Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s emotions and behavior. That can include being able to control our thoughts, impulses, and even instinctual drives like our appetite and sexual urges.
When faced with a stressful situation, or one that could make us angry, some people are able to convert their initial reaction into a more constructive response. They can inhibit their impulse to react with the expression of strong emotion or engage in a negative action.
There are many examples of self-regulation in our daily lives. Not overeating even though we are looking at a delicious meal on the table is one. Forcing ourselves to hit the gym even though we feel tired is another. Not ramming our car into the person that just cut us off in traffic is one for sure.
Definition of Self-Regulation
Self-regulation can help us maintain our focus on a task, reach long-term goals, form healthy habits, and get along with others.
A scholarly definition of self-regulation is:
“The process by which a system [i.e. a person] uses information about its present state to change that state toward greater conformity with a desired end state or goal.”(McCullough & Carter, 2013)
There has been a tremendous amount of research on self-regulation. Research has shown how it can facilitate chronic pain management (Sauer et al., 2010), increase academic achievement (Kizilcec et al., 2017), and improve athletic performance (Toering et al., 2009).
Modern life is full of so many temptations. There are a lot of things out there that can distract us.
Developing self-regulation is important now more than ever. In fact, some of the most successful people are very good at self-regulation.
Examples of Self-Regulation
1. Studying for Exams
Self-regulation is a necessity for successful students. When it comes to test time, most people feel anxiety, which can be a demotivating factor. This is normal and expected. What’s important is how you implement self-regulation activities to ensure you study regularly.
One way to self-regulate while studying is to create a study diary. This will mean you have clear and exact dates when you need to sit down to study, which can prevent procrastination.
Another great self-regulation method for students is the Pomodoro technique. This technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and working on one task until the timer goes off. Then you take a five-minute break. After four rounds of this, you take a longer break of 20 or 30 minutes. This technique can help you stay focused and prevent burnout.
2. Being Mindful
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. This sounds easy, but it’s actually quite difficult to do.
When we are mindful, we are aware of our surroundings and our own inner state without getting lost in thought. We are able to be present in the moment and not get pulled into past memories or future worries.
Being mindful requires self-regulation because it is easy to get lost in our thoughts. We have to be aware of when our mind starts to wander and bring it back to the present moment.
One way to practice mindfulness is to focus on your breath. Breathe in and out slowly and pay attention to the sensations of your breath going in and out of your body. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
3. Holding your Tongue
Sometimes the best form of self-regulation is to keep your mouth shut. When we are angry or upset, it’s easy to say something we might later regret. If we can learn to control our words, we can avoid a lot of hurt feelings and conflict.
The next time you’re feeling angry or frustrated, try counting to 10 before you speak. This will give you a moment to calm down and think about what you want to say. Try to choose your words carefully and avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as an insult.
In these situations, it’s good to listen to your mother’s advice: “if you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t anything at all!” Similarly, I like the Stoic mantra: “Say less than is necessary.” This mantra means that you should be very conservative about what you say so you don’t say things you’ll regret!
4. Going to Bed
This is my cryptonite. I will sometimes stay awake very late because I’m terrible at self-regulating my sleep cycles. So, I have to learn to have the discipline to go to bed when it’s my bed time!
This is easier said than done, I know. But there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself.
First, try to avoid using screens (phones, laptops, etc.) for at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light from screens can disrupt our sleep cycles and make it harder to fall asleep.
Second, establish a bed-time routine and stick to it as much as possible. This could involve taking a warm bath, reading a book, or doing some light stretching.
Third, create a comfortable sleeping environment by ensuring your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. This will help your body to relax and prepare for sleep.
5. Not Throwing a Tantrum!
Children are terrible at self-regulation. They will cry and throw a tantrum if things don’t go their own way. As we become older, we learn to self-regulate so that we don’t appear strange. It’s against social norms to go around having tantrums as an adult!
Self-regulation is, therefore, one of the first skills we try to teach our children. Even when they’re toddlers and they don’t fully understand what is going on around them, we try to show them right from wrong and discourage tantrums.
As children get older, we move onto teaching our children the virtues of persistence, resilience, and self-control. By the time they’re in their late teens, hopefully most tantrums have disappeared, and our children learn that it’s not okay to lash out when we haven’t gotten our way.
6. Regulating your Tone and Volume of Voice
Some people don’t seem to be able to keep their voice volume low. I have a friend who talks REALLY loud whenever she is telling a story and she says she doesn’t even realize it!
But regulating the volume of our voice is just as important as the words we use. If we’re shouting, it puts people on edge and makes them less likely to listen to what we’re saying. Other people may just find it annoying and uncomfortable.
Similarly, regulating our tone of voice is equally important. Even when you’re angry, keeping a calm tone of voice can make a big difference in how people perceive you and whether they’re willing to listen to what you have to say.
7. Personal Hygiene
Keeping yourself clean and well-groomed is a form of self-regulation that’s necessary for both our health and social participation. It’s important to shower regularly, brush your teeth, and wear clean clothes, so we don’t get sick or smelly!
