What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the second pillar of emotional intelligence or EI. Hopefully, you’ll recall that emotional intelligence comprises four pillars: self-awareness, self-regulation, understanding others and managing relationships. You could check out my “Emotional Intelligence is vital” post for more insight.
Regulation, in the sense we will use it, means the control of a system or process such that it remains at a desired level or rate. For you, self-regulation literally means how you control yourself in your current situation. You can either ramp specific efforts up or down or you can try to maintain your effort at a specific level or rate.
Self-regulation? Who cares?
You should care!
We’ve already looked at self-awareness, but self-awareness is only your starting point. Your new awareness enables you to decide if something you are doing, thinking or feeling is beneficial beneficial, neutral or even harmful to you.
You can then decide to take some form of action. For instance, you can improve on beneficial areas. In similar fashion, neutral areas can be ignored or improved upon as desired. Likewise, any negative or harmful areas can be reduced or even eliminated entirely. The last one may take time and hard work, but the investment of effort is essential for growth.
The self-regulation workflow
If you know me well, you’ll know I love a good workflow or process.
These are the steps then. We become aware of something; we decide to act in some way then we take the action we decided upon. Sounds simple when put like that doesn’t it?
If it is so simple, why aren’t you easily and consistently completing your self-development goals and taking yourself to your absolute best? If you’re like most people, you often know what to do but you either can’t start it or you can’t sustain it.
Why the inaction?
Newsflash! Humans are lazy creatures. Left to our own devices we tend toward laziness, like it or not, it’s true. Some people aren’t as lazy as others for sure, but we’re all lazy creatures at heart. We’ve evolved to be lazy. We think and act in lazy ways.
We all have lazy thoughts and impulses. Wouldn’t you rather stay in bed for that extra five minutes? Why not leave going to the gym until tomorrow or better yet, next week? That decorating can wait until after the holidays can’t it? One last biscuit then I’m all over that diet?
We humans are even lazy in the way we think (or don’t think) sometimes. Deep thinking takes deep effort. Life is busy enough, am I right?
If you’re honest with yourself, don’t you often or always go with whatever instant solution or idea pops straight into your head? You rely on stereotypes and the automatic repetition of previous good solutions whenever you can. This approach generally gets you through your day and with minimal effort.
It is worse than you think too. Because humans like us are also prone to many internal and non-conscious cognitive biases, when we use automatic thinking, we can make many mistakes. This doesn’t always help you in your self-regulation and improvement journey.
To go much deeper here, I can recommend you read the fascinating book, “Thinking, Fast & Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
You’re up against your own status quo?
You are conditioned by evolution to conserve energy because energy was historically hard to come by. It still is in certain parts of the world. Sure, times and circumstances have changed for many of us and the modern world we inhabit expects us to be dynamic and energetic all the time. The problem is your mental and physical wiring is largely geared for laziness and economy wherever and whenever possible.
Much of your behaviour and thought is automatic because automation uses less energy than concentration and focused thinking. Consequently, to want to carry out such work and burn the required energy, there must be a big trade-off in terms of reward versus effort. The benefits must heavily outweigh the much preferred and lazy status quo.
Most of the time you don’t, won’t or can’t create a compelling enough reason to act. You can often decide what you want to do but you often struggle to get started and do it. If you do start, you will often struggle to keep going. The problem happens at the decision-action boundary.
What about the wonders of willpower?
Willpower is often seen as the separator of the achiever from the non-achiever. As a result, it can be viewed as the almost magical difference between the person who can control themselves and the person who cannot. Above all, willpower is the super-power with which you can smash through the decision/action barrier, right?
Not so much in reality.
Here’s the problem. If you are brutally honest with yourself (more EI self-awareness in action), you don’t really know what willpower is. You cannot really point to it or identify it in any meaningful way. You believe you know when you have it or not, and you are certain you know its effects, but you struggle to define it clearly.
Why is willpower not enough?
In very simplistic psychological terms, willpower is the ability to delay gratification in the short-term to meet longer-term desirable goals.
Here’s the root problem. Because it takes great effort, concentration and energy to maintain willpower you can become tired. In addition, willpower relies on cool or logical thinking and the avoidance of hot or emotional reactions. Consequently, unwanted or non-useful thoughts must be overridden, which similarly takes effort.
Willpower can therefore be derailed by various internal, emotional, physical and external effects. It’s a resource which can be replenished or restored, but its capacity and sustainability between recharges is limited. Willpower can and does run out on you, often when you need it most.
So, can you rely on willpower alone for self-regulation? It’s risky at best.
You therefore need to be ever vigilant and on your guard. However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be easily distracted by the next new shiny object to come into your field of awareness. My various failed attempts at dieting and hitting the gym certainly attest to this. My willpower often proves weak and simply not up to the task when I need it the most. How’s yours?
