Self-regulation 2020-10-11T21:52:14+00:00

Scientific lessons to help you improve your self-regulation

learn actionable and science backed techniques that help you best set your values & goals, self monitor, increase willpower and better respond and plan in your life

“Self-regulation will always be a challenge, but if somebody’s going to be in charge, it might as well be me.”

Daniel Akst

Self-regulation is at its core about how you manage yourself. Life includes many things you cannot control—your genetics, the family and culture you were born into, and good and bad luck along the way. Self-regulation describes the intentional choices and actions you take given these circumstances, so that you do a better job of controlling what you can. Better self-regulation helps you improve self-control and achieve your goals.

This module distills decades of research about self-regulation into actionable mini-lessons designed to help you develop your self-regulation skills. The lessons have been set up to be easy to follow and implement in your daily life. They include a range of tools and tactics to help you better manage yourself and reach your goals.

In this document you’ll learn to clarify your goals and values, better organize your time, and maintain motivation and self-control. As always, we have gone through hundreds of empirical papers from [GE1]  psychology, neuroscience, developmental science, cognitive science, and clinical research. We have then summarized and explained it in a way that is easy to understand and even easier to follow. You will be given quick tactics that you can use in the moment, as well as micro-habits you can implement throughout your day to effectively improve your self-regulation over time.

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation describes the purposeful, conscious choices that you make in order to guide your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and reach your goals. Better self-regulation leads to all sorts of improved outcomes, including higher well-being, less stress, and more goal attainment.

Self-control (a.k.a. “willpower”) is an important component of self-regulation, but not the only one. Self-regulation components that will be developed in this module include:

  1. Values and goals. These serve to guide your desires and behavior. However, often people hold conflicting values and goals. For instance, you may want to finish an important analysis for work (a work goal), but also desire to leave work early to join friends at Happy Hour (a social goal). Becoming explicitly aware of your values and goals allows you to better prioritize them and ensure they are all met.

  2. Self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is crucial to improving your behaviors. By becoming more aware of your failures, successes, strengths, and weaknesses, you are better able to adjust your behavior in helpful ways.

  3. Self-control/willpower. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of self-regulation, this describes the ability to override your short-term impulses to behave in a way that is better for you in the long-run. We’ll discuss tricks to boost it in the short-run and develop it in the long-run.

  4. Response and planning. This is where you make conscious choices ahead of time to better organize your time given your values and goals, self-monitoring, and self-control. Good planning can even avoid the need to practice self-control altogether.

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Self-regulation and the brain

Researchers’ understanding of neuroscience behind self-regulation is still in its infancy. But what we do know is that self-regulation involves multiple distinct brain regions and mechanisms (6, 7, 11). And ultimately self-regulation appears to come down to the battle between two general brain systems: the limbic system and the frontal cortex.

The limbic system: The impulse for immediate gratification. The limbic system consists of several brain regions that are often involved in automatic “gut” reactions and emotions. It includes structures in the mid-brain including the hippocampus, amygdala, and cingulate gyrus that are involved in emotional memories and responses.

When you see a reward, the limbic system kicks in, encouraging you to get it. Conversely, when you see an effortful or negative stimulus, the limbic system pushes you to avoid it. This system likely developed to ensure our ancestors—who lived in an unpredictable world—pursued food, social interaction, and other rewarding resources immediately. In modern times it pushes us towards immediate gratification.

The frontal cortex: The rational, long-term planner. The frontal cortex is considered the brain’s center for executive function—things like learning, memory, abstract reasoning, and planning. It helps us understand when long-term goals are worth waiting for because they are ultimately more valuable than short-term rewards.

The frontal cortex, which sits behind the forehead, was one of the last brain regions to develop in our ancestors. The cortex likely developed as humans began to take more control of their environments and plan for the future. Even now, the frontal cortex continues to develop into adulthood, explaining why children and young adults get a reputation for impulsivity and poor decision making.

