Applying the 3 M’s: My Diet and Exercise Updates

As you probably know, I am a psychologist. I study and teach students why humans (and non-humans) do what they do.

Although there are numerous theoretical perspectives in psychology, I tend to categorize myself as a behaviorist, or behavior analyst.

Behavior analysis is a sub-area of psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by appealing to a person’s genetic make-up, past experiences, and current conditions (or current environment).

For example, people who are prone to overeating (ahem…) might behave that way because (a) they have a genetic predisposition to do so, (b) they’ve had lots of good experiences (or “reinforcers”) with food in the past, and (c) their current environment is filled with “cues” that prompt them to eat (like a pantry that is filled with unhealthy foods or friends who encourage them to eat). Together, these factors lead these people to eat more than they should.

Using this framework, behavior analysts have also spent a lot of time trying to change behavior in socially significant ways. For instance, applied behavior analysts do important work in educational settings, in business settings, and in the area of intellectual disabilities (just to name a few).

Importantly, because it’s impossible to change a person’s genetic make-up and past experiences, applied behavior analysts focus their efforts on changing the elements of a person’s current environment that impact their behavior. For instance, if a person struggles with overeating, an applied behavior analyst might try to modify the person’s eating environment so that there are more cues to eat healthy foods and more “rewards” that follow healthy eating.

Dr. Robert Epstein, who worked with famous psychologist/behaviorist B. F. Skinner, has suggested in his great book, Self-Help Without the Hype, that changing a person’s behavior (including your own) can be boiled down to three steps (what Epstein calls “the 3 M’s“):

1. Measuring your behavior (so you have a very clear idea of whether your behavior is changing for the better)

2. Modifying your environment (so the factors that lead to positive habit change are present and the factors that promote bad habits are as absent as possible)

3. Making a public commitment (so others can support you in your efforts)

(I have discussed these steps previously, so I’m not going to dive into detail here. But if you’re looking for a few simple ways to incorporate the 3 M’s into your own life, see herehere, and here.)

Although I study behavioral principles and teach others how to apply them in their own lives, I sometimes forget to use them in my own. As such, this post is simply a way for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach.

I’m going to experiment a little bit over the next few weeks and see if keeping a running tally of my diet and exercise activities, and then posting everything on my blog, has a positive effect on my health habits.

Doing this, I think, will allow me to capitalize on the 3 M’s in at least two important ways:

First, to make sure I’m providing accurate updates, I will need to measure carefully both my dietary and exercise habits. Research has shown that the simple act of carefully measuring your behavior is often enough to produce positive changes in your habits (because you become more aware of how often you’re engaging in both good and bad habits).

Second, posting updates is a way for me to make a public commitment and capitalize on the social support of family, friends, students, and others. I hope these people will provide me with positive support when I “do good” and call me out when I “do bad.”

Updates start tomorrow (Monday, January 25), and I’ll be posting them at:

Diet and Exercise – Daily Updates

I’d love if you’d check in periodically with me and help keep me on track.

Thanks in advance for your support!


If you have a minute, I’d also love to hear what you think about this post. How could you apply the 3 M’s in your life? Maybe you could start by making a public commitment here. What do you think?

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Behavioral Contracts: A Useful Tool for Changing Bad Habits


Changing bad habits.

It’s not easy.

In fact, whether you’re trying to stop biting your fingernails, go to bed earlier, smoke less, study more, exercise consistently, or eat healthier, changing bad habits can be downright difficult.

And it can be downright frustrating.

I’ve written previously about my many attempts to lose weight. And few things in my life have been more frustrating than successfully changing my habits and losing weight, only to fall back into old habits and gain it all back again.

But as I’ve learned more about behavior change over the years, I’ve come to better understand (a) why I (and others) engage in bad habits and (b) what I can do to increase the chances that I will be successful when I try to change them again.

One tool that has proven effective in helping me (and many others) change bad habits is the behavioral contract.

