Too often, we know what we need to do. We simply don’t do it. We know that we should order a salad instead of a double-sized burger. Or that we should read a book, not stare motionless at our TV – a.k.a. start binging another season of whatever. And yet, we surrender to activities providing us with quick wins instead of practicing such that are in accordance with our desired personality.
This piece is a continuation of my post on changing bad habits with good ones. But worry not, it can be read independently.
I’m presenting useful self-regulation strategies for adults.
And before you enthusiastically ask: “What is self-regulation?”
Let’s have a quick look at why it’s needed in habit formation…
I am going to start out by assuming that you are approximately as unhappy with your current habits as the rest of the world.
Everyone wants good habits. To have a nice physique. Enough money in the bank account. A bookshelf of finished books, not “to read one day” books.
And everyone wanting these things usually ends up purchasing a set of courses, books, or glancing through articles (similar to this one) that talk about habits and how many days does it take to break a habit?
But as you can probably sense. It’s not access to the information we struggle with. We struggle with implementing the information we have access to.
In relation to information, we have more than what we intend to consume – and apply.
The reason we don’t follow the tips from the gurus is quite simple: we are freaking tired.
It’s hard to resist the comfortable sofa and the additional desert when your whole day is one extremely long work day.
I mean, we, as adults – and commonly as parents too. Don’t only have to work hard in the office. We have to work even harder outside the office.
Dinner needs to be made. Homework needs to be checked. Everyone should be transported to the correct place in the big city – i.e., kindergarten, school, additional classes, and then back home. And while doing all of these, you also need to defend your home from the chaos constantly trying to turn it into a pit hole from hell.
It’s no wonder why after tucking your kids for a good night, you collapse in the corridor while attempting to reach the bed.
But also, this level of tiredness is steering you towards activities that feel good now but are deteriorating your future condition.
To so-called bad habits.
But there is a common misconception in relation to bad habits. I mean, we don’t consider things like smoking, drinking, or eating too many deserts bad. No. Society calls them such for sure. But we think about these activities as saviors. Helpful companions that transport us to a more enjoyable state of mind. This, in turn, makes the agonizingly hard daily life a more bearable place.
- You don’t smoke because you fancy the smell of cigarettes. No. You smoke because it makes you feel good now.
- You don’t drink because you adore the taste of liquor. No. You drink because it makes the whole tedious day a bit more bearable.
And though we sometimes recognize the need to divorce certain activities. To replace watching TV with exercising. Drinking vodka with drinking water. Smoking with not smoking. Reading social media posts with reading quality books.
We are unable to make the switch not from a practical perspective – we know that these changes are good. But from an emotional and psychological perspective.
We think the following: “Why retire the only things that give me daily pleasures with more things that will require extra work?”
But the reality is always this:
If it’s easy to do, it’s not worth doing.
If it’s hard to do, it’s surely worth doing.
That’s where self-regulation kicks in.
A skill that will help you stay committed to your long-term goals and desired identity.
After all of the above. Let’s finally see what exactly is self-regulation…
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to pause between feeling and action so you can react to a situation in a healthier way.
Daniel Kahneman will probably call it slow thinking.
But the term itself is defined best by Andrea Bell, a practicing therapist:1
“It’s control [of oneself] by oneself.” Andrea Bell
A person with strong self-regulation can…
- Resist impulsive behavior.
- Moderate his mood when he’s feeling down.
- Think critically before reacting to an unfamiliar situation.
In contrast, a person with poor self-regulation will…
- Let his emotions control him.
- Let his inner voice ruminate for hours stuck in a negative cycle.
- Act on autopilot without considering the long-term consequences of his current actions.
We all possess this skill to some extent. We all can say no to things. Stop eating when we are full. Stop browsing social media when the deadline of our task is approaching. Stop thinking about past mistakes when we are feeling down.
Alas, we’re usually too late with the response.
Too often, the damage was already done.
Saying no to another dessert is not a sign of self-regulation if you just had three. It’s simply a state of fullness.
