How Splitting Can Overcome Motivation Problems


I stand here confronted by the recipe and its associated collection of produce.

Step 1: Thoroughly rinse produce. Peel, trim and cut carrots into small dice.

My thoughts: How important is it to peel carrots really? How important are vegetables really? How important is dinner at all? Maybe I should just have wine.

Everything is just too hard to bother.

Ever had that feeling? Once or twice? (A day?)

I am, in that moment, a low drive dog. It sure looks like I don’t care enough about food to get dinner cooked.

But this isn’t really a motivation problem. Or it is, but not necessarily exclusively a motivational problem.

I like food. A lot. A WHOLE LOT.

But sometimes the steps before me just seem to take so much activation energy, I just can’t.

But actually… I really can. If I break it down.

Here’s how dinner eventually got cooked.

Step 1: Lift carrot.
Step 2: Walk to sink.
Step 3: Rinse carrot
Step 4: Peel carrot… Dam, where is the peeler? Does any of this matter? I’m just going to drink wine…


Step 4a: Open drawer.
Step 4b: Open the other drawer.
Step 4c: Open dishwasher.
Step 4d: Find peeler
Step 4e: Peel carrot
(Reinforce with a sip of wine.)

Step 5: Place carrot on cutting board.
Step 6: Cut carrot in half.
Step 7: Cut in half again

And so on.

The preceding was a true story. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent. Because no one is innocent. Or guilty. This is stuff is just a fact of life… not a value judgment or character flaw.

Here’s the crazy part, not only does the splitting stuff works for dogs, works for human behavior too. Whether it’s training your dog to retrieve the dumbbell or training yourself to train the dog to retrieve the dumbbell… If you feel stuck as if you can’t personally find the motivation… Find a smaller step for yourself. Start by just cutting up the treats. Or even break that down!

When you find yourself feeling like your dog lacks motivation to do a behavior, whether just in the moment or in general, find a smaller step you can reinforce. This is ESPECIALLY true if you find yourself tempted to use a label, like “low drive”. The label isn’t productive… nothing we can do! But needing a smaller step? THAT is something we can take action on.

Yes, do consider bringing highs value reinforcers into the game. But at the same time, look for a way to make earning that reinforcement easier.

Of course, knowing you should split a step down and find an easier version to reinforce and actually DOING so are two different things. It’s hard to know where to find those splits. My first go-to is reducing distance. Usually by a LOT… like putting the dumbbell right at my feet.

Clicking as quickly as possible is another great choice, especially in combination with reduced distance. This means you are effectively reducing the duration of the behavior you are trying to reinforce, which makes it easier.

Shorter distance and shorter duration mean automatically increased rate of reinforcement. And increased rate of reinforcement builds motivation!

This strategy takes advantage of a concept called “behavioral momentum”.

Having a small step up front gives a quick win, which gets the ball rolling. From there, additional behaviors are much more likely to occur.

And I just love that it works on any species… even us!

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