Personal hygiene also extends to our homes and workplaces. It’s important to keep these spaces clean and organized so that we can feel relaxed and comfortable in them.
We learn personal hygiene from our parents. In childhood, they teach use how to take care of ourselves and our bodies. We’re taught to clean our teeth before jumping into bed and clip our toenails when they get long. As we get older, we learn how to take care of our homes and work spaces.
8. Cleaning up After Yourself
Another way we teach our children self-regulation is by telling them they need to put one set of toys away before they get the next set out. By being persistent about this, we’re teaching our children to care for and respect their environment.
As we enter adulthood, we learn that it’s important to clean up after ourselves, both at home, in public, and in the workplace.
This helps us to keep the environment clean, prevent hygiene issues, and prevent clutter that can cause us to trip on things or even lose important valuables. We also learn that it’s important to respect other people’s property and not to leave a mess for them to deal with because that’s, simply, rude!
9. Self-Regulated Learning
By the time we reach university, the majority of our learning is self-regulated. We may attend lectures and seminars, but during the week we need to study the learning materials ourselves.
Therefore, many high school teachers try to teach and encourage self-regulated learning for students. It’s an important university-readiness skill.
There are a few things we can do to help us with self-regulated learning. First, we need to have a clear goal that we’re working towards. This could be getting good grades, passing an exam, or completing a project. Second, we need to break down this goal into smaller, more manageable tasks.
For example, if our goal is to write an essay, we need to break it down into smaller tasks such as brainstorming ideas, doing research, writing a draft, editing, and proofreading. Third, we need to create a timeline for completing these tasks so that we don’t leave everything to the last minute.
And fourth, we need to create a study plan and stick to it!
I also find giving students freedom of choice and control over their work motivates them to be self-regulated.
10. Being Punctual
One of the most important things we learn as we become more self-regulated is how important it is to be punctual. This means arriving on time or early for appointments, meetings, and events.
Being punctual is a sign of respect. It shows that we value other people’s time and that we’re organized and capable of planning ahead.
Personally, I struggle with punctuality. I haven’t mastered the ability to regulate my own time. I need to more effectively predict how much time I need to get ready and travel to the next appointment I have.
I’ve been working on the mantra: “If you’re not early, you’re late!” This makes me aim to be a little early to everything, so at worst, I’ll turn up on time!
11. Knowing Your “Hot-Button” Issues
Self-regulation is a lot about self-awareness. When a person knows what their “hot-button” issues are then they can do a lot to control their emotional reactions in those situations.
For example, if there is one person that seems to always disagree with you at meetings, then you can take steps to help regulate your response. Preparing yourself mentally before the meeting can help mute your initial impulse when they start to disagree. Their words will be less impactful because they have been anticipated.
If you are someone that knows yourself well, what you like and what really gets on your nerves, then you are a living example of self-regulation.
12. When You Don’t Send that Email, Yet
The invention of the internet has been a great thing for work. It makes researching any topic super easy and makes it possible to find information on just about anything in just a matter of seconds.
It has also made communication very convenient. Maybe a little too convenient. An email can be written and delivered to the entire office in minutes. Unfortunately, that is not always a good thing. Emails can be written in the heat of the moment, and that can mean trouble later.
Practicing the habit of not sending an email right away that involves a dispute is an example of self-regulation that can be good for your career.
13. Exercising on a Regular Basis
Being diligent and keeping a firm schedule at the gym is a perfect example of persistent self-regulation. Some people just seem to be very self-disciplined. They hit the gym three times a week, no matter what. You will see them at every Zumba class, in full gear and ready to go.
Others, however, may be a bit less consistent. They can always find a good reason to skip a workout that day: feeling too tired, have a sore shoulder from the last workout, or really need to get those emails sent by the end of the night. One excuse may be as good as another, but they are all examples of low self-regulation.
14. Avoiding the Fast-food Drive Thru
If you are able to drive right past the golden arches when you are in a hurry and super hungry, then congratulations, you have just demonstrated self-regulation.
It can be a real challenge. It is just so convenient to take a quick turn into the parking lot, place an order in the drive-thru, and then be on the way. The temptation is hard to resist. Hunger is a hard feeling to ignore and meeting a client on an empty stomach is never a good idea.
This can be avoided by planning your meals well or keeping a healthy snack in the glove-box. Protein bars can be very filling and nutritious as well.
15. Avoiding Social Media
Although the smartphone has been one of the world’s most remarkable gadgets, it has also facilitated one of the world’s easiest ways to be lazy. It is just too easy to lay down and watch a few short videos, or maybe a few dozen.
Before you know it, two hours have passed. In the meantime, that essay you need to start writing still awaits the first sentence typed and the gym has already closed for the day. Oh, and your laundry is not going to put itself in the washing machine.
Being able to keep yourself on-task and resist the temptations of social media is another example of excellent self-regulation.
16. Practicing Meditation
Meditation is a great example of self-regulation. By making a conscious decision to slow your breathing, you are exerting direct control over your respiratory system. Some forms of meditation also involve focusing your attention on a specific mantra or a visualized object.
Not only is meditation an example of self-regulation, but it is also an exercise that will improve your ability to self-regulate. It can increase your awareness of inner feelings and thoughts, which will then in turn, increases your chances of being able to control those feelings and thoughts.
Many of us have days that are filled with tasks and stress. Our To-Do lists can dominate our lives and be a constant reminder of work. Even though we might not feel like we have time to take 20-minutes out of the day to sit and breath slowly, it is an excellent way to instill calm and control anxiety.
17. Not Hitting the Snooze Button
This may be the best example of extreme self-regulation of all on our list. After sleeping for not enough hours to begin with, when that alarm goes off far too early in the morning, the temptation to just tap that snooze button is all too strong.
It takes a lot of discipline to resist not sleeping just a little bit longer. Controlling the urge to go back to sleep is a true exercise in self-regulation.
Fortunately, this kind of self-regulation will be good for our career. Getting to work on time is a big deal in a lot of workplace cultures.
18. Engaging in Positive Self-Talk
One facet of self-regulation is psychological. That can be both emotional and cognitive. For example, when encountering a stressful experience, it can be useful to use positive statements to help calm yourself down.
Likewise, when you feel like quitting something, using positive self-talk can help us push forward.
For example, exercising can be particularly difficult to get through. It is easy to quit or take a break when feeling exhausted. Statements such as “keep going” and “you can do it” can help you get through those moments when it seems that you just can’t go any further.
If you don’t have a personal trainer or coach, relying on yourself will have to do. Using self-talk is a great self-regulation technique to persevere.
19. Practicing Hara Hachi Bu
The Japanese have a practice of eating until they feel about 80% full. Then they stop. This helps them avoid overeating. There is no need to count calories and deal with all that anxiety.
It starts with not putting so much on your plate to begin with and trying to estimate what you need, realistically. So, you have to exert a little self-regulation at this point. Then, while you are eating, the goal is to only eat until you no longer feel hungry, but not yet full. This requires having an acute awareness of your hunger state and stopping just a little bit shy of being totally satisfied.
It is hard to do for sure, but the benefits are very healthy. Overeating can lead to a lot of unhealthy outcomes, but the Japanese have one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.
20. Taking a Much-Needed Vacation
Everyone needs a break. In some countries employees are required to work 50-weeks a year. But then, when it is time to take a vacation, they work some more. This is a perfect example of a double-sided self-regulation trap.
On the one hand, being so disciplined about work that you forgo vacation time can be good for one’s career. On the other hand, not being self-aware enough to recognize the need for down-time is bad for one’s mental health. All work and no play makes for a burnout victim waiting to happen.
In Japan, some people even work themselves to death. It happens so frequently that the Japanese even have a term for it, it’s called karoshi.
21. Having Great Self-Awareness
Becoming more aware of our internal emotional states is a key step in regulating our reactions. This self-awareness can grow over time as we practice becoming more in tune with our inner state.
This starts with developing an emotional vocabulary. In addition to the basic words for emotions such as angry or sad, we can create our own lexicon for our feelings. This will make the labels have more meaning to us and our unique selves. Using terminology that has personal meaning can increase effectiveness of a task or accomplishing a goal (Miller & Brickman, 2004).
Having self-awareness is a component of self-regulation that will help us control our impulses. When we are on the verge of losing it with an annoying colleague or reaching for a third serving of dessert, a little self-regulation can go a long way.
Go Deeper: Self-Awareness Examples
What is Self-Regulated Learning?
Self-Regulated learning is a specific type of self-regulation that is applied in educational contexts. It involves giving learners responsibility for their own learning in order to encourage personal agency and accountability.
We generally begin to encourage self-regulated learning from about the age of 8-10. During this time, we encourage students to take more control of their own learning in order to promote hidden curriculum soft skills such as self-regulation, personal accountability, and positive self-esteem.
According to Zimmerman and Schunk (2011), self-regulation is a three-step process:
- Planning: In the planning stage, students make decisions about their learning in order to regulate it. For example, in the planning stage they may choose that their project will involve oral rather than written presentation in order to improve their public speaking skills.
- Monitoring: As students go through the learning process, they monitor their progress. This ongoing self-assessment. They are encourage to make regular changes to their work in order to stay on track and react to new and emerging challenges.
- Reflection: Students engage in self-reflection in order to see how well they went at self-regulation. Through the process of reflection, they come up with new strategies for self-regulation in future tasks.
Self-regulation is a valuable skill in modern times. Developing an awareness of our inner feelings will help us recognize anxiety before it gets out of control; not be impulsive and send those email rants to our boss; and keep those hot-button issues in check.
With the temptations we encounter so often, self-regulation can also help us avoid wasting time on social media; talk ourselves in to not quitting when we feel exhausted from exercise; and not taking the “easy-way-out drive-thru” when we feel starved.
Self-regulation is one of the most essential skills a person can develop to achieve success, whether in life or profession.
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