Here’s everything you need to know about regulating yourself and controlling your behavior.
Do you ever wonder why we humans act differently than each other? Why do some people indulge in sweet treats when they're on a diet while others seem to manage not eating junk food on a diet? Well, it all comes down to self-regulation—or how well we control our own behavior. In this article, we’ll talk about the science behind self-regulation and offer some strategies to help you regulate your behavior.
Self-regulation may involve control over our thoughts, emotions, impulses, appetites, or task performance. Self-regulation is often thought to be the same thing as self-control (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004) and it usually involves stopping or inhibiting an action although it sometimes involves initiating an action (Baumeister, 2014).
Self-regulation may be behavioral or cognitive (or both).
Behavioral self-regulation involves controlling behavior. We might opt not to punch someone in the face or we might opt to practice the violin in preparation for a recital. We are engaging (or not engaging) in a behavior.
Cognitive self-regulation involves the control of thoughts. Maybe we try not to think about our romantic partner who just broke up with us or we try to shift our thoughts to being grateful for our bosses even when they stress us out. Often, cognitive self-regulation precedes behavioral self-regulation. That’s because shifting our thoughts is often a key step in changing our behavior.
Conscious self-regulation versus unconscious self-regulation
Self-regulation can also be conscious or nonconscious. For example, we might consciously control our anxiety by engaging in a technique like deep breathing. Or, we might unconsciously regulate our anxiety by having an inherent habit of focusing on other things that make us less anxious. It’s also possible that self-regulation can fall somewhere between conscious and unconscious (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004).
Examples of Self-Regulation
Bruce has just quit smoking and when someone offers him a cigarette, he says, “No thanks.”
Amelia has a test tomorrow and even though she doesn’t like the subject matter, she forces herself to study all night long.
Elijah is on a diet and attends a BBQ with friends. Instead of eating a big plate filled with burgers, chips, and cake, he settles for a salad.
As you can see, self-regulation is everywhere. It involves anything that we force ourselves to do or not to do.
How to Boost Your Self-Regulation Skills
So what can you do to increase your self-regulation skills? Here are some ideas:
1. Make it hard to lose self-control
In Dan Ariely’s Ted Talk, he shares a bunch of examples of how “bad” behaviors were stopped simply by making it really unpleasant or impossible to engage in these behaviors. For example, he mentions an alarm clock that donates to a charity you hate every time you hit the snooze button. Here are some other tricks that can make self-control a bit easier by making it hard to engage in undesired behaviors:
Dieting. Remove all junk food from the house. Place a bowl of healthy snacks on the counter (like apples). Keep a healthy snack with you at all times so you don’t resort to buying junk food.
Smoking. Throw away all cigarettes. Try not to spend time with smokers. Go to places where smoking is not allowed.
Using your smartphone. Remove all tempting apps from your phone. Change your home screen to greyscale to make it less enticing. Plug your phone in in the living room instead of your bedroom so you’re less likely to use it at night.
Studying. Make a bet with your friend that you’ll get an A and if you don’t then you have to pay them money.
Waking up early. Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you have to get up to hit the snooze button.
Exercising. Put your shoes and workout clothes next to your bed. Agree to meet a friend at the gym every day so you’ll feel guilty if you don’t show up.
2. Give yourself homework
One study showed that kids actually developed self-regulation skills through homework. Homework involves motivating yourself, inhibiting distractions, sticktoitiveness, managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on efforts, and delay of gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman, 2011).
As adults, we can use this strategy too. We can give ourselves “homework” assignments that require us to develop our skills. For example, we might give ourselves the following homework assignments:
Spend 30 minutes per day using a foreign language app to learn a new language.
Study for an exam that can help us get an advanced degree or certification.
Take an online course.
Devote a few hours on Saturdays to developing a new skill like car mechanics or carpentry.
By regularly working towards building new skills, we hone our ability to regulate our behavior and it gets easier to practice self-control.
Sign up for one of our courses to learn more skills and put them into practice. Putting more peace into this world, yourself and those around you.
Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Self-regulation, ego depletion, and inhibition. Neuropsychologia, 65, 313-319.
Ramdass, D., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2011). Developing self-regulation skills: The important role of homework. Journal of advanced academics, 22(2), 194-218.
Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Understanding self-regulation. Handbook of self-regulation, 19.