Premack’s Principle: A Tool for Improving Productivity (and Happiness)


Simply hearing the word is often enough to make people hang their heads in defeat. We all know that we should be productive, that we should be getting things done. But knowing we need to get things done is different than actually doing them. For example, I know I need to go out and mow my lawn, but until I actually go out and do it, the grass ain’t gonna get any shorter. I also know I need to exercise, but until I get out and start swinging my kettlebells around, I’m pretty sure my male muffin top will keep overflowing its container. And my students certainly know they need to start working on their papers sooner than they actually do.

But here’s the thing: Being productive can be hard. Damn hard. Ironically, the same technological advances that literally force us to be more productive are also the same ones that diminish our productivity. Consider smart phones. With this technology, we’re able to answer important emails or do important research while we’re buying groceries, waiting for the dentist, and—in way too many cases—driving. But those very same smart phones also allow us to engage in meaningless text-message exchanges, search YouTube for funny cat videos, send inappropriate Snapchat pictures, and do numerous others tasks that keep us from doing what we actually need to accomplish.

Regardless of whether you view smart phones as the greatest thing since sliced bread or as pure evil (or somewhere in between), the fact of the matter is that we live in a rapidly changing world where there’s always more to be done. And with this additional pressure to accomplish comes the need for strategies that will help us to get important things done. In addition—and maybe even more importantly—we need to be able to maintain our sanity as we work through our seemingly endless to-do lists.

Is there anything that can help us accomplish these goals?

Well, one “life hack” that is especially useful on this front is a psychological principle known as “Premack’s principle.”

Premack’s Principle: A Little History and an Explanation

Premack’s principle is named after psychologist David Premack, who got his PhD in the 1950s at the University of Minnesota (my alma mater!) and worked at several different universities before ultimately landing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Professor Emeritus (retired).

Premack’s early research focused on a well-known psychological principle called “positive reinforcement.” Although there are a few different ways to think about this idea, at its essence, positive reinforcement means that some event (technically called a “stimulus”) follows a behavior and makes the behavior more likely to happen.

Here are a few examples:

I drive through Dairy Queen (the behavior) and get a large cookie dough Blizzard (the stimulus), which makes me more likely to swing through Dairy Queen the next time I’m hungry.

My son says, “Please,” (the behavior) and receives a snack (the stimulus), which makes him more likely to ask politely in the future.

I finish writing an amazing lecture for my class (the behavior) and then turn on Game of Thrones (the stimulus), which makes me more likely to finish my work the next time around. (Note: I’ve never actually seen an episode of GoT. I just said it so you’d think I’m cool.)

A student complains about her horrible life (the behavior) and gets sympathetic responses from a bunch of her friends (the stimulus), which makes her complaining more likely to occur in the future.

The principle of positive reinforcement is one of the most widely studied concepts in all of psychology and has been a cornerstone for understanding human and nonhuman behavior for well over 100 years. As I frequently tell my students, if you want a good idea of why people do what they do, check out what happens to them after they behave—there’s a good bet that positive reinforcement is involved (and much of this reinforcement is “social” in nature, coming in the form of smiles, pats on the back, kind words, and so on).

Over the last 75 or so years, there have been several different theories that have tried to explain exactly why positive reinforcement has the effect of increasing behavior. But for the sake of space, we’re going to focus on Premack’s conception of positive reinforcement.

Premack conceptualized it this way:


Or, in words, positive reinforcement occurs when a lower-probability behavior (LPB) is followed by a higher-probability behavior (HPB).

Notice that Premack discussed reinforcement solely in terms of behaviors. Rather than talk about “driving through Dairy Queen (a behavior) and getting a Blizzard (a stimulus),” he would discuss this as “driving through Dairy Queen (a behavior) and eating a Blizzard (a behavior).” To Premack, the event (the Blizzard) is important only because of the behavior it allows us to engage in (in this case, eating the ice cream).

Premack’s definition says that to produce “reinforcement,” we simply need to know, first, which behavior is currently the LPB and which is the HPB.

For instance, let’s consider my son’s behaviors of saying please and eating a snack. Assuming he’s hungry, he’d rather eat the snack than say please. This makes “saying please” the LPB and “eating a snack” the HPB.

Then, for reinforcement to occur, all we have to do is order the behaviors: LPB → HPB. This is because the only way we can get to the preferred HPB is by doing the LPB—the only way my son can eat the snack is by saying please (because we won’t give him the snack otherwise). Consequently, saying please will increase to whatever amount is needed to obtain and eventually eat the snack.

This way of thinking about positive reinforcement is very powerful. It means that:

If you want to increase a particular behavior, you simply need to set it up so doing that behavior is followed by a more-probable (or more-desired) behavior.