Saying no to social media after a few hours of swimming in a raging storm of political debates is not a sign of prioritization. This is a sign that you lack prioritization.
The goal of this post is to help you improve your ability to self-regulate so you can better plan your day and better react to the demands of your environment.
Why is Self-Regulation Needed?
Self-regulation is a vital component of our daily lives for one simple reason: successful goal attainment requires an ongoing commitment toward your goals.
Setting a goal is easy.
Reaching the goal is the hard part.
When we establish that we want to get X. There is a gap between our current state and our desired state.
This gap can’t be closed with more self-help books or more wishful thinking. No. It can be breached only through daily actions.
But exactly the acting part is where we struggle with.
Since goal pursuit requires doing things outside our comfort zone – e.g., sleeping less, moving more, saying no to pleasurable things. We settle with only the goal-setting phase.
We state that we want to get fit. Read more books. Earn more money. But that’s the only thing we do. We only state these wants. Never truly pursue them.
Self-regulation is your ability to effectively plan how a goal should be reached. How to strive towards goal-oriented behaviors, not goal-sabotaging behaviors. How to maintain your commitment, take daily actions, and make goal realization more probable.
Plainly, it’s an ability to return to the path you’ve chosen to pursue when you don’t feel like pursuing it.
Because, you know. We suck at this thing called commitment.
Yes, you can convince yourself to visit the gym once.
Yes, you can probably keep going for a full month.
And surely, you can summon enough willpower and lift weights for a full year.
But what about visiting the gym for the rest of your life?
That no longer looks so achievable.
Numerous problems can sabotage our long-term goals. Or our attempts to become a particular person. Say, become a writer and write daily – that’s if you choose systems over goals.
Mainly, because we have multiple and sometimes conflicting wishes.
- We want a better-looking body. But! We also want to enjoy a nice chocolate cake a couple of nights per week.
- We want more money. But! We also want to show off online with a new pair of shoes we’ll only wear once a year.
Fortunately, there are strategies that exist. Self-regulation strategies that can help us reach the desired goal. Make the desired personality a permanent part of our lives.
What Are Some Self-regulation Strategies For Adults?
There are two common challenges during the goal-pursuing stage: getting started and staying on track.
The problem with getting started is that we need to get started every day.
Getting fit requires actually going to the gym daily.
And for staying on track. We need to shield our minds from other more desirable activities.
For instance, you might regularly invest a portion of your cash to secure the future of your kids – and your own when you’re no longer so capable. But every once in a while, you’ll want to purchase something luxurious. Not so much because of what you’ll get. But because of how this item will make you feel.
A new car doesn’t only look nice. It also feels nice. Plus, your ego is boosted by all the comments and envious looks from others.
But these things, as you can sense, don’t contribute positively to your desired outcomes.
That’s why we need to follow a certain plan.
I’ve found two strategies that when executed together.2 Can lead to the successful realization of your goals:
Let’s look at them one by one:
Mental contrasting is kind of persuading yourself to act towards your desires by elaborating on the possible future gains.
Usually, when we think about goals, our thoughts shift in one of the following directions:
- Indulging: Indulging means fantasizing. We fantasize about the future without acknowledging the challenges that will surely erupt along the way. We are seduced by the world of potentiality. Intoxicated by what it can be. Never thinking about what actually is. That’s a very dangerous concept. Mainly because when we face reality – when things don’t look exactly as we imagined. We quit. For instance, thinking about being fit feels good. But the daily struggles required to reach that state are far from delightful experiences.
- Dwelling: Dwelling is the opposite of the above. We think about a goal, but instead of feeling motivated. We submerge in negativity. We become crippled because we think about all the ways our plan won’t work. A desire to fix your body is immediately crushed by thoughts like: “I don’t have time!”; “I don’t have money!”; “I don’t have anyone to go to the gym with!”
Mental contrasting uses the positive traits of the above-mentioned to ignite motivation.
