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

Emotional Intelligence in the real world

high emotional intelligence or EI equals real moneyWhat is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence or EI is a term used commonly in the business and professional world. If you are a manager or leader you will be expected to possess an elevated level of emotional intelligence. You should be constantly looking to improve it still further. You are expected to identify and nurture it in your staff and teams. The measure of your emotional intelligence level is known as your Emotional Quotient or EQ. This measure of EQ is now considered more important than the traditional measurement of intelligence or IQ.

Here’s the problem. Many of the professional people I encounter in my coaching and training work have a poor understanding of their own emotional intelligence levels. They also have a poor understanding of what is meant by Emotional Intelligence as a concept. This is a real concern.

This is a whistle-stop tour of the four elements and is designed to provide some awareness. Take emotional intelligence very seriously. Nurture it and develop it in yourself and others.

Why does Emotional Intelligence matter to you anyway?

Managers and leaders who handle people poorly or who have little understanding about other people, that is those with a low level of emotional intelligence, tend to create high stress levels, high staff turnover rates, low productivity and low quality of output.  They can even create elevated levels in sickness and HR legal problems. At work this costs you or your business real money. They generally, but unfortunately not always, do poorly themselves.

Good managers and leaders do the exact opposite. Managers and leaders with high emotional intelligence make you or your business real money. They are generally more successful in their own right as well.

On a personal level a high level of emotional intelligence enables us to negotiate life with more ease and success. We understand ourselves well, we can curb our excesses and we can play to our strengths. We can build solid relationships and people both like us and want to be with us. Life is generally better with high emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence in a nutshell

the four pillars of emotional intelligence

Simply stated, and as shown in the diagram, there are four main components or pillars:

  • Awareness of self
  • Regulation of self
  • Understanding of others
  • Managing relationships with others

That’s it, plain and simple. These four elements cover pretty much everything you do in your life and work regarding interpersonal interactions and self-development. All well and good but what can you do in the real world now you know this? What does this mean for you?

There is a lot of complex theory, ideas and downright nonsense flying about regarding emotional intelligence, so I will make it as plain and straightforward as I can and keep it on a practical level.

Awareness of self

This is the first pillar of emotional intelligence and it is the key to it all. You are the centre of your universe. If you can’t, don’t or won’t dig deep and fully acknowledge and accept your true, warts and all, self then the rest of your life will be inauthentic at best. Even if you learn to get on well with others, your lack of knowledge or ownership of your own core being will leave you with a sense of incompleteness and imbalance. In my experience others can sense this fundamental lack in you and they will treat you differently as a result.

This search for true self-awareness takes courage, commitment and massive honesty. I’m not suggesting you go and sit cross-legged on top of a mountain for years on end. I am suggesting you begin to identify your true strengths and weaknesses, your true values and beliefs and your true desires and fears. Work with a coach, friend or trusted advisor if you need to. Seek honest feedback and accept it with gratitude. Do whatever you need to do to learn more about the true you.

Is it easy? Absolutely not. Is it even possible? Well, I’m still searching for my true self, so I can’t answer that one for you I’m afraid. In truth, you may never find the absolute true you but if you try hard enough you will find enough truth to work wonders with.

Regulation of self

The second pillar of emotional intelligence is the regulation of self. Once you begin to discover and uncover this true version of yourself, you will then begin to realise certain behaviours, thoughts and emotions which are somewhat less than helpful to both you and others. You may discover beneficial traits and thought processes which you may not have realised you had. To improve your emotional intelligence, you now need to work on regulating or controlling the unhelpful attributes and ideally boosting your more helpful attributes.

Once again, easier said than done. Do you have a lack of focus or attention? How about procrastination? What about really needing to lose weight or get fitter? Are you a perfectionist? Maybe a little too passive-aggressive perhaps? Are you lonely? Perhaps you lose your temper easily? Do you need more assertiveness? What about your fear of conflict? How are you going to address these and any other issues you might have?

