How To Break a Bad Habit

Bad habits are strong, but also fragile—here's how to attack them at their weakest point.

Self-regulation Failure (Part 1): Goal Setting and Monitoring

Procrastination: Quintessential self-regulation failure.

The simplest way to think about a self-regulating system is how your thermostat functions with your furnace. As simple as this may be, this model does speak to our own ability for self-regulation, and it's a good place to start this discussion about when self-regulation fails.

To understand procrastination, we must understand self-regulation failure. And, of course, to understand self-regulation failure, we must begin with a little about self-regulation.

I'll use the next few blog postings to share some thoughts on self-regulation failure. What I will attempt to show is that there a number of places at which our self-regulation can and does fail leading to procrastination (or any other number of self-defeating problems like overeating, overspending, drug and alcohol abuse, problem gambling). In the end, I will not leave you with a mechanistic model. It won't surprise regular readers of this Don't Delay blog that we'll return to a fundamental notion of what motivates you in life.

Self-regulatory systems: The basics
Homeostasis, roughly translating to a relatively stable state of equilibrium, is the goal of many systems, living and mechanical. In the case of our household heating, the system is designed to keep the ambient temperature stable at our chosen level. The thermostat plays the key role of monitoring the temperature and signaling either action (start heating) or termination (shut off).

One way that a self-regulating system like this is summarized is the T.O.T.E. model: test-operate-test-exit. The thermostat executes the key test and exit roles, based on a chosen standard (or target) that we set.

Self-regulation and procrastination: A key first step
Even this simple model of self-regulation certainly applies to our everyday behavior. Studies that I'll discuss over the next few blog entries include behaviors as mundane as regulating our junk food consumption, impulsive spending, television viewing, even whether we procrastinate on washing our dishes. Let's see where this process begins.

The self-regulating thermostat begins with two key functions: recording a chosen standard and monitoring the environment in relation to this standard.

Standards
The simple standard we set with our thermostat is temperature, but standards for self-regulation are the concepts we hold of our possible selves (our ideal or ought selves) as well as our overall expectations, values and goals. With that said, it's pretty obvious that the first place that our self-regulation can fail is simply when we set unrealistic or inappropriate standards about our possible selves or our goals..

New years resolutions are one obvious place where our standards are often unrealistic. Overly optimistic and hopeful, we imagine ourselves going from no exercise this year to exercising everyday next year. A recent example of this can be found in Marissa Kristal's PT blog, "Shake your beauty" with her blog entry "Re-do your resolution to get fit" She argues that we may need to re-do our resolutions in February. And, while she notes a program that draws on social support to maintain motivation, a key first step is ensuring that you have a reasonable goal. Enough said, I think we all recognize the importance of setting attainable, realistic goals. Without this starting point, self-regulation is impossible from the outset.

Goal setting tips

  1. Break it down, make it concrete, frame it as an approach goal (rather than avoiding failure) and create an implementation intention - you should be able to say what you'll do when as the next step towards goal completion
  2. Enhance your interest in the goal - be sure it's related to your values, and if the connections aren't obvious at first, think through how the task at hand complements your values and overall goals (and if it doesn't, think about why it's on your "to-do list" - maybe it's a task you should delegate or delete)

Together, these simple tips represent the "manageability and meaning" of your goals. Do everything you can to keep your personal goals manageable and meaningful, and you will see the tasks as less aversive. If you do, you'll probably procrastinate less (yes, "probably" as no one change can ensure personal success, and as we'll see, self-regulation can break down when we exhaust our willpower).

Monitoring: Mindful attention
Once realistic goals and standards are set, the first regulation step is monitoring our activity in relation to these standards. We have to pay attention to our goal pursuit. Here's a summary of the psychology behind this process in relation to procrastination:

  • Procrastination is a form of self-regulatory failure (this is a prevalent view of researchers, and it fits with all explanations of procrastination, although the cause of the regulatory failure itself is debated, e.g., whether it's something like discounting future rewards, fear of failure, a personality trait or living in bad faith).
  • Self-regulation is the process whereby systems maintain stability of functioning and adaptability to change. It's based on feedback loops as described above.
  • Self-regulation failure is largely a problem of under-regulation. We fail to regulate and maintain the feedback loop.
  • Most models of the cognitive control of behavior through feedback begin with noticing a change that needs to be regulated in the system. These models begin with attention to the system.
  • Therefore, loss of attentional control is a common harbinger of self-regulatory failure.

As Baumeister & Heatherton (1996) write, "Over and over, we found that managing attention was the most common and often the most effective form of self-regulation and that attentional problems presaged a great many varieties of self-regulation failure. . . The effective management of attention was a powerful and decisive step, and self-regulatory failure ensued when attention could not be managed."

Concluding thoughts
The implications are clear, we need to set well-defined, attainable goals (standards) and pay attention to our goals as an ongoing process in self-regulation. If you want to know more about paying attention, self-regulation and procrastination, you may want to read my previous PT Blog, "Mindfulness Meditation: Thoughts on paying attention."

However, this is only part of the process of self-regulation, and it may not even be the weakest link in terms of self-regulatory failure. We need to consider exerting effort towards a goal - the thing that procrastination really seems to undermine.

"Good intentions pave the road to hell" they say, and we all know that we need the willpower to act on our intentions and goals. The surprising thing that recent research has shown is that willpower is like a muscle, and it's a limited resource (no surprise here I guess) . . . more on this next time where I'll explore how the "operate" phase depicted in the T.O.T.E. model depends on a limited reserve of willpower strength. We'll also consider an answer to the question: How can we maintain our "willpower" in spite of depleted self-regulatory strength?


References
There are many sources you may wish to consult, but here are three favorites from a preeminent colleague and PT blogger, Dr. Roy Baumeister (and his colleagues).

A recent summary of self-regulation from a personality perspective is provided in:

Gailliot, M.T., Mead, N.L., & Baumeister, R.F. (2008). Self-Regulation, In O.P. John, R.W. Robbins & L.A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 472-491). New York: The Guilford Press.

For self-regulation failure:

Baumeister, R.F,, & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.

Baumeister, R.F,, & Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

How To Break a Bad Habit