In particular, you first imagine the desired future state. How your life will be different, and better, when you reach your goal. Then, that imagination is contrasted with the present reality and the hardships preceding the goal-attainment. But the obstacles are not viewed as impossible. Rather, as things standing in our way. Things we need to battle to reach our desired condition.
From a study done on the subject, the authors frame it as follows:
“In mental contrasting, the positive future is elaborated first, and the negative reality is framed as ‘standing in the way’ of realising the positive future.”Angela Duckworth, Heidi Grant, Benjamin Loew, and Gabriele Oettingen
When the expectations of possible future gains are high, the exercise of mental contrasting motivates us to take action.
In your head, you see, almost touch the prize. So, this creates the needed throttle to act despite all the unpleasantness.
Usually, people set goals using the following framework:
“I want to achieve X!”
While this is enough to give yourself direction. It’s not enough to handle all the obstacles that will emerge along the way.
Staying on track involves ensuring you won’t derail from your track.
And how do we typically abandon our plans?
When we are facing an unfamiliar situation.
Since we don’t know how to act, we act the only way we can: foolishly. That’s why we don’t progress in life.
The implementation intentions self-regulation strategy is a useful addon to the goal-setting stage.
Despite stating your goal. You furnish it by making if-then plans.
For instance, if your goal is to get fit. Applying implementation intentions will mean finishing the sentence with something like: “And if situation Y occurs, I will perform behavior Z to ensure that I will stay on track.”
In a way, the strategy of implementation intentions is about considering, in advance, where you might be tempted to fail during the goal-pursuit phase and define particular steps to avoid ruin. Or more simply, lowering the chances of doing stupid stuff that can lead to degeneration by having clear strategies in different situations.
Here are a couple of implementation intentions if the goal is getting fit:
- If I am dining at a restaurant, as soon as the waiter arrives, I will order a salad without looking at the menu.
- When I’m home after work, I will immediately change to my workout clothes and exercise.
- When I’m invited to a party, I will take the car to prevent myself from drinking.
In a presence of a goal-sabotaging situation, a goal-saving behavior is initiated immediately so you can stay on track.
And since it will be hard to consider in advance everything that can go wrong. You add additional rules along the way. Plus, make adjustments to your initial strategy.
The purpose of this is to equip yourself with adequate responses to (almost) all possible scenarios where you might be tempted to cheat on your goals.
How Can You Practice Self-Regulation?
The best way to self-regulate is by combining the above two strategies – mix mental contrasting with implementation intentions.
While the two mentioned self-regulation strategies work well independently. When applied together, they can help you achieve wonders.
Let’s see how we can create a neat plan for achieving our goals.
The first step is to focus on the benefits you’ll get when the goal is reached.
Step 1: Big Goal
Take your favorite notebook and the pen you use to sign important documents.
Now, on the top of the second page – because why not start with the second page, it’s your notebook, you can do whatever you want with it. Write with capitalized letters what you want to achieve.
For instance, “I want to become a superhero!”
OK, something less sci-fi, “I want to become strong like the superheros I see in comic books!” Much better.
Step 2: Why?
After transcribing your big wish and at the same time running your favorite notebook with your bad handwriting. At least explain yourself.
Finish the above by elaborating… What’s the most positive aspect associated with what you just wrote?
For instance, you can say something ordinary like, “I want to get into better shape.” Or something bold like, “A muscular body will help me get cast for the next Marvel movie! If I end up in a Marvel movie, I’ll have more opportunities and my kids will be ecstatic too.”
The thing you write should get you excited.
Step 3: Critical Obstacles
Think about this: What’s holding you back?
Or an even better question will be: “If you are so obsessed with muscles, superheroes and potentially being part of a Marvel movie, why you’re still fat?”
To this, you might explain yourself with typical grown-up excuses:
- I have kids!
- I have a job!
- I want to express my political views on social media because I’m so smart and I know a lot of facts about politics from my great-grandfather who was almost elected for president once.