Damage to the frontal cortex can wreak havoc on self-regulation abilities. For example, patients with brain damage to a region of the frontal cortex called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex exhibit various types of dysregulated behavior, including hypersexuality, overeating, and inappropriate expressions (4). And injury to lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex can cause extreme deficits in the ability to plan and execute goal-relevant behavior. For instance, a case study of one patient with lateral injury describes how he struggled to simply go grocery shopping: he would check out and return to his car after picking out every individual item on his list (11).

Communication between the limbic system and frontal cortex. Importantly, however, the limbic system and frontal cortex do not operate independently. The brain regions are connected by millions of neurons and can activate and respond to one another (1, 6, 12). Indeed, emotions can inspire us to make rational plans, and rational thinking can help decrease negative emotions.

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Debunking the myth of limited willpower


Willpower is limited and will deplete as you use it.

It is true that sometimes practicing self-control may be mentally or physically depleting. One early experiment, for example, had participants sit in a room with fresh-baked cookies and radishes (2). Some participants were asked to eat the cookies, whereas others had their willpower tested by being instructed to only eat the radishes. Next, the participants were asked to work on a difficult puzzle. Results found that the participants who had their willpower tested gave up working on the puzzle more than twice as quickly as those who had eaten cookies. This finding served as evidence that willpower might be limited and can be depleted.

However, practicing self-control does not always decrease your willpower. Whether you feel depleted by practicing self-control depends on other, sometimes-controllable aspects, including:

  • Your beliefs about willpower. An important line of research finds that self-control is depleting only when people think it will be depleting. Simply changing one’s expectations about whether a task will be depleting can completely eliminate reductions in self-control (9), and
  • Why you are practicing self-control. Practicing self-control is less depleting when done in service of your own personal goals and values, compared to when it is done to please others (10).

Sometimes practicing self-control can even increase your willpower. For example, “learned industriousness” is the term psychologists use to describe when self-control or effort itself becomes a positive experience (3). The idea is that when people believe their hard work and self-control will lead to good outcomes, their brain learns to automatically associate willpower with reward, and reward-related parts of the brain literally begin firing (5). In short, practicing willpower can become an energizing, motivating experience itself!

The evidence

  1. Banks, S. J., Eddy, K. T., Angstadt, M., Nathan, P. J., & Phan, K. L. (2007).
    Amygdala–frontal connectivity during emotion regulation.
    Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 303-312.

  2. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998).
    Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?
    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

  3. Eisenberger, R. (1992).
    Learned industriousness.
    Psychological Review, 99(2), 248-267.

  4. Heatherton, T. F. (2011).
    Neuroscience of self and self-regulation.
    Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 363-390.

  5. Hernandez Lallement, J., Kuss, K., Trautner, P., Weber, B., Falk, A., & Fliessbach, K. (2013).
    Effort increases sensitivity to reward and loss magnitude in the human brain.
    Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(3), 342-349.

  6. Hofmann, W., Friese, M., & Strack, F. (2009).
    Impulse and self-control from a dual-systems perspective.
    Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 162-176.

  7. Inzlicht, M., & Gutsell, J. (2007).
    Running on empty: neural signals for self-control failure.
    Psychological Science, 18, 933-937.

  8. Inzlicht, M., Legault, L., & Teper, R. (2014).
    Exploring the mechanisms of self-control improvement.
    Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(4), 302-307.

  9. Muraven, M., Gagné, M., & Rosman, H. (2008).
    Helpful self-control: Autonomy support, vitality, and depletion.
    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 573-585.

  10. Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010).
    Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation.
    Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693.

  11. Shallice, T. I. M., & Burgess, P. W. (1991).
    Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man.
    Brain, 114(2), 727-741.

  12. Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., Wang, G. J., Telang, F., Logan, J., Jayne, M., … & Swanson, J. M. (2010).
    Cognitive control of drug craving inhibits brain reward regions in cocaine abusers.
    Neuroimage, 49(3), 2536-2543.

  13. Wagner, D. D., & Heatherton, T. F. (2010).
    Giving in to temptation: The emerging cognitive neuroscience of self-regulatory failure.
    In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Vol. 2. Research, theory, and applications (pp. 41–63). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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