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Keep calm and carry on (or, the art of self-regulation)

Sitting down, I had no idea what was about to unfold. Had I known the turn things would take, I may have skipped the sitting part and gone straight to the confrontation. Turns out, though, taking my seat was possibly the best thing I could have done because, what could have got quite ugly ran out of steam well before it passed the point of no return.

At Deloitte, I'd spent many years being schooled in how to handle confrontation and had always come out on top. My teachers had been at the top of their game, and I'd been a good student. And although I'd been many years away from that environment, old habits die hard, and it didn't take much to press those buttons that would see me reverting to the bad old days. So when the attack was launched, although momentarily caught off-guard, it didn't take long for my own attack strategy to form. 

But, poised to finish the war that the person on the opposite side of the table had declared on me, a strange thing happened. I apologised.

For what, I still to this day have no idea - I hadn't done anything that required an apology. In fact, I hadn't done anything at all. But, somehow, I took control of the demon inside who wanted to lash out and crush my 'adversary' and, focused on what I wanted the outcome of the meeting to be (which was not an emotional bloodbath), played the peacemaker.

And, in that moment, that most unfamiliar moment, I learned the power of self-regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to manage behaviour to bring about desired outcomes. It's the ability to resist that doughnut when the goal is to lose a few pounds. It's the capacity to turn the iPad or PlayStation off to take a break from a screen. It's the restraint required to leave in the store those shoes, that gadget, that bag, or whatever it may be that you don't need. It's the awareness and presence of mind to be able to leave that argument over breakfast in the car as you step into the office. Or, as it was for me on that pivotal day, the ability to interact in a helpful and constructive way, rather than verbally rip the other person to shreds. It is the process by which we seek to have control over our thoughts, feelings and impulses.

In short, self-regulation is the difference between being the person you want to be, and a shadow of who you truly are; between living a healthy, meaningful and purpose-filled life and lurching from crisis and conflict to crisis and conflict. Or, to put it another way, self-regulation is the difference between success and failure in the adventure into becoming your best self.

But self-regulation is not the same as self-control. Where self-control is all about conscious impulse-control - being able to manage an immediate situation to emerge safely the other side (not shouting at someone to avoid confrontation in that moment, for example), self-regulation is all about goal-directed behaviour (not shouting at someone because, aside from avoiding any possible confrontation, you want to establish a solid working relationship with them). And, while most of us can exercise self-control in the moment, many of us struggle to play the long-game that is self-regulation.

So, how can you become a self-regulation Ninja? Well, here are a few ideas...

Have a plan: like we said a moment ago, self-regulation is goal-directed behaviour, so set goals and have a plan to achieve those goals. When you have something to aim for, you have something to focus your efforts to self-regulate on. The more important those goals, the more likely you are to succeed in your efforts to build your self-regulation skills.

Monitor-evaluate-modify: create a feedback loop - monitor your progress towards your goal and against your plan, evaluate your results and modify your path accordingly. Your feedback loop will tell you how well your self-regulation is paying off, and what, if anything, you need to change.

Take pride: be proud of past efforts at self-regulation and self-control - they prove you have what it takes. Take pride in those successes and use them as the building blocks for greater self-regulation prowess.

The gun to the head test: what if you had a gun to your head - would you still do that thing you are considering? This test gives you clarity over whether you need to do this thing, whatever it may be, or not, and can help you build your self-regulation skills.

Stay motivated: Finally, keep yourself motivated. Maybe reward yourself along the way for each self-regulation achievement, no matter how small. Did you walk past the cake shop, resist the urge to flick on the X-Box, or avoid even trying on those shoes? Then celebrate that and reward yourself to keep your motivation levels high.

But does self-regulation really matter? The short answer is yes. In numerous studies, the ability to self-regulate has been shown to lead to more success in life. People who self-regulate handle stress better, achieve higher grades, have higher self-esteem, enjoy healthier relationships, engage in less substance abuse, have greater financial security, and generally exhibit better physical and mental health.

So, given all of the evidence, and the simple fact that life is better when you are working towards and achieving your goal of becoming your best self, which is exactly what self-regulation helps you do, it's kind-of a no-brainer, wouldn't you say?

How easy do you find self-regulation? What tips do you have for mastering it? Have you tried any of the tips listed above - if so, how did you get on with them? Share your story of self-regulation in the comments below, and help others enjoy the success you have experienced.

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