The Premack principle in action: a timely example

Woman with tax documents spread around her on the floor

It’s tax season again, folks. People everywhere are scurrying around trying to get their taxes ready by the April 30 deadline. Since J. and I will be handing our diligent prep work over to Mr. Money, who will complete our taxes for us, we have only until April 3. That’s this coming Monday, isn’t it? I’m sunk.

How many times have I told you how much I hate tax season? Yesterday, J. said insightfully, “Maybe it’s because your earnings have dropped so much but you still need the same amount of time to prepare everything.” Sure, J., although I always hated tax season, even before I stopped making money. Any paperwork has become all the more challenging since my little excursion to the ICU.

I have spent several days avoiding the inevitable by cooking elaborate meals, perfecting a new cake, surfing the internet to address my insatiable curiosity, and picking up extra volunteer shifts. I’ve also spent more-than-my-usual time out of the house, which precludes my completing the one noxious task hanging over me at home. Procrastination raises my anxiety about whatever I’m avoiding, and this anxiety escalates as the deadline approaches.

Now that I’ve run out of distractions, I’ve decided to apply my favourite behavioural method, the Premack principle, to counter my avoidance. You haven’t heard of this life-altering principle? Well, it’s a good thing I can explain it to you. In a nutshell, do the stuff you hate first (the less preferred activity), and then reward yourself with something you enjoy (the more preferred activity).

How do I apply the Premack principle in this situation? I work on my taxes for one hour, which is the extent of my attention span these days, and then I can take a break to do whatever my heart desires. My preferred activities include walking the dog, heading to yoga, cooking a tasty dinner and, of course, writing my blog. Your preferred activities may be completely different than mine. You may choose to reward yourself by crafting or swimming (don’t swallow the pool water!) or finishing that romance novel.

There’s one proviso here. The reward can’t always be chocolate, however much you might want it to be. If you consume chocolate to reward yourself, over time your scale may not be very happy with you. You may indeed complete whatever odious task you’ve been putting off, but is it worth the extra 5 lbs? I learned this the hard way. I managed to gain weight the day I ran a marathon by rewarding myself with an ungodly large steak dinner. Consider this ungodly large mistake a misapplication of the Premack principle.

Whoops! According to the Premack principle, I should have worked on my taxes before I wrote this post. Oh well, I’ll get to them later today, after I walk the dog. C’mon Jelly, I don’t care if you’re tired, let’s go.

As always, if you want to accomplish anything of note, do what I say, not what I do.

[Note to readers: In my previous post, I was not the girl in the photo. She had the fashion sense to wear a plaid shirt with her overalls. I did not discover plaid shirts until my 20s.]


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