Step 4: Realize That The Universe Doesn’t Care
At this stage, you need to go outside, naked, and throw yourself in the (hopefully) cold snow.
If you’re lucky enough to live on a cozy island where the weather is always warm and the sea is always calm. I hate you. You can stop reading.
OK, I don’t really hate you. (I probably still do!)
You can search online for a picture of a ghetto and then traffic jams to get attuned to the mood of the rest of the readers. Then, take an icy, skin-burning shower.
The point here is to realize that the universe is careless of the excused you self-create.
If you want to do something, it’s up to you to do it.
No one is going to ingrain muscles on your body. Even if you’re filthy rich. You still need to work hard to have nice physic.
Step 5: Steps to Deal with Critical Obstacles
Considering the implementation intentions self-regulation strategy, set some rules for handling obstacles.
Use the following framework:
“If [obstacle], then I will [solution].”
For instance, If have a job, then I will quit.
OK, that’s too ambitious.
You need money.
Let’s rewrite it:
“If I’m feeling too tired to work out after I’m back home from work, then I will change to my workout clothes regardless.”
And one more:
“If I’m feeling the need to go on social media and shout politics, I will do 50 push-ups while mumbling about politics.”
All of these seem hard, right?
Well, they are.
The universe doesn’t care, remember?
Step 6: Big Opportunities
Besides strategizing about how you will handle situations that can lead to not reaching your goal. Think about what you can do that will help you get closer to your goal.
Find cracks during your busy day where you can engage in activities with high returns.
You know, things like: “Between making breakfast for my kids and preparing them for school, I have 10 spare minutes. I can use that time to do push-ups.”
Set military-like routines in your daily life. Get up at the same time every day. Go to bed at the same time. Learn how to code and set your TV to play only workouts. Read a couple of books on negations so you can convince your wife and your kids to train with you.
Step 7: Actually Follow the Plan
What you’ve just created. We can neatly label as “The Plan!”
I’ve also created this corporate-like hierarchy that can give it shape and no longer be just an abstract image in your head:
But look, I get it.
The plan you’ve just created doesn’t reduce your parent or work obligations. It also won’t make practicing the set of good habits more enjoyable.
But what you get is a different perspective. A new way to view situations that want to punch you in the face and steer you further away from your desired future.
The main benefit of the self-regulation strategies is that you have a predefined set of actions you can turn to when your whole body wants to act carelessly.
I mean, you surely prefer checking your phone when your kids are calm and playing together with their constructor. But exactly in these situations, the plan you created should be triggered. You ignite the action plan in both distrustful and opportunistic situations.
The goal is to stop viewing obstacles as, well, obstacles. Rather, see them as opportunities to execute on your plan and strengthen your willpower.
All of this, bringing you closer to your goal. Plus, keeping you in check with your desired personality.
Because, you know. Even if you do reach your goal. Even if you do get fit. The work doesn’t end. You now need to stay fit.
Some Closing Thoughts
The two self-regulation strategies are a great way to frame and deal with daily hardships in a positive way.
With mental contrasting, you elaborate on the benefits you will get by achieving X and at the same time define the biggest obstacle. This gives you room to think about how to deal with this hurdle.
And with implementation intentions, you create a specific set of strategies that will be activated in moments of despair.
Both of these strategies help with motivation, so you can keep pushing forward.
Things won’t get easier physically. But they will become easier emotionally.
You know what to do and when to do it.
You can more easily summon the needed vigor to act in hard times. Plus, maintain a mental picture of the prize in hard times.
Do yourself a favor:
Join The Study Newsletter: A laid back newsletter about very serious ideas from even more serious books – and not only. Great for lifelong learners, creators, & wanderers alike.
- Andrea Bell also wrote the following piece on self-regulation (here) that you can find helpful. Check Andrea Bell’s page on GoodTherapy.org.
- The below findings are from the following paper: Duckworth, Angela & Grant, Heidi & Loew, Benjamin & Oettingen, Gabriele & Gollwitzer, Peter. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology. (LINK)