how far your imagination can stretch between the bounds of too light a response and too cruel a punishment. Start with figuring out what is fun or enjoyed by the team and either add more or take some away but don’t force too hard. You don’t want to have your employees mentally buck you off!
The same principles apply for personal habits: Make the good ones easier and make the bad ones harder!
Suppose you want to improve your exercise habits. The goal might be to work out 4 times per week for 30 minutes and do it in the morning. Currently, you might procrastinate and find reasons to sleep in or do something else that needs to be done.
To fix your problem, we need to make the right thing easy and fun. Put your work-out gear in your bathroom or the place you go immediately when you wake-up. Give yourself a little shopping reward at the end of the week if you accomplish your goal. Find an accountability friend or partner. Make it so you have to meet your partner at 6:30 a.m. so you don’t let them down. Think creatively, and you’ll see how this can apply to other areas of your life as well.
What if you want to start a savings plan? How do you make it easy or fun? Use technology to take out your 10% savings at the beginning of the month automatically.
What about if you are trying to stop a bad habit? How do you make the right thing easier and the wrong thing more difficult? Addiction management is a huge issue in our society, whether it involves over-eating, TV, sex, pornography, drugs, or spending too much money.
How can these principles apply?
Let’s look at over-eating. If you’re trying to cut down on chocolate chip cookies, you probably shouldn’t position them on the kitchen counter to greet you at every passing moment. Turning away from such a temptation is an incredible act of willpower that most of us don’t possess, so don’t have them there. Don’t even have cookies in the house.
If you are struggling with pornography, make the wrong thing difficult. Don’t have the source anywhere near you at your time of weakness. If at home under the cover of night is where you feel most vulnerable, take out the electronics and give them to a loved one.
Get an accountability partner to support you while you create your new habits or stop your bad ones. Make specific plans with that partner. Identify small rewards and punishments if you do or don’t succeed.
Bad habits are very difficult to overcome on your own, so ask for help. Get somebody to give you reinforcement when you win. Them just knowing when you fail might be enough to change.
I know people who have signed contracts with their friends or family members with rewards and fines if they won or lost on their quest to stop a bad behavior. I know many people who text or call their accountability partner daily to account for their behavior. Make the wrong thing more difficult!
I also know somebody who quit drugs—one of the hardest habits to kick. How did he do it? This person had to strip his life of everybody and everything that was making the wrong thing easy and the right thing difficult. He had to make new friends. For a time, he stopped carrying cash or credit cards. Life was tough, but he was able to drop the habit. Today he is a very successful man, husband, father, and provider today.
You don’t have to be a super motivated person with incredible willpower. You just need to want to improve and then know how to make a new habit. And the way you make a new habit or stop a bad one is by making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.
Ray Hunt knew what he was talking about. The days of figuratively beating up our employees, children, or even ourselves are over. The best way to help ourselves or others change is by understanding behavior modification and habit-making. Everybody wins when you get out of the way of your ego, stop crucifying yourself, and make the right thing easy and the wrong thing more difficult.
- Identify a habit you want to start for yourself, your team, or your children.
- What would make this habit easier to do?
- What would make this habit harder to do?
- Who could be your accountability partner?
- Go out and try it for 3 weeks and change your life.
Please comment below and let me know how you are doing!