What really stops you doing what you know needs to be done? Is it time? Is it money? Or is really laziness? Perhaps it is all three or even none of the above. Only once you become aware of your deep true self, which we looked at in the previous section, can you work on the true core issues?

Understanding of others

The third emotional intelligence pillar is an understanding of others. When you get right down to it, other people can be confusing and strange. It can be hard enough to try and figure out what makes us tick but once other people get involved in any part of our lives and work, it can get very messy and complicated. Life would be technically easier without other people, but it would be a lonely and essentially pointless existence. We need other people and generally we like other people, so it makes sense to understand them.

The big problem is that everyone is as unique in their way as you are in yours.

The good news is, although each one of us is truly unique, we can also be usefully categorised and bundled in quite general ways. These broad-brush definitions and classifications are not truly accurate, but they are incredibly useful ways to inform our own thoughts about and behaviour toward the other people we interact with. They could be said to be intentional and well-meant stereotypes. With a little study and practice you can become very adept at recognising these broad categories. At this point you can then adapt your communication and behaviour to get the best from any encounter with them.

Even if you don’t like other people very much, learning to understand what makes them who they are can greatly elevate you as a communicator and leader.

Managing relationships with others

Managing relationships with others is the fourth pillar of emotional intelligence.

“No person is an island, entire of itself; every person is a piece of the continent.” John Donne said this, although I have changed the quote a little for reasons of gender correctness – the 16th and 17th century world of John Donne was markedly different too our enlightened utopia.

The truth of his statement is unaltered. You need to build solid and effective relationships with other people in all areas of our lives and work. All of us need to develop strong personal and professional networks. We also need to be able to operate effectively as key elements in the networks of others.

When the first three pillars of emotional intelligence are firmly in place we can then begin to create and successfully manage such relationships and networks.

Our friendships, family connections and working relationships can define us. Modern life is nigh on impossible without them. Even if it were possible to live entirely alone and isolated, for myself at least, it would be a miserable and pointless life.

Begin at the beginning

The order the emotional intelligence elements are in place is the order in which to develop them for best results. Firstly, make sure that every element is in place then try and balance them in terms of level. If you are poor at managing relationships for example and relatively happy with the other key elements, then start by developing your ability to manage relationships. Completeness and uniformity of ability is the first step.

Developing emotional intelligence phase 1

Secondly, once the elements are in place and broadly level, you can begin to consider bringing the level of all four up to as high a level as you can without overdoing any one area.

Developing emotional intelligence phase 2

There will always be a tendency to lead and lag on elements in any such endeavour but don’t stick to your favourites or strong areas at the expense of others. Using the relationship element again, if you hate talking to new people or even talking to friends and colleagues, don’t simply allow yourself to become a very self-aware observer of others. Seek tuition, coaching or support and force (or regulate) yourself to get out there and do it anyway.

This is a basic introduction. It is a practical overview at best. There is always more to learn and absorb. Like life itself, developing emotional intelligence is a journey of discovery.

Next steps

I’m going to be blunt here. Leaders are readers so educate yourself and become informed. Learn all you need to know about emotional intelligence and its implications. This applies to all your life. Don’t wait to be spoon fed. Too many people do that so stand out from your crowd and get the knowledge. If printed books are not your thing then get audio book versions. If video is your thing then seek out the information on or YouTube. Go on a course or hire a coach. Whatever you do make sure you get the information you need.  You owe it to yourself and your staff to be the very best leader and manager you can be.

I recommend you start with the work of Daniel Goleman who popularised the rise of EI with his book Emotional Intelligence then seek out the myriad of associated online resources.

Once you have the theoretical knowledge, start to experiment and grow. Begin to apply the knowledge practically in the real world. Make mistakes then reflect, learn and move on. Try new things out. Seek coaching and training and try them out again. Seek feedback. Increase your own emotional intelligence and help others do the same. The effort is worth it.

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:

Self-awareness and how to develop it

Self-regulation and its importance to you

Understanding others and how to do it

Relationship: The art and practice