A better self-regulation strategy
Here’s another wonderful workflow because workflows work:
The more workflows there are the happier I am. This is a simple step process which will help you preserve your precious willpower for other duties.
First work out your self-regulation target & barriers
Because of your constant self-awareness and monitoring, you’ve become aware of an issue. Consequently, you’ve decided to act on it, which is great. You’ve tried to go from “identify target” straight to “hit the target.” This is how most people attempt it, and therefore most people fail to hit their targets consistently.
However, before you dive in and act, consider these additional strategy steps:
Identify some potential barriers and excuse generators. Now you can look to reduce and/or mitigate them. You might also even eliminate them entirely at this stage.
How do you best achieve this wonderful strategy? You create deliberate habits to take the stress off your poor long-suffering and generally inadequate willpower.
Now deliberately automate your self-regulation plan
You must apply your willpower on a task by task basis, because running too many tasks at once takes too much willpower; which tends to run out anyway. It’s a finite resource. Once one thing flops over, willpower folds and you eat the metaphorical cookie. Generally, the rest of the card house comes tumbling down right after it and you are back to square one.
To compound our misery and inadequacy we humans are also cognitively miserly. You like low-energy automatic thinking. Applying willpower takes focus, concentration and energy. You won’t generally like to concentrate and focus for long if you don’t have absolutely to.
Your willpower needs help in the form of deliberately created effective habits.
Create deliberate habits
So, to reduce the amount of willpower you need to get the job done, I recommend creating as many deliberate and ingrained habits as you can. Habits can certainly help you regulate your thoughts, emotions and behaviours.
Deliberate habits are your barrier mitigations. Deliberate habits are the ultimate automatic process; both good and bad. Keep the willpower because you’ll always need it. Break things into small chunks and mitigate them one chunk at a time.
This is only a brief article so, for deeper information and some great advice on effective habits, I can recommend you read the books, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and “Nudge” by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein.
Make self-regulation easier to do and harder not to do
The real trick is in making self-regulation both easy to do and extremely hard not to do. What I mean by this is all about manipulating your environment to produce or install in yourself the actions, thoughts, emotions and behaviours which you do want.
It might be easier to use an example:
The gym and I
I’m in an ongoing battle with my lazy self over my physical fitness. I go regularly, but I am always keen to talk myself out of it. I know that starting very early in the morning works best for me, but I am very good at making excuses not to go. There are always more enjoyable things to do.
The most important trick for me is to first begin to manipulate my environment to make it harder for me to create excuses. First, I set two or three alarm clocks at five-minute alarm gaps. Second, I tune the alarms with my most hated radio station. Finally I place the clocks physically out of reach so I must get up to turn them off.
I also set out my gym bag and all my bits and bobs ready to go by the front door. Plus, I lay out my gym clothes right next to the bed. Moreover, I’ll even check the driveway route for my car is clear. No easy excuses.
There are so many options
If I find I am still struggling in the future, there are options. For instance, I could build in additional accountability measures. Perhaps buddy up with someone for example. I could introduce a personal fine system (given to charity) or some other unpleasant penalty for not achieving my targets. For instance, something like washing my car would do the trick for me. The potential options are many and varied.
I’m effectively outsourcing my self-regulation. I’m making it easier to do the right thing.
Now let willpower work its real self-regulation magic for you
You will take the pressure from willpower because you will have created effective automatic habits and manipulated your environment. Because of this, the good news is you will now have more of that great resource available to you.
Use it whenever you need an extra motivational push or shove.
That early morning “kick in the arse” to get those tired legs out of bed and into the training gear. The extra push to knuckle down and hit that deadline. The restraint to hold your temper when every fibre in your being is screaming to yell at the jerk in front of you.
Your extra willpower can now be used to maximum effect and super-charge your self-regulation skills.
Some last thoughts on self-regulation and EI
In conclusion, knowing something is only half the battle. Taking some effective action based upon the knowledge is the next key step.
No action = no results.
In short, if you can’t, don’t or won’t dig deep and take full responsibility for your own actions, you will always have problems. Because, if you don’t control what you do or need to do based on your own self-awareness and feedback, someone or something else will always take control for you.
Trust me, you won’t enjoy having zero control.
Understand what you need to do. Decide to do it. Set up suitable conditions to enable you to create a habit for doing it and penalties when you don’t. With patience and practice you’ll only need to use your willpower where it can do the its best work.
Is any of this easy? Absolutely not. Is it even possible? Yes, it is! If I can do it, then anyone can do it. Many other people prove this every day. Prove to yourself you can do it and go ahead and do whatever it is you need to do.
As a result, people will notice the changes in your ability to get the important things done. Your emotional intelligence and your self-regulation level will get higher and higher as a result.
The next post in this series will look at the third EI pillar which is understanding others.
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