Welcome to February. Has your life changed since the New Year? Do you want it to?

What is the #1 habit you want to create right now? Do you want to eat healthier? Become more organized? Remember where you put your keys? Give up alcohol?

Here are some new results from Positive Psychology that could help you create new habits and break old behavior. Let’s look at the stories behind these new results to see whether they work for you.

Self-Regulation

Self-Regulation It turns out that one of the strongest things you can do for yourself to create a new habit is to exercise self-control in some area of your life. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and his colleagues sum up three studies of self-control in a pre-publication.

The posture study: if you ask college students to watch their posture for two weeks – simply to improve it whenever possible – and then have the students take a self-control activity test, those who had been asked to work on their posture improved their self-control. Moms and ballet teachers all over the world must be celebrating this news.

Self-Regulation as a Muscle Self-control is often referred to as “self-regulation,” and the fascinating thesis of Baumeister and colleagues is that self-regulation can act as a muscle! What are some things that we know about muscles? 1) Muscles can be trained to get stronger over time, and 2) If weak, a muscle can be easily fatigued.

Baumeister postulates that the same two ideas can be applied to self-regulation. If a person is tempted multiple times, “Have a drink…. Come on, have a drink…. Have just one drink,” then each time, it becomes harder to say no. On the other hand, if a person trains his self-regulation, then it becomes easier to say no to temptations. How can you train your self-regulation? Self-regulation is your personality process to exert control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Baumeister proposes an interesting result – if you do ANYTHING that requires self-regulation, then that makes it EASIER for you to have self-regulation in EVERYTHING.

Self-Regulation Improves Many Habits

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Baumeister reports on two studies – the exercise study and the money study. In the exercise study, students were taught a cardio and weights exercise regimen and were told to follow it closely for two months. At the end of two months, not only did their self-regulation increase under test circumstances (link how do scientists measure self-regulation?), but also the exercisers had less junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine. I know what you’re saying – those things are all related to getting healthier and exercising. True. But additionally, the students reported studying more, watching TV less, and doing more household chores like washing dishes. Why is it that if you start to exercise regularly, then that may result in you getting better grades or being a neater person?

Baumeister attributes it to a well-trained self-regulation muscle. In the money study, participants were asked to manage their finances for four months by following a specific system. Not only did the participants increase their average savings rate over four months from 8% to 38% of their income, but they also improved study habits and doing household chores and decreased cigarette use. Baumeister and colleagues use these results to say that self-regulation is not specific to one domain… being self-regulated in your money management leads to self-regulation in other areas. Does that mean that a person who develops great study habits may suddenly lose a lot of weight and become amazingly buff? Maybe, says Baumeister.

In the current issue of Health Psychology, Peter Hall of Ontario’s Waterloo University studies which part of the brain leads to good self-regulation. His answer is the strong executive function of the frontal lobes. Hall gives participants the Stroop test (try it here) in which the word GREEN may appear in red color. As one author describes, “to answer correctly you have to mentally override the impulse to read the word. The same effortful overriding—and the same underlying neuronal activity—is presumably needed to keep showing up at the gym, even when it hurts.”

STARTING Self-Regulation Today

What is something you can start doing today to put more self-regulation into your life? You can create more structure. Whether you decide that you will pre-pack your lunch so you don’t have something unhealthy at the local café. Or whether you schedule out exercise time for the remainder of the week. Or whether you clean your room. Or whether you decide to pay attention to posture. Or decide that you will open your email only every three hours – 9am, noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm – for no more than a half hour each time. Structure something concrete into your life. That’s the best way to develop self-regulation. Structure something simple into your life so it doesn’t turn everything in your life upside down but so that it does create some structure.

Start with a little bit of self-regulation – to get an effect across many habits.

This article is part of a series on creating new habits and behavior modification and originally appeared here.

Senia Maymin Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP works in the financial industry and consults to corporations about Positive Psychology. Senia is the Editor of Positive Psychology News Daily, and runs a blog about positive psychology at Senia.com. Senia’s bio.

Senia writes on the first of each month, and her past articles are here.


7 Comments

  1. Lila
    Posted Sunday February 4, 2007 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Wow, that’s interesting stuff, Senia. So tell us: how *do* scientists measure self-regulation?

  2. Posted Monday February 5, 2007 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    That’s very interesting, but it still leaves me wondering how I can apply that to my current situation as a burnt out, demotivated freelancer?

  3. Posted Friday June 22, 2007 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Nice post! You have said it very well. Keep going.

  4. Joleen
    Posted Monday June 8, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Anyone going to the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia next week?

    We’ll be there on behalf of Claremont Graduate University, and are looking forward to connecting. If you’d like a preview of some of the leading speakers, we have talks archived on our website, including a free 45-minute preview:
    http://www.cgu.edu/pages/5808.asp

    The conference will also feature the legendary Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, best known for the other side of the equation—the psychology of why good people do bad things. We’re looking forward to seeing Zimbardo and Seligman together on the same stage. (His talk on the Abu Ghraib scandals can be seen in our free video library here:) http://www.cgu.edu/pages/4435.asp

    For more information about IPPA or details about the conference go to http://www.ippanetwork.org/.

    Can’t wait to see everyone there!

  5. Posted Monday February 8, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic article. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

    A lot of self regulation is needed to create the Ultimate Lifestyle too, so I can easily relate to this!!

    Thanks again.
    Peace and much love
    Lara

  6. Posted Monday April 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Great that you reported this research. I’d like to see more examples of small things a person can do to build their self-regulation muscles as well as a good system for remembering to do the self-regulation exercises.

    For example, it might be good to keep a chart in which you put a check mark for each day you followed through on a specific behavior you are training yourself to do like keeping good posture.

  7. Posted Wednesday July 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I am trying my best to make a routined life and avoid the bad habits.But some habits like smoking seems very hard to avoid for me.But I am able to less the number of ciggertae for a day.The mind controlling routine is running also, but it is very difficult to me.How can I avoid these problems?

29 Trackbacks

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  11. [...] is great research about how if you add self-discipline to your life in one area, self-discipline seeps into other areas of your life as well. This is important because positive psychologists are always saying that self-discipline is [...]

  12. [...] have found that if you make one, small change in your life that requires self-discipline, like improving your posture, then you are more able to make other changes in your life that require [...]

  13. [...] you improve self-control in one area of your life, it will filter through into other areas of your life. Baumeister and [...]

  14. [...] There is great research about how if you add self-discipline to your life in one area, self-discipline seeps into other areas of your life as well. This is important because positive psychologists are always saying that self-discipline is [...]

  15. [...] fact, if I were working with Roy Baumeister on research about self-regulation and self-discipline, I might be interested to learn whether the contrary similarly occurs – that a [...]

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  17. [...] patterns with food, other things that require self-discipline improved as well. This phenomena is supported by lots of research – we want to change a lot of things in our life. For example, I wanted to stop thinking about food [...]

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