(If you’re so inclined, searching Google Scholar for the term “behavioral contract” will provide you with thousands of studies that have examined the effectiveness of behavioral contracts in changing various bad habits.)

But before I get to the specifics of what a behavioral contract entails, let me take a minute to discuss a useful framework that we can use to understand and subsequently change our bad habits.

Changing Bad Habits: The Three M’s

In his excellent little book, “Self-Help Without the Hype,” Dr. Robert Epstein (who worked with the famous psychologist, B. F. Skinner, in the late 70s and early 80s) discusses how changing our behavior can be boiled down to three simple (but not necessarily easy) steps—steps he calls “the three M’s.” These include:

Measuring our behavior

Modifying our environment

Making a public commitment

The rationale behind these steps is fairly straightforward.

measurementFirst, to know whether our bad habits are changing, we have to measure them. To determine whether we’re eating healthier, for instance, we need to identify exactly what we mean by “healthy eating” and, then, count (or measure) how often we’re doing it. This gives us the ability to say with more certainty whether our healthy eating is changing. Interestingly, simply measuring our behavior is sometimes enough to change our bad habits, largely because we finally see how often we’re engaging in the undesired behavior. (To measure my habits, I have found to be a valuable resource. There are numerous iPhone and Android apps that do the same thing as well.)

Second, we need to modify, or change, our environment. For over 100 years, researchers have shown that much of our behavior is affected by our surroundings (even when we’re not aware of it). For example, did you know that eating with other people significantly increases the amount of food you eat? Or did you know that eating off a large plate makes you eat more than eating off a smaller plate? (For a great review of how the environment affects our eating habits, check out Dr. Brian Wansink’s book, “Mindless Eating“). What this suggests, then, is that to understand our bad habits, we have to look at what’s happening around us when we commit them.

Ultimately, our environment can be separated into two general categories, both of which have an affect on our habits: consequences and antecedents.

ABC figure

(Note: This framework for understanding behavior has been around since the late 1800s. For awhile, it fell out of favor in psychology, but it has once again gained a following because of books like Charles Duhigg’s New York Times bestseller “The Power of Habit.“)

The first—and most important—part of the environment that affects our behavior is what we call consequences, which are the events that follow our behavior. Loosely speaking, these are the “rewards” we experience when we behave a particular way (although the technical name for these events is “reinforcers“). Some consequences consist of “getting things we like.” For example, when you eat, you get to taste good food. When you smoke, you get a nicotine rush. When you drink to excess, you get social approval from friends (although you might also experience a “punisher” in the form of a hangover the next morning). When you study hard for an exam, you (hopefully) get a good grade. Other consequences consist of “removing or avoiding bad things.” Taking aspirin when you have a headache removes the pain. Skipping class allows you to avoid a boring lecture (Anyone? Anyone?). And putting up an umbrella allows you to avoid getting rained on.

These consequences ultimately make our behavior happen again: We do things to “get the good” or to “avoid the bad.” Importantly (and a point that is often misunderstood by critics of this approach), some of the most powerful rewards we receive are subtle “social” rewards such as smiles, pats on the back, sincere compliments, and so on.

Using this framework as a guide, we can assume that if we are engaging in a particular behavior, it is either allowing us to get something we like or to avoid something we don’t. Thus, a good question to ask when we’re trying to understand why we (or others) engage in bad habits is, “What happens after I do them?”

Simply asking this question can go a long way in understanding why we do what we do.

The second part of the environment that affects our behavior is what we call antecedents. Antecedents are “cues” that occur before our behavior and signal that a particular consequence will occur if we behave a particular way. For instance, seeing a red light is a cue to stop your car, which then allows you to avoid an accident. Similarly, hearing your psychology teacher say “Be sure to read Chapter 5” is a cue to study Chapter 5, the consequence of which might be a better exam grade. And seeing a lit-up “Starbucks” sign might be a cue to go and buy a White Chocolate Mocha, which provides you with the consequence of sweet, frothy goodness. These antecedents have their effect because they are associated with—they are signals for—”getting good things” or “avoiding bad things.”

Sometimes, we are keenly aware of the antecedents that affect our behavior. But often we are not. For example, if we always eat in front of the TV, it might eventually become a powerful cue for eating. We may not even be aware that sitting in front of the TV makes us want to go to the cupboard and eat an entire bag of Doritos. But every time we watch TV, we find ourselves with a hoagie in our left hand and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia in our right hand. This is why some behavior-change programs ask you to keep track of where you are and who’s around when you engage in a bad habit. These give you clues about what part of your environment might be cueing the undesired behavior.

Ultimately, if our bad habits are being caused by certain antecedents and consequences, then changing these aspects of our environment will change the bad habits.

commitmentThe final step in changing bad habits is making a public commitment. This allows us to capitalize on the social consequences that have such a powerful effect on our behavior. Others can give us social “rewards” when we do well; they can also provide social “punishment” when we don’t follow our plan. The primary goal of this step is to let others know of our intentions, which can allow them to help us during good times and bad.

So, What is a Behavioral Contract?


Now that I’ve spent some time discussing a “behavioral” framework for understanding bad habits, let’s get back to behavioral contracts.

As you may have already guessed, a behavioral contract is a written agreement between two (or more) people specifying what behavior is required by each and what consequences will be delivered when they do (or do not) meet the objectives specified in the contract.

In a behavioral contract, you can specify exactly how you’re going to:

Measure your behavior

Modify your environment

Make a public commitment

Rather than write five more paragraphs on what types of information to include in a behavioral contract—which, I’m guessing, would be a cue for many of you to engage in the behavior of “clicking out of this boring, long-ass blog post”—let me instead link to a sample behavioral contract that I’ve used with a friend several times in the past (and one that I’m planning to implement once again in the next few days).

Here it is (with some information changed to protect the innocent).

Notice how this behavioral contract contains very specific details about the three M’s. It tells exactly what I need to do to avoid sending a large chunk of money to an organization I despise.

And I can tell you that when I’ve used behavioral contracts in the past, my habits have always changed for the better.

Using Behavioral Contracts: Some Important Things to Consider

Now, if you decide that you want to use a behavioral contract to change your own bad habits, there are a few important things to consider.

First, when asking others to be a part of your contract, you need to include someone who will not “let you slide.” If you know that you’ll be able to break your contract without negative consequences, then you probably won’t be motivated to meet the terms specified in the contract. I know that if I screw up, my friend will quickly mail off the check I’ve given her.

Second, you need to find ways for your contract partner to be able to verify that you did what you said you did. For instance, when I was in graduate school, I wanted to exercise more consistently, so I set up a behavioral contract with my roommate. We actually talked to employees at the gym where I worked out, who agreed to watch me when I was there. My roommate was then able to talk to them and verify that I had exercised when I said I did. Providing ways for others to verify your behavior will motivate you to meet the terms in the contract.

Finally, you have to find consequences that are big enough to motivate you to change. For some, losing (or gaining) $1 might be enough to produce a change; for others, the consequence might need to be larger (and, of course, the consequences don’t need to be monetary in nature). When I did the contract with my graduate school roommate, the consequence for not exercising was that I had to pay his rent, which, if I remember correctly, was in excess of $400 per month. For a poor graduate student, that was enough to get me moving. In recent contracts, I’ve used large chunks of money from my “guitar fund”—money that I’ve been saving for years so I can buy myself a nice, new guitar. And in a previous behavioral contact that I used to lose weight a few years ago, I wrote a check for $500 to a political candidate I despised. What I really wanted to do with that money was start a college fund for my son. Which do you think I’d rather do: pay $500 to a politician I despise or start a college fund for my son? You can probably guess that my habits changed very quickly.

So, there you have it—a plan for changing your bad habits along with a description of how you can use behavioral contracts to get it “set it in stone.”

I guess the only question left to address is: Are you ready to sign on the dotted line?


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Fall Seven Times…

Last week, I described the success I experienced on my weight loss journey in the month of April. I lost about 17 lbs. and was feeling really, really good.

