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How to Teach an Old Cat New Tricks: Jump Starting New Behavior with Micro-Tasks

Live Your Message is growing… fast.

We just hired three new employees to take Live Your Message to the next level. So buckle up because you’re about to begin seeing even more high quality content and customer service from us.

One of those new employees, Ainslee, shared a story with us about her cat that I wanted to pass along, despite being deathly allergic to the things.

Ainslee has what she describes as a “defiant” little cat named Fisher. She named the cat after the late Carrie Fisher (she’s a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd) and her spirit matches that of her namesake. Despite her tenacity, Ainslee was actually able to train Fisher to give her kisses on command.

No way…” you may say. But, yes way – it’s true! Here’s video evidence (because I couldn’t believe it either).

How in the world did she do that?

Well first, Ainslee noticed that Fisher didn’t like to be held (not very surprising with her rebellious nature). So she knew that letting the cat go was a positive experience in and of itself, and that she could use that to her advantage.

Once she figured out what would motivate Fisher, all Ainslee had to do was get the cat to give her that elusive first kiss. We’ve all been there right? Waiting on a first kiss from a loved one (even if that loved one is a cat…).

Often when establishing any new habit or behavior, the first step is the most difficult one.

The task may seem too daunting, overwhelming or just flat out impossible. And training a cat to do anything on command is certainly a feat.

So Ainslee decided to employ an old psychology technique called jump starting behavior. The idea is to break the behavior down into its smallest components, micro-tasks, and arrange them from start to finish.

Then, you work on the first component and gradually build the rest on top, only requiring one step at a time. So for her little Fisher, getting that first kiss required three steps:

  1. Hold her long enough that she wanted to get down (about 4 seconds)
  2. Get her to move towards/sniff her face
  3. Actually lick her face

Holding her until she was restless was easy, but getting Fisher to be remotely interested in Ainslee’s face was more difficult. She had to get creative.

Ainslee knew Fisher was intrigued by the smell of this certain lip gloss she had, so Ainslee started wearing that whenever she held Fisher. If Fisher showed interest and sniffed the lip gloss, she immediately let the cat go. If not, she held the cat for a few seconds after she started squirming.

After several tries Fisher eventually gave Ainslee that coveted first kiss. It may have been totally random or she may have caught on to the little game Ainslee was playing, but regardless Ainslee reinforced the heck out of it.

Ainslee let the cat down AND gave her a treat. After a few more trials, the cat got it down pat. Apparently now, if the cat wants just about anything she has to give Ainslee a kiss first.

Is your business lacking something that you’d like to add or maybe it is in need of a major change, but getting started feels as difficult as training a cat to give kisses?

Whether you’d like to expand your client-base, branch into new markets or get started on a brand new business concept, you can use this same method to jump start your own behavior!

Rather than becoming overwhelmed with the seemingly massive task at hand, break it into its smallest components. Map out steps 1, 2 and 3. And then break those down even further, into manageable micro-tasks.

Challenge yourself to accomplish one micro-task a day. Require yourself to take that step, and that step alone. If you accomplish more, AMAZING! That is the cherry on top because you went above and beyond, but only require that one step.

Once you accomplish a micro-task, reinforce the heck out of yourself for it. Treat yourself!

Get creative with your rewards and really pat yourself on the back because you achieved your goal and that is worth celebrating!

Tomorrow, you will feel accomplished and motivated to tackle the next step. You have set yourself up for success by assigning manageable goals and following up with intrinsic rewards.

Chip away at the gargantuan task piece by piece, and watch your ultimate goal take form. Once you get the ball rolling, your final goal will steadily transform from a seemingly impossible task to an inevitable reality.

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

– Carrie Fisher

What is the first step you’ve been meaning to take in your life or your business? What is the ultimate goal you’d like to accomplish? Comment below and tackle the first micro-task in transforming your ultimate goal into an inevitable reality.

Love it? Hate it? Let me know...

  1. said elkhamrichi Avatar

    un grand bonjour…..merci….

    1. Marisa Murgatroyd Avatar
      Marisa Murgatroyd


  2. Linda Vorthman Avatar
    Linda Vorthman

    I do like the idea of breaking it down into the components to move into the correct direction.
    I can start by using this training on my cat and progress to my husband (I’m totally kidding. Sheesh. Stop looking at me like that! He’s already trained). LOL

    1. Marisa Murgatroyd Avatar
      Marisa Murgatroyd

      I never even thought about using this on the hubby, Linda. Great idea! 😉

  3. Janine Gregor Avatar
    Janine Gregor

    Congratulations on building your team. Even doing that can be done in micro steps as specialties and skills can be broken down by bringing in greater expertise to the business as you grow; as opposed to bringing in a one-size-fits-all team member.And you know this. ?

    Wonderful post Marisa! Ainslee recognizes what motivated Fisher such as the lip gloss and enhanced that training experience.

    In keeping with your example, my cats learned to come when called by name using tuna and different voice inflections. If I say one cat’s name but use the high-pitch tone I use for the other; he won’t come when called. It took time for me to realize that each cat was motivated by something different (the tuna stuck for both, though).

    My point is that not all motivators are relevant to all. So, be like Ainslee and be aware of those clues and signs and once you know, use it. I think that is why many people give up in business because they can’t find that motivator to take that first micro step. For me, feeding that desire to help others toward meeting that sense of accomplishment is that motivator. That may mean setting a timer for myself to do something small or blocking time and rewarding myself with a swim in the pool in between.

    Tuna doesn’t work for me. ?

    Thank you!

    1. Marisa Murgatroyd Avatar
      Marisa Murgatroyd

      Beautifully share Janine and I totally agree. As you know, I teach about the 13 human motivations and understanding what motivates you to do your best work. You’re the best!

      1. Janine Gregor - Your Virtual Dream Team Avatar
        Janine Gregor - Your Virtual Dream Team

        Thank you. I am really enjoying your blog posts.

        Yes, the 13 human motivations you have shared, which has been useful knowledge both in the personal and the business arenas. I’ve even used the motivations list since as a superb tool for writing copy.

        Hats off to my teacher, coach and mentor…You! 😉 You’re the Best!

  4. Alireza Rezaeian Avatar
    Alireza Rezaeian

    hi everyone I love ? please guideme

    1. Marisa Murgatroyd Avatar
      Marisa Murgatroyd

      Hi Alireza 🙂 how can I help?

  5. Pearl Rauberts Avatar
    Pearl Rauberts

    I am pretty upset by you calling cats “things”.

    1. Marisa Murgatroyd Avatar
      Marisa Murgatroyd

      Hi Paula, I meant in an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek kind of way, like “the little critters” but I understand how it may have come off a little harsh. My apologies!

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