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Chasing Important Goals? Self-Regulation Outsmarts Willpower

Proaction is your key executive function.

 Dick Close
Source: Graphic: Dick Close

Achieving your most essential goals requires far more than persistence, