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Many of us want to regulate ourselves better. But sometimes, when thinking about this, we develop tunnel vision. We might only think of one or two routes that could help us achieve healthy self-regulation.
If those ideas feel hard, it can feel like a catch-22. You need self-control to do the things that would improve your self-control. When you think more broadly about how to improve your self-control, it’s more likely that at least one idea will feel doable.
Note: It’s also important that your goal is to improve your self-control, not to have perfect self-control. Lots of strategies will work but won’t provide perfection. Think in terms of improvement rather than perfection, so using those imperfect strategies still feels worth it and appealing to you.
Which of these strategies feels the most relevant, doable, and appealing to you?
I’ll start with briefly reviewing some basics, then progress to some less well-known strategies.
1. A daily habit
In a way, this strategy is a cheat. Why? Making something a consistent habit works by making that behavior more automatic. Over time, the habit will require less self-control. So, instead of improving your self-control, you use a workaround whereby you use habits so that you need less self-control.
Both permanent and temporary daily habits can be useful for improving your self-regulation.
2. A contextual habit
A contextual habit is any behavior you consistently do in response to a particular trigger. For example, anytime you back out of your driveway, you check your mirrors. Backing out of your driveway is the context/trigger. Checking your mirrors is the behavior/habit.
All habits, including daily habits, are contextual habits (the context that triggers a daily habit is the time of day). But I mention these points separately to emphasize that it’s not just daily habits that can improve our self-regulation.
Whenever you consistently respond to a trigger, your response will start to require less self-control over time.
A simple contextual habit I like… When I open a bag of chips, I also grab a bulldog clip so I can close the bag when I’ve eaten enough. This helps prevent me from overeating.
3. Use “always rules,” which are a type of heuristic.
This is very similar to the concept of a contextual habit. You have a rule, “When X happens, I always do Y.” For example, when I get an email that triggers my emotions (eg, I feel disrespected), I never react immediately. I re-read it after 24 hours, and this helps me respond with a clearer head. Learn more about “always rules” here.
4. Improve your physical well-being.
I recently got some iron infusions because my iron was low. Lo and behold, my energy and self-discipline have improved. There are a variety of mechanisms through which physical well-being influences self-regulation. For example, micronutrients affect ADHD symptoms.
Research shows that when people start a consistent exercise routine, a host of other self-regulatory behaviors improve on their own. Part of this benefit likely comes from improved physical well-being (eg, energy, strength, mood), but another aspect is that regular exercise acts as an anchor habit. When you’re consistent with any habit, it creates an anchor in your day that makes it easier to be consistent with other habits.
5. Use the power of social influence.
My spouse is currently overseas working and is staying with a friend who is a dedicated hiker and thrifter. Not only has my spouse done more of those things while staying with this friend, but so have I, even though I’m on the other side of the world!
6. Use mental tricks.
There are all sorts of mental strategies you can use to increase your self-control. I provide many specifics on how to do this in my book, Stress-Free Productivity, For example, you can switch your thinking from “I have to do X” to “I get to do X.” For example, I can switch from “I have to write a blog post” to “I get to write a blog post.” (It’s a huge privilege that people allow my ideas to influence their thinking and behavior.)
I also like to say to myself, “I can do anything for X minutes.” This helps when I need to do a grungy task like cleaning hair out of the brush of my robot vacuum. Essentially, it’s a phrase I learned from advice on how to cope with labor contractions!
Over time, gather a basket of mental tricks that work for you.
7. Change your immediate environment.
We’ve all heard this idea before. If you don’t have ice cream in the house, you’re less likely to eat it. If it’s easier to grab a bowl of grapes or carrot sticks than a junky snack, you’re more likely to do that.
8. Change your broader environment.
Advocate for policies that support your goals. Or put yourself into environments that are already set up that way. For example, if you’re pregnant and your goal is to breastfeed, that’s going to be a lot easier if you work somewhere that provides generous parental leave.
I mention this point as a nod to the idea that how well we’re able to regulate ourselves is determined as much by societal factors as individual ones. People who are burnt out from a culture of overworking probably won’t regulate themselves very well. This is a huge topic, and I can only allude to it here, but I at least wanted to acknowledge it.
9. Link behaviors with goals you value.
I don’t value tidiness much. In fact, I’m almost derisive of people who spend a lot of time keeping their house clean. Mostly I think, “Haven’t you got something more important you could do? Wouldn’t you rather be learning or creating or doing something more important than washing the floor every day? Surely you can generate more value in the world in a different way?”
But there are a few aspects of being tidy I do value. For example, I don’t like wasting money or time, like when I re-buy something I already own because I can’t find it, or I waste time hunting for items.
I also value my child playing with her toys rather than being on the phone, which she’s less likely to do if her playroom is a big, messy jumble. And I want her to grow up with a sense of having had a calm home environment. Part of that involves our house not looking like a tornado hit it.
To use this strategy, you might need to mentally experiment with various ideas until one feels like it resonates with you enough to be motivating.
Another example. If you don’t value exercise much but do value getting outside and into nature, then do that.
This strategy is, in essence, a type of mental trick.
10. Approach tasks requiring self-control through the lens of your strengths.
Let’s say you don’t view exercise as a strength, but you do view efficiency, being unconventional, or researching things as a strength. How could you approach exercising in a way that utilizes whatever strength you identified? For instance, your strength in finding the most efficient or unconventional ways to do something?
11. Use rewards.
This is a super simple one but can sometimes be appropriate. “When I’ve finished X, then I’ll go do Y (where Y is something you enjoy).” This strategy works best when it’s used sparingly and when the rewards are varied and positive (eg, you don’t over-rely on food, shopping, or TV as rewards).
The more personalized the rewards you choose, the better. For example, I’m pregnant, and I sometimes go get a quick, private ultrasound, so I get the reward of seeing my baby. But, occasionally, going to get a pizza makes a good reward too!
12. Try other behavioral strategies that utilize self-knowledge.
An example of a behavioral strategy is “last things first.” There are certain steps I tend to run out of steam for doing well if I do them at the end of a task. If I move that step till earlier in a task, I do it more diligently. For example, I choose photos for articles near the beginning of writing rather than at the end. This leaves more energy for running my work through proofreading apps at the end of writing.
As you can see, knowing your patterns is important for designing behavioral strategies that help you. You can read some further examples of this here and here.
Which of the strategies I’ve mentioned do you think of most easily when you want to improve your self-control? Which do you forget about or feel less familiar with?
Which strategies don’t interest you in the slightest? Cross of any that make you think, “Ugh!” Eliminate those to narrow your options and personalize your approach.