How to Get Tasks Done Using Behavior Momentum


"If you want to change the world, start by making your bed."

Admiral William McRaven, University of Texas-Austin 2014 Commencement Speech

I recently watched this video on Youtube, and found it very much in line with my recent quest to optimize my workflow and processes.  It is an interesting concept, and something that appeals to people within all professions: teachers, parents, and business executives.  The concept is called behavior momentum.  Admiral William McRaven goes on to state that "If you make your bed every morning, you'll have accomplished the first task of the day"  thus making it more likely you will continue the other tasks you have yet to accomplish.

Behavior momentum is a theory that has been studied for decades in the field of behavior analysis, featured in studies focused on working on task completion with individuals with developmental disabilities (Mace et al., 1988.), and described by Nevin, Mandell, and Atak (1983) as a "persistence of behavior."  To take it a step further, Mace and Belfiore (1990), defined behavior momentum as a persistence of behavior following a shift from high probability behavior (easy task) to a low probabilty behavior (hard task).  

Fast forward from the 80s and 90s to present day, where Admiral William McRaven provided this salient advice to the graduating class of the University of Texas-Austin.  By doing one task per day that is automated (easy, high probability), your behavior will persist to the harder tasks on that daily checklist (see "The Art of the Checklist").

I encountered this first-hand when I started working on developing my own business.  My schedule was extremely chaotic, and I had many tasks to complete throughout the day.  Though I was familiar with the use and benefits of a checklist to organize my tasks, there seemed to be too many on the page to complete, and I felt extremely overwhelmed.  Soon, nothing was accomplished, and my performance decreased rapidly.

That's when I turned to behavior momentum as a strategy to help automate some of my routine, so I would be more motivated to take on the harder tasks.  I created an ideal schedule of what I wanted my day to look like--scheduling blocks of time with tasks from when I woke up to when I went to bed.  I made sure to put the easy tasks in the beginning of the day (walk/feed the dogs, make breakfast/coffee), and as I moved through my schedule, I could focus on the more complex tasks.

 By using behavior momentum and scheduling my day with those blocks of time, I was able to perform more and more complex tasks throughout my day, thus increasing my performance and productivity!


Mace, F. C., Hock, M. L., Lalli, J. S., West, B. J., Belfiore, P. J., Pinter, E., & Brown, D. K. (1988). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of noncompliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 123-141.

Mace, F.C, Belfiore, P (1990). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of escape stereotypy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 507-514

Nevin, J. A., Mandell, C., & Atak, J. R. (1983). The analysis of behavior momentum. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 39, 49-59.


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The Art of the Checklist


I have a secret...I am a checklist junkie.

Checklists have an amazing amount of stimulus control over my everyday life.  After reading Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto * it is clear they should for everyone.  As a surgeon, Gawande provides stories of how checklists keep surgeons organized, save lives while patients are in triage, and provides many additional examples of how checklists have saved and changed lives.

Though I am not a surgeon, and would not dream of comparing my mundane everyday life to the life in the ER, there are parallels in how I use the checklist to "triage" the tasks I need to complete everyday.

The field of Behavior Analysis also has shown the benefit of the use of checklists to shape behavior.  We have demonstrated their success in classrooms to set the occasion for responding to problem behavior in children in general education classrooms (Witt, Noell, Lafleur, & Mortenson, 1997), as well as to increase the rate of safety behavior in the workplace, especially when used to support managers in providing feedback to workers (Cooper, 2006). 

 As business leaders, parents, and teachers, we need tools to organize our daily lives and to serve as reminders of the  tasks needed to complete everyday--to help us triage, but also to help us set the occasion for the behavior of those we lead and teach.  When we get overwhelmed with the tasks we need to complete, or the people around us need support, we can use checklists to change our behavior, and the behavior of those around us.

  **Please Note: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. 


Witt, J.,  Noell, G.,  Lafleur, L. & Mortenson, B. (1997). Teacher Use Of Interventions In General Education Settings: Measurement And Analysis Of The Independent Variable. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30(4), 693-696

Cooper, M.D. (2006). Exploratory Analyses of the Effects of Managerial Support and Feedback Consequences on Behavioral Safety Maintenance. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 26(3), 1-41