Did your parents ever evoke the threat of the Bogeyman to get you to brush your teeth, clean your room, or eat broccoli? That imaginary object of fear, which I’m certain later inspired Jason, Freddy, and a whole host of shlocky 1980’s movie villains, could work wonders in getting kids to do stuff that they didn’t want to back in the day. Negative reinforcement wasn’t my jam, because it usually made me feel not good enough or resentful. That’s ironic, considering that I used it to jumpstart a major change in my life.

Back in 1992, I was having a quarter life crisis. Depressed and overwhelmed, I had packed an extra 50 pounds on my 5’4” frame due to emotional eating. Determined to start exercising before work after reading about its benefits, I placed the worst picture ever taken of me by my alarm clock as a scare tactic to get out of bed. Yup, I turned myself into my own Bogeyman. It worked for a while, as I got used to waking up early. One day, though, I didn’t need the unattractive photo anymore. I didn’t need it because my motivation shifted to feeling and looking great instead. And when I started fueling that early morning exercise routine with positive instead of negative vibes, everything changed. Making that mindset shift to positive reinforcement has brought me happiness, better health, super-charged my career, and bolstered my self-esteem ever since.

According to this Harvard Business Review article, neuroscience has shown that rewards are more effective than punishments when it comes to motivating specific actions or behaviors. For example, the authors cite a study at a New York state hospital that attempted to increase the frequency of handwashing by medical staff. Warning signs about spreading disease through unwashed hands only promoted a 10 percent compliance rate, but when a new electronic board displayed positive messages for the desired behavior, handwashing reached almost 90 percent compliance within four weeks.

Are you interested in shifting your personal motivation from negative to positive? Here are three ways to get started:

Set reasonable milestones. Ever hear of the term BHAG, which stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goals? Built to Last author Jim Collins coined the term to talk about visionary companies reaching for huge goals to inspire teams to achieve them. Think about how President John F. Kennedy wanted to land a man on the moon, or how Tesla’s Elon Musk envisioned building luxury electronic cars that become mainstream. That’s fantastic. But when it comes to defining your personal BHAG, you are going to get more bang for the buck by breaking it down into more reasonable, smaller milestones along the way that allow you to achieve a regular sense of accomplishment. Whether you are trying to land a new job, pay off that mountain of student loans within a decade, or train for your first 10k, this approach works.

Define rewards. Create a reward system to keep you motivated and inspired. Let’s say you are trying to cut soda out of your diet. After two weeks without a bottle of pop, toasting yourself with a glass of that sweet, carbonated stuff isn’t the way to continue the momentum. Instead, choose different actions that have nothing to do with beverage consumption at all. When I’m trying to cut back on sugar, I often choose rewards based on activities or clothes. For example, I bought a new workout top when I hit 21 days in a row without processed sugar, and then planned to meet a bunch of girlfriends for a weekend matinee when I hit the 35-day mark. Clearly, I was one of those kids that loved getting stickers with gold stars and smiley faces for good behavior — and a thumbs up or applause emoji today still generates a burst of happiness for me.   

Find support. Search for a like-minded group to help you celebrate successes, get encouragement when challenges arise, and reinforce the positive. I belong to a private Facebook group of about 40 professionals around the world, most in their forties and fifties, who are focused on exercise and well-being. We cheer each other on, set weekly goals, vent when life goes sideways, and generally keep the positive motivation going non-stop. The organizer has become on of my favorite people, even though I haven’t met her in real life yet, mainly because she lives 2,800 miles away. The point is, it’s easy to find birds of a feather online these days to support your mindset shift to a more positive way of being.

Have you ever shifted your mindset? If so, what was the outcome?

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