How to Regulate Yourself

Although you will find various definitions explaining what self-regulation means, for our purposes we will define it simply to mean using forethought before diving into a project or endeavour, and after-thought as it takes shape.

The good news is that self-regulation is not an inborn trait or gift that some of us have and others don’t. The bad news is that we all have to learn it, and build on it again and again.

Self-regulation provides us with a ‘future-time’ perspective: a time when we form the belief that we can do the thing that’s being asked of us; when we set goals and anticipate the results if we succeed (or consider the consequences if we fail), and a time when we motivate and encourage ourselves.(1)

It also provides us with ‘reflection after the fact’ or a ‘past-time’ perspective, which is about seeing problems or mistakes as an opportunity not only to fix them, but to develop competencies.

In order to learn self-regulation, Barry Zimmerman of the City University of New York, a foremost researcher in the field, suggests we create a three-part personal plan before diving into an endeavour.

  1. Assess our varying levels of competence.
  2. Establish the goals we want to reach.
  3. Set aside time throughout the project to:
    1. Catch mistakes; and
    2. Consider the effects on others of our working-style, plus the ticks, behaviours, and thoughts that can keep success at bay.

People with poor self-regulation skills generally tend to approach an endeavour without a personal plan, and so must rely on the feedback of others to tell them how they’re doing/did. If a project goes poorly, then they tend to see the results in extremes ‒ which is either to blame others for poor outcomes, or to imagine their failure is due to an inherent defect or deficiency in themselves that cannot be remedied ‒ such as not being as likeable or as smart as the next person.

Recently, a colleague told us about his eight-year-old daughter who had begun to say: “I’m not smart in math; it’s too hard”. ‘Here was a child,’ he told us, ‘who was able to do simple fractions when she was four. So, if it wasn’t that she didn’t have the talent for math, it must be that she missed or didn’t understand an earlier concept. We went back over her tests, which her mother and I had kept, and determined the point at which she’d begun to fail; and yes, indeed, it turned out that she hadn’t understood a key concept, but had been reluctant to ask the teacher to explain it, worried her classmates would label her “slow” or “stupid”. Once she understood the concept, her marks improved dramatically, and her confidence and motivation soared. More importantly, she learned the “reflection after the fact” concept…that we all make mistakes or have problems along the way, but that you can be successful if you’re willing to look for and at them.’

We all have to believe we can do well…to do well. And with a little bit of forethought and reflection, we can live up to that belief.

(1) If you wish to read more about self-regulation, consult the following sources:

  • Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation.  Despite dating from 1991, this is an excellent paper written by Albert Bandura of Stanford University. It was referenced numerous times in the research we conducted for this article and seems to be a “go to” source.
  • Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin NY.
  • McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Penguin NY.


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