For instance, if I don’t want to exercise but do want to watch TV, I can use watching TV to reinforce exercising (exercise → watch TV).

Or if I have to write a blog post but really want to play guitar instead, I can use playing guitar to reinforce writing (write → play guitar).

Premack’s Principle and Productivity

So, how can we use this idea to increase our productivity (which consists of completing numerous tasks throughout the day)? Conceptually, it’s very simple:

Identify the tasks you need or want to complete each day, and simply order them, as much as possible, from least probable (or least desired) to most probable (or most desired).

Start with the one you don’t want to do or that you absolutely need to do (these are often the same activity), work on it, and then move on to the next one. Then when you’re done with the second activity, work on the third one (which is more probable than the second). And so on.

So, on a particular day, I may need to: exercise, fold the laundry, and do the dishes. I may also want to watch two (or five) episodes of GoT. I should order these activities from least to most desired: first, do the dishes; then, fold the laundry; then, exercise; and, finally, watch GoT.

Think about what this ordering means: It means that every activity is followed by a more-desired activity. And importantly, the most-desired activity caps it all off. Most likely, as you work your way through your activities, you’ll find yourself enjoying each one more than the last.

Consider how this is different from the way we often (or usually) work through our days. Rather than order our day from LPB to HPB, we instead do something like this: “Well, I don’t really want to exercise, but I do want to watch TV. I’ll just watch a little TV, which will make me feel better, and then I’ll be in a better mood to exercise later on.”

But as we all know, the exercising never happens. Instead, we sit on the couch, finish two (or five) episodes of GoT, and then feel bad about ourselves for the rest of the week (or at least that’s what I do).

So why does this lack of action happen so often, even when we do our very best to muster up the motivation to get things done?

When we do the more-probable activities (the HPBs) first, we have nothing to look forward to! Instead, finishing one activity simply means that a less-desired one is up next. And why would we get excited about an activity if finishing it means we have to move on and do something less enjoyable? In fact, why even start if you know that the rest of the day is just going to get worse?

No wonder our productivity is frequently in the toilet.

Does Premack’s Principle Work?: A Useful Anecdote

Hopefully, by this point, I’ve done a decent job of explaining how Premack’s principle works and why it should be a useful way to think about improving productivity.

But, of course, the real question remains: Does it actually work?

Well, if you’re so inclined, a Google Scholar search will yield numerous studies that support Premack’s idea. For now, though, let me leave you with part of an email that I received from one of my students, who decided to give the Premack principle a try in her life:

“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been applying the Premack principle in my own life recently, and it’s made a huge difference so far! I’ve been happier and more productive, even just over the past couple of weeks. I didn’t anticipate that it would make such a difference on a daily basis.”

When I asked for further information on how she applied it, she wrote:

“I started out changing the order of how I do homework (my least favorite classes first). But then I slowly incorporated it into other areas of my life, such as errands and work, and now my whole routine has changed. I’m also actually starting to enjoy some of the things I used to hate doing.”

Over the past few years, I’ve heard many other students talk about their successes using Premack’s principle in a variety of ways. And I’ve used it myself for years (although, as with many of my habits, I could be more consistent).

Implementing Premack’s Principle: Some Considerations

There are a couple of things to be aware of when you implement Premack’s principle into your daily life.

First, until you get into a rhythm, it’s often hard to tackle your least-desired activity first. If you hate to write, it’s hard to start your day with a full-blown, 3-hour writing session. As such, a good rule of thumb is to “start small.” How much writing (or other activity) can you handle? Can you do 5 minutes? Ten minutes? Thirty minutes? Ultimately, start as small as you need to finish successfully, and then slowly build up. Let the reinforcement do its work! Remember, this is about changing habits and becoming productive, not going from 0 to 60 in a day.

Second, an important part of Premack’s theory of reinforcement is that the “value” of a particular activity may change over time. During one particular period of time, you might really want to exercise (or write or whatever), which means you can use it to reinforce other less-desired behaviors. Over time, though, exercise may become less attractive (compared to other behaviors). If so, you’ll want to exercise first and reinforce it with other more-desirable activities.

Ultimately, Premack’s principle works. It’s based on a solid theory, and there’s a large amount of research validating this idea. It’s also fairly simple to implement.

By consistently implementing this important psychological principle, it’s very likely that you’ll see increases in your day-to-day productivity as well as in your psychological well-being.

So why not give it a try?


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2 thoughts on “Premack’s Principle: A Tool for Improving Productivity (and Happiness)”

  1. Great post! I felt like I was back in your class again! I use premack’s principle and the explanation of positive reinforcement often when I am working with my client’s parents as they often need help with different parenting strategies for various behaviors.

    1. Jessie, it’s great to hear that you’ve taken some of your psychology lessons with you. Keep applying ’em!

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