When you were a child, other people were the boss of you. At home, your parents told you what to do and when to do it. At school, teachers took over the job of directing your daily activities. Most of the time, other people’s rules, and the schedules they made for you, drove the course of your days.
Now, you’re an adult. There are still rules and laws that everyone must follow, of course, and choices have consequences. If you choose to break the law you may have to pay a fine or even go to prison. The loss of money and liberty serve as a powerful motivator to obey the laws.
But what about all those things that are not against the law? You won’t go to jail if you hit the snooze button seventeen times and occasionally miss school or work. You won’t get a ticket or pay a fine if you don’t turn in every report on time, whether it’s a school assignment or a work project delegated by your supervisor. Your personal motivation can affect whether or not you get the job done.
A lot of adults on the autism spectrum ask about how to motivate themselves to do things. They know they should do these things, but they just don’t want to, or they can’t seem to get started. Here are four things to think about that might help.
- 1.) Set yourself up for success. Behavior analysts call this antecedent manipulation, changing what occurs before, but it’s really just making it easier to do the things you want to do. If you want to do a certain job, make sure you have all the materials you might need ready. If you’re cooking a meal, have your mise-en-place set up before you begin. Putting everything you need within easy reach will make it easier for you to start a task you may have been dreading.
But what if you want to stop doing something, such as breaking a habit like smoking or eating too much junk food. Instead of just saying to yourself, “I must stop doing that,” tell yourself, “I will do this instead.” Then set your environment up to support doing a positive thing as a substitute for the habit you want to break.
If you want to make healthier food choices, but you know you tend to snack in the evenings while watching television, then put a bowl of fruit, nuts, raisins, air popped popcorn, or other nutritious snacks right beside you on the end table. If you have cookies, chips or candy in the house that you want to avoid most evenings, put them on a high shelf or somewhere else that would be difficult to get to. Some people even lock them in the trunk of their car so that they really have to go out of their way to get to them. It will be so much easier to reach out and have a handful than it would be to climb on a step stool to reach the cheese puffs on the top shelf in another room. You’re making it easier to choose something health-supporting and harder to make choices that you know won’t be good for you.
Likewise, if you want to quit smoking and you know you usually smoke after dinner, set yourself up with a hobby that takes both hands, such as knitting or drawing, and put your cigarettes out of reach. Some people have put their cigarettes in the trunk of their car, or frozen it in a plastic bag inside a plastic bowl in the freezer. If you have to wait for it to thaw, or get your keys and go to the garage, you will have time to make a different choice.
Remember the two-step plan of setting yourself up for success: making it easy to do the things you want to do more, and making it difficult to do the things you want to quit.
2.) Give yourself a break. Maybe you have a task you need to finish, such as a big school or work project, or housecleaning, or organizing your space. It seems huge. If you have trouble focusing on it because it seems daunting or overwhelming, break it down into smaller chunks, and then plan breaks for yourself between tasks. A school or work project can be broken down by sections. Housework and organization projects can be broken down into rooms or types of tasks, and even be spread out over days if the thought of cleaning your whole house in one day is just too much. However you decide to split up a big job into smaller bites, plan something different to do between bites. If you’ve spent an hour vacuuming and mopping your house, plan to sit and read a good book for a while. If you’ve been at the computer working on a project, spend your break taking a walk or working out. Alternating different kinds of activities is a good way to avoid getting burned out by focusing on the same type of task for too long. You deserve that break!
3.) Treat yourself. Before you even start that job you’ve been dreading, plan in advance what fun thing you will do to reward yourself. Reinforcement is an important principle of applied behavior analysis, because reinforcement has been shown to strengthen or maintain behavior. If you want to strengthen a certain behavior, such as following through on things you say you will do, then be sure to plan some kind of reinforcement or reward after you have completed it. You can look forward to the treat to help you get through the less interesting aspects of the chore, and when you do indulge in your favorite video game, snack or other reinforcing thing or activity, you will know that you earned it through your hard work and completing the task you set for yourself. Reinforcement may have been effective for you when you were a child if you finished your vegetables to get dessert, or finished your homework to get to watch TV, or cleaned your room to go to the movies. Now you get to be the adult in charge of your own reward systems.
4.) Every sensory problem has a sensory solution.
Sometimes there is a sensory reason that you hesitate to do something you know you should do. Analyze your initial response to thinking about doing the thing. Do you have a gut-wrenching feeling that makes you want to just shut it out and forget about it? Is it related to the senses in some way?
For some people, the sound of an alarm clock is so aversive that even looking at or thinking about an alarm clock is stressful. If this is you, consider alternatives. Many phones have alarms that can be selected from many options. Find one that is pleasing rather than jarring, sch as the sound of birds singing or a mild chime, and set it to start very quietly and gradually become louder. If this is still distressing, there are apps and devices that will increase light gradually, with or without sound, so that you can wake up a bit at a time rather than all at once. Some apps link to your sleep cycle to awaken when you are sleeping lightly rather than in deep sleep, within a time frame you set. Finding the most pleasant way for you to be awakened will get your whole day off on the right foot.
Some people strongly resist doing household cleaning tasks. No one likes mopping or cleaning the bathroom or kitchen, but if you find it more aversive than most, consider the reason. Is it because you don’t like to touch the cleaning products or the dirty surfaces? Maybe gloves would help. Perhaps it’s the smell of the products you’re using? Consider switching to unscented products. You still won’t enjoy cleaning the toilet, but since it must be done, it’s best if the chore can be made less noxious.
Whatever your sensory challenges, be a sensory detective and look for new ways to change the environment in ways that make it less objectionable to do the things you know you need to do.
Now that you are an adult, you are in the driver’s seat controlling your own behavior. Remember that you can follow through and do the things you need to do with the proper motivation, which you get to design for yourself. So, set yourself up for success, give yourself a break, treat yourself, and remember that every sensory problem has a sensory solution. You have the steering wheel of your life right in your hands. Start your engines!