But after a month of being “in the groove,” I told myself that I deserved to “loosen up just a bit.” I told myself that it would be okay if I took a day or two off and celebrated my success. I told myself that I should enjoy the time with my family (my parents were visiting), not worry too much about putting healthy foods in my mouth, and then get back at it.

off the wagonBut here it is, almost a week later, and I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit.

I’ve eaten a good amount of junk this week (including a hefty piece of cake while attending a birthday party tonight).

And the exercise has been non-existent.

And now, I’m starting to feel it: that feeling of “blah” I get when I haven’t been eating well or moving enough; the schlocky sleep patterns that inevitably come when my body is trying to “process” all of the junk I’ve given it; the debilitating fatigue that hits me like a ton of bricks around 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

noted previously how the biggest hurdle I’ve always faced when I’m trying to lose weight is consistency (or lack thereof)—it’s my bugbear, the thorn in my side, the bane of my existence, my bête noire. I go for a month or two and then, more often than not, fall back into my old ways.

And it always makes me feel like this:


In the past, I would use my “failure” as a license to reintroduce myself to the old habits that had been hidden away for the past few weeks: “Well, I’ve failed yet again, so I might as well just order a pizza and be done with it.”

But I’m not going to do that anymore.

I’m going to breathe, maybe do a bit of meditation, and recommit to my goals.

And then I’m going to move on.

fall 7 timesI came across this old Japanese proverb tonight, and I thought it was a good reminder that when we fail—when we fall down—it’s usually not that big of a deal. We should stand back up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


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Weight Loss Update – 5/1/15

updateOne month ago (on April 1, 2015), I made a public commitment to be more dedicated to my health, and about 20 days ago, I provided you with my first update.

It’s been 1 month, so I wanted to provide an update and, hopefully, take advantage of the power of social support.

First, let me remind everyone of what I’ve been doing. As noted before, I’m a big fan of the Paleo/Primal Diet and have been following some version of this, off and on, for about 2 years. In my last update, I noted the diet and exercise plan I wanted to follow in April.

(Once again, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Paleo diet, here’s a really nice primer, which also happens to be the article that influenced me to give it a try. Other great sources of information on the Paleo/Primal approach are here and here.)

My Diet Goals

My goal for the month of April was to follow the Paleo diet 6 days per week. In the past, when I’ve tried to go “all or none,” I would often get cravings and fall off the wagon. I also spent a couple of years following the Body-for-LIFE plan, which allows one “free day” per week. For April, I wanted to incorporate that Body-for-LIFE approach into a Paleo framework: I wanted to eat Paleo 6 days per week and then allow myself 1 day to eat what I wanted. I thought this approach would keep me sane and allow me to do things like eat pizza with my boys on nice Saturday afternoons.

Did I reach that goal?

mission accomplished

My Exercise Goals

In my last update, I noted how I’ve been taking a simplified approach to exercise over the last couple of years. I typically try to lift kettlebells two or three times per week; I also try to take at least 10,000 steps on non-lifting days. My exercise goal for April was to exercise at least 5 days per week: three kettlebell workouts and at least 2 days where I took at least 10,000 steps (many of which come from taking our dog for a 45- to 60-minute walk).

Did I reach that goal?

mission accomplished

My April Results

So, has this approach been working? Here are my results so far:

 weight loss

As you can see, I’m down 17 pounds in the last 30 days (sorry for the fuzzy graph). I’m past the “losing water weight” phase, so I’m guessing that a good chunk (what a great word for discussing fat loss) of that was fat. I’ve also been getting stronger during my kettlebell workouts, so I doubt that much of the weight loss was muscle (which often occurs on rapid-weight-loss diets).

As you can see, my weight fluctuated up and down quite a bit, but that’s because of daily fluctuations in water retention, eating a little more or less food on particular days, and so on. Ultimately, I’m concerned about the upward trend in weight loss, which is evident in the above chart.

So, what else?

