Self-Regulation: Definition, Skills, & Strategies
What is self-regulation? How do you build skills that aid self-regulation? And why might you want to? Here’s everything you need to know about regulating yourself and controlling your behavior.
What Is Self-Regulation? (A Definition)
Self-regulation is defined as the mental processes we use to control our mind’s functions, states, and inner processes. Or, self-regulation may be defined as control over oneself. It may involve control over our thoughts, emotions, impulses, appetites, or task performance. Self-regulation is often thought to be the same thing as self-control (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004) and it usually involves stopping or inhibiting an action although it sometimes involves initiating an action (Baumeister, 2014).
Behavioral self-regulation versus cognitive self-regulation
Self-regulation may be behavioral or cognitive (or both).
Behavioral self-regulation involves controlling behavior. We might opt not to punch someone in the face or we might opt to practice the violin in preparation for a recital. We are engaging (or not engaging) in a behavior.
Cognitive self-regulation involves the control of thoughts. Maybe we try not to think about our romantic partner who just broke up with us or we try to shift our thoughts to being grateful for our mom even when she is annoying us. Often, cognitive self-regulation precedes behavioral self-regulation. That’s because shifting our thoughts is often a key step in changing our behavior.
Conscious self-regulation versus unconscious self-regulation
Self-regulation can also be conscious or nonconscious. For example, we might consciously control our anxiety by engaging in a technique like deep breathing. Or, we might unconsciously regulate our anxiety by having an inherent habit of focusing on other things that make us less anxious. It’s also possible that self-regulation can fall somewhere in between conscious and unconscious (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004).
What Is Self-Regulation in Psychology?
In psychology, self-regulation has come to mean regulation by the self, not just of the self. For example, we actively regulate or control whether or not we go to the gym, eat a piece of cake, or have a positive attitude. But we don’t actively regulate things like body temperature, so this would not be considered self-regulation (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004).
Psychologists study self-regulation because it provides insight into why we do the things we do. Self-regulation plays a role in alcoholism, smoking, drug addiction, eating disorders, excessive spending, crime, emotional dysregulation, underachievement, procrastination, sexual behavior, and more.
Psychologists also believe that self-regulation is a huge part of what the “self” is. Along with things like self-concept and personality traits, it makes up who we are at the core (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004). This makes self-regulation a very important process to understand, as we can use insights from self-regulation research to more easily control our behavior.
Examples of Self-Regulation
Self-regulation may be seeming a bit murky to you still. So here are some examples of self-regulation:
As you can see, self-regulation is everywhere. It’s really anything that we force ourselves to do or not to do.
There is no one theory of self-regulation. That being said, theories of self-regulation don’t differ so much that we really need to focus on their differences in this article. Overall, theories suggest that goals drive our behavior. Things like emotions, values, and priorities affect which goals we pursue and how we pursue them (Vohs & Baumeister, 2004).
It is also thought that self-regulation involves feedback loops by which we evaluate how well our behavior is helping us reach our personal goals. For example, if our goal is to save a certain amount of money each month, we might continually ask ourselves whether or not we should make a given purchase. Then, once we’ve saved enough for that month, we might stop engaging in self-regulation related to saving money for the rest of the month (Baumeister, 2014).
When self-regulation strength runs low
In recent years, a lot of research has focused on the idea that we have a limited amount of self-regulation strength at any given time and we regularly experience something called “ego depletion”. Ego depletion is when our self-regulation strength is low. For example, when we’re tired or hungry, we may experience ego depletion and struggle more to control our behavior.
In our modern world, advertisers use this insight to their advantage by selling us things at night, when we have lower self-regulation strength and a harder time stopping ourselves from buying things.
Researchers suggest that ego depletion undermines self-regulation because urges to act are felt more intensely and our ability to restrain ourselves is lower. Indeed, research has shown that any number of taxing experiences can make it harder to regulate our behavior. For example, suppressing emotions, blocking intrusive thoughts, and resisting eating chocolate are all experiences that make it harder to subsequently engage in self-control (Baumeister, 2014).
Video: A Trick for Increasing Self-Control
Dan Ariely talks about how we lack self-control because we overfocus on immediate benefits at the expense of long-term benefits. He then offers ideas for how to control ourselves more easily.
So what can you do to increase your self-regulation strength? How might you use tricks to control yourself better? Here are some ideas:
Make it hard to lose self-control
In Dan Ariely’s Ted Talk (above), he shares a bunch of examples of how “bad” behaviors were stopped simply by making it really unpleasant or impossible to engage in these behaviors. For example, he mentions an alarm clock that donates to a charity you hate every time you hit the snooze button. That may be an extreme example, but often it's the most extreme examples that work best.
Here are some other, simpler tricks that can make self-control a bit easier by making it hard to engage undesired behaviors:
Give yourself homework to boost self-regulation skills
One study showed that kids actually develop self-regulation skills through homework. Homework involves motivating yourself, inhibiting distractions, sticktoitiveness, managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on efforts, and delay of gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman, 2011).
Although homework is something that may more often be used to help kids boost self-regulation, it can be used with adults too. We can give ourselves “homework” assignments that require us to develop these same skills. For example, we might give ourselves the following homework assignments:
By regularly working towards building new skills, we hone our ability to regulate our behavior and it gets easier to practice self-control.
Reward ourselves for successful self-regulation
In general, we are likely to do any action more often if we feel rewarded for doing it. So it may be helpful to find ways to reward ourselves when we engage in the desired actions. For example, the most successful diet I ever did, I rewarded myself for every 2 pounds lost. I made myself a list of prizes for reaching each goal, and as I lost more weight the prizes got better and better. I got myself makeup and clothes and books and other fun things. The rewards kept me motivated even when I wanted to quit.
Here are some other rewards that you might want to use when striving to maintain self-control:
In general, it can be doubly helpful if your rewards are things that are good for your well-being. That way, you not only get to change your behavior and reach your goals, you’ll also be reducing stress along the way.
Self-Regulation of Emotions
So far we’ve mostly been talking about behavioral self-regulation. But another commonly studied type of self-regulation is emotional self-regulation (more often referred to as emotion regulation). There are many different ways in which we can engage in emotional self-regulation. Here are a few:
Video: The Secret to Self-Control (And Self-Regulation)
More Articles Related to Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is a skill that you build over time and that is refueled each day. To keep learning skills that can help regulate your behavior (and thoughts and emotions), here are a few more good articles to check out.
Books Related to Self-Regulation
These books may be helpful in your continued exploration of self-regulation:
Final Thoughts on Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is a basic human process that is at the core of so much that we do. Hopefully, in this article, you learned a bit more about what self-regulation is and found some tricks to help you engage in greater self-control.