Self-regulation and its importance to you

Self-regulation is crucial to getting things done

What is self-regulation?

The second pillar of emotional intelligence or EI is the regulation of self or, as it is more commonly called, self-regulation.

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. Self-regulation means how we control ourselves, either to ramp specific effort up or down or to maintain effort at a specific level or rate.

Once we become aware of something about ourselves, we can then decide if it is beneficial, neutral or harmful to us. We can then further decide to improve on beneficial areas, take neutral areas and improve them if desired and reduce or eliminate harmful areas of our lives.

Those 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 we all completing our goals and taking our selves to our absolute best? We often know what to do but we either can’t start it or sustain it.

Why don’t we act?

Humans are lazy creatures. I’m fundamentally a lazy man. There I said it and I feel better about myself. Like it or not, it is true. Some people are not as lazy as others for sure, but we are all lazy creatures at heart.

Wouldn’t we much rather stay in bed for that extra five minutes? Who wouldn’t rather leave the gym until tomorrow or better yet, next week? The decorating can wait until after the holidays. One last biscuit then I’m all over that diet? Be honest with yourself here, if you won the big lottery prize would you go to work on Monday?

We are evolutionarily conditioned 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 our wiring is largely geared for laziness and economy whenever and whenever possible. Much of our behaviour and thought is automatic because automation uses less energy than concentration and focused thinking. 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.

Much of the time we don’t, won’t or can’t create for ourselves a compelling enough reason to act. We can often decide what we want to do but we often struggle to get started and do it. If we do start, we often struggle to keep going.

What about willpower?

Willpower is often seen as the separator of the achiever from the non-achiever. The almost magical difference between the person who can control themselves and the person who cannot. If we are honest most of us don’t really know what it is, and we cannot really point to it or identify it in any meaningful way. We believe we know when we have it or not, we are certain we know its effects, but we struggle to define it clearly.

In psychological terms it is the ability to delay gratification in the short-term to meet desired longer-term goals. It takes effort, concentration and energy to maintain willpower. It often relies on cool or logical thinking and the avoidance of hot or emotional reactions. Unwanted or non-useful thoughts must be overridden. It can be derailed by various physical and external effects. It is a limited yet replenishable resource which can and does run out, often when we need it most.

So, can you rely on willpower alone to regulate yourself? It’s risky at best. You need to be ever vigilant and on your guard. If you are anything like me, you will 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 attest to this. My willpower often proves weak and simply not up to the task when I need it the most. How is yours?

I want to suggest a better route for all of us.

Automatic for the people

We apply willpower on a task by task basis. Too many tasks take too much willpower which tends to run out anyway. Once one thing flops over and we eat the cookie the rest come tumbling down after it and we are off the wagon yet again. To compound our misery and inadequacy we humans are also cognitively miserly. We like low-energy automatic thinking. Willpower takes concentration and energy. We generally don’t like to concentrate and focus for long if we don’t have absolutely to. Willpower needs help.

So, to reduce the amount of willpower you need to get the job done, I recommend creating as many habits as you can to help you regulate your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Habits are the ultimate automatic process; both good and bad. Keep the willpower because you’ll always need it.

This isn’t an article about habits, so for more information and some great advice on making and breaking them, I 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

What I do want to talk about here is 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 want to produce or install.

It might be easier to use myself and my experiences as a gym goer as an example.


Suppose I want to go to the gym (this is not a hypothetical – I really need to get back to the gym) to get fit again. I have a poor track record it must be said. Starting early in the morning works for me but I am very good at making excuses not to go. There are always things to do.

The trick is to first begin to manipulate my environment to make it less likely to create excuses. I can set two or three alarm clocks at five-minute alarm gaps. The alarms are tuned with my most hated radio station and I place them physically out of reach, so I must get up and turn them off. I also set out my gym bag and all my bits and bobs ready to go plus my clothes next to the bed. No excuses. I even check the driveway route for my car is clear. No excuses.

I can still welch out here because it is only myself I am letting down. Here’s the clincher. I arrange to meet a buddy to exercise with and we share transport every other day. I don’t want to let them down and they don’t want to let me down. We have instructions to bang on the door until the other one gets ready. Avoiding annoying my lovely wife ensures I will never let it get to this stage.

I’m outsourcing my self-regulation.


What about keeping a lid on angry outbursts at work? Simple get someone you trust to monitor your behaviour and keep you honest. Initiate a hefty fine to go to charity if you screw up. Make a site wide apology the penalty for transgressing. You won’t want any of these events to transpire so again your self-regulation is outsourced.

Make failure to meet deadlines a very public thing – you’ll learn to love hitting them.


What about diets? Buddy up again or join a club. State your goals clearly and publicly so you must hit the target. Throw out all the unhealthy food and drink in your house. Don’t visit fast food outlets. I even heard about someone who took some horrendous “before” pictures and gave instructions for a trusted friend to post them on social media if the target was missed. They hit their dieting goals and then some.

What areas could you apply these ideas to? I believe all self-regulation issues are adjustable in this way. Positive and negative.

Now let willpower work its real magic for you

You took the pressure from willpower by creating habits and manipulating the environment. The good news is you now have that great resource available to you whenever you do need an extra push or shove. That early morning “kick in the tailpipe” 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 unload on the jerk in front of you. Willpower can now show you its real power.

Some last thoughts on self-regulation and EI

Knowing something is only half the battle. Taking some effective action based upon the knowledge is the next key step. No action = no results.

If you can’t, don’t or won’t dig deep and take full responsibility for your own actions you will always have problems. 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 take control for you. Trust me, you won’t enjoy having no 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. 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.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have, please subscribe to either the blog or my newsletter to ensure you hear about subsequent articles and other useful and informative material.

In the meantime, you might also like to check out:

Emotional Intelligence in the real world

Self-awareness and how to develop it

Understanding others and how to do it

Relationship: The art and practice

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