I’m sleeping awesome. I get about 6-7 hours of sleep per night, and I sleep like a baby. Almost every morning, I wake up completely refreshed and ready to go.

I have tons of energy. I can go all day long without hitting the mid-afternoon slump that’s so common when I’m not following a healthy diet.

My clothes are quite a bit looser. I can definitely tell this in some of the jeans and shirts that I wear more frequently. It’ll be interesting to give it another month and then try on some clothes I haven’t been able to wear for awhile.

Clearer thinking. I’ve read that a Paleo approach improves thinking. I haven’t collected any systematic data on this, but especially when I’m doing intermittent fasting in the morning and early afternoon, I definitely feel like I’m thinking clearer and getting more done.

April: Success!

So, ultimately, I feel like April has been a success. I’m looking forward to continuing this approach into May and over the summer. I’ll be back to update you with more results in a month or so.


Weight Loss Update – 4/10/15

updateIn a previous post, I discussed my never-ending battle to lose weight. I also made a public commitment to change things. I just wanted to update everyone on my progress and take advantage of the power of social support.

First, let me briefly mention what I’ve been doing. As noted before, I’m a big fan of the Paleo/Primal Diet and have been following some version of this, off and on, for about 2 years. For those who know me and are thinking, “Well, it certainly hasn’t worked for you,” let me remind you of something I wrote about previously: My biggest problem has always been consistency. When I’m not eating Paleo, I lack energy, have aching joints, gain weight quickly, and don’t sleep very well. But when I am on it, I feel awesome: I have clear skin, I’m rarely hungry, I have loads of energy, I lose weight easily, I sleep like a champ (this is a big one for me), and I just feel “lighter,” both physically and mentally.

(For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Paleo diet, here’s a really nice primer, which also happens to be the article that influenced me to give it a try. Other great sources of information on the Paleo/Primal approach are here and here.)

My Diet

Most days, here’s what my diet looks like:

Morning: usually Bulletproof® Coffee (which keeps me satiated until lunch or later) or, if I’m hungry, some free-range organic eggs and some pastured bacon (arguably the greatest food in the history of the world)

Lunch: a large serving of chili made with grass-fed ground beef, loads of organic vegetables that we get from our local farmer’s market, and tasty spices (but no beans); a couple of carrots; and a handful of macadamia nuts

Dinner: a serving of grass-fed steak (ribeye or filet) or pastured pork chop (both of which we are lucky enough to get from either Polyface Farms or J & L Green Farm); a sweet potato; and a large salad with vegetables and avocado oil or a large serving of broiled kale or broccoli

Before bed: if I’m hungry, I may have a small piece of dark chocolate or maybe a tablespoon or two of almond butter

I rarely feel hungry on this diet, and the food tastes awesome (because, you know, steak and bacon…). In addition, not eating food in the morning simplifies my day, especially when we’re trying to get a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old out the door on time (plus, there’s growing evidence that doing a bit of intermittent fasting can have big health benefits).

My Exercise

In the last few years, I’ve been taking a simplified approach to exercise. Rather than go to the gym 6 days a week for 2 hours a day (which I used to do), I now lift kettlebells two or three times per week for no more than about 20-30 minutes. Kettlebells give me a very intense workout in a short period of time, which I love.

On my non-lifting days, my goal is to take at least 10,000 steps, which I measure using a FitBit (measuring your behavior is a HUGE component of behavior change). I usually meet my step goal by walking a lot at work and by taking our dog for a 30- to 45-minute walk around our neighborhood.

My Results (so far)

So, has this approach been working? Here are my weight loss results so far:

Weight loss

As you can see, I’m down nearly 12 pounds in 10 days (sorry for the fuzzy graph). I’m sure much of that is water weight, but nevertheless, I’m pleased with the results so far.

Plus, I’m feeling really good, so there’s no reason for me to think I need to change anything right now.

Currently, I’m doing a 30-Day Paleo Challenge, which means I have a few weeks left to finish this initial stage. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen over the next 20 days.

I’ll be back to update you with more results in a week or two.