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The life of a Dad who strives to be the best dad possible

Potty-Training, Shaping, P90X and You

Ever heard the story of the cat that uses a toilet rather than the litter box? Ever wondered whether it was true? Well, allow me to dispel the myth: it is true. Anyone can teach a cat to use the toilet. You might wonder how this is possible. In short, it is done through small changes in behavior. You slowly “teach” the cat to use the toilet by making small, seemingly unnoticeable changes to the cat’s behavior and routine.

  • Move the litter box nearer to the bathroom until you can move it into the bathroom.
  • Move the little box across the floor until it is next to the toilet.
  • Move the litter box off the floor until it is on level with the toilet seat.
  • Move the litter box from its perch until it is on the toilet seat.
  • Remove the litter box.

It may take weeks or it may take months, but, in time, the cat will use the toilet. The whole progression is possible via a psychological theory called “Shaping”. In essence, shaping is using very small, incremental changes to modify someone’s behavior. The subject is, more or less, unaware of what is happening because the shifts are largely unnoticeable. The cat is basically not aware that the litter box is slowly sliding across the floor, into a new room, and onto some strange, ceramic pedestal.

Small steps. Small changes. Potentially profound results.

The same concepts can apply to anything, even humans. We can change our own behavior, should we want to do so, simply by applying this concept. Want to run a marathon, even though you have no running background? 26.2 is quite a distance, but you can reach that goal just by starting to walk around the block. Do that walk, then over time, extend the distance. Once you are walking comfortably for longer distances, start jogging easily. Once you are doing that, extend the distance. The trick, though, is doing it. While going from 0 to 26.2 is big, going from 1 to 1.5 is simple.

What about the P90X workout or the Insanity workout? Well, while these do not strictly involve making small, incremental changes, they can. You just start by doing what you can do. On the fitness side, if Tony Horton calls for 15 repetitions and that’s too many for you, then you do what you can. It is the same with the P90X nutrition plan. You can certainly go “all in” and follow the nutrition guide precisely, but for many, that’s a tall order. You do what you can. Same with the Insanity nutrition plan. Do what works in your life. Start small and build over time. Making changes that way is much easier and simple than massive, seismic shifts in your life.


So, you may ask, if all this is so simple, why don’t people do it? Why aren’t we all marathon runners or graduates of the P90X or Insanity workouts with potty-trained cats??? Well, the first impediment is procrastination. Failing to walk around the block, do the workouts on the P90X or Insanity schedule, or move the litter box for one day will result in no penalties to you whatsoever. You skip one walk, that marathon goal is still yours. You miss a workout and the rest of the workout schedule is still there. But compound that mistake over time and you will almost certainly never run that marathon, finish the P90X or Insanity program, or be able to quit buying kitty litter. Procrastination is a smooth and subtle killer of many big dreams.Insanity

The second biggest impediment is consistency; a critical part of successful shaping, especially when applying it to ourselves. To successfully create any change, a critical element is consistency. With the litter box, consistency is extremely easy: once a week, move the litter box closer to its ultimate destination. With humans, well, the challenge is a little greater. Can it be done? Of course. Is it difficult? No, not at all. Is it easy? No, not at all. Wait a minute, you say, it must be either difficult or easy. It isn’t; it is simple. Is walking around the block difficult or easy? Depends on who you ask. Is walking around the block simple? Yes. Is any DVD in the P90X or Insanity workout easy? Candidly, no, they are all tough. But, doing them is simple. Absent some physical limitation that prevents someone from walking or doing a P90X or Insanity workout, completing each is very simple to do. It is also very simple not to do. And therein lies the true issue.

Simple to do and simple not to do…
As I noted above, there’s no penalty, no loss, no negative consequence to skipping something one time. Or maybe two times. But, you get to three, four and so on, well, that’s a different story. Still want to finish that marathon? Better not miss a walk or a run too often. Want to get an “A” in some class? Better not miss completing your homework or doing your reading too often. Want to reach day 90 of the P90X program? Better not miss many workouts. Want to be able to get your “I earned it” Insanity workout shirt? Same thing. Want to get a raise or a promotion at work? Better not skip doing a great job, every chance you get. Whether good or bad, life has a way of separating the results/rewards/consequences of our actions until much, much later than the actions themselves most of the time. It may not seem fair, but far more often than not, that’s just how it is.

Now, the formula becomes consistency over time. You do the necessary actions over the requisite period of time and the desired goal shall be yours. Mathematically, consistency x time = success (Yes, I am a bit of a math geek.) This means you must have discipline. Having discipline is a major step towards achieving any progress. We are all lucky. We can accomplish nearly anything we want, should we simply want it badly enough. If you want to finish that marathon badly enough, you will have the discipline to prepare. You will not skip a run. Want to get that Insanity T Shirt saying “I earned it”? You know what to do. The desire provides the energy and drive to be disciplined. Over time, and here’s the amazing part, new habits are formed.

A potty-trained cat?

Forming new habits is not easy. Try driving to work via a different route tomorrow. Your mind will badly want to bring back to your habitual route. That “muscle memory” is powerful, very powerful. But, with discipline, you can form any habit you want. And that is the key. With any change, comes new habits. Every time. So, want to change something in your life? Determine what habits you need to make that change and start modifying your behavior, in small steps, to make those new habits. Be extremely disciplined in doing this and anything will be possible.

We do not make any change with some Herculean jump. Rather, it is those small steps. They are truly the building blocks upon which any new habit is made. Well, those and time. Accept that the bigger the change, the more time required. Have the tenacity to stick with your decision, be disciplined in your actions, and you shall reach your goal. Even it is merely never buying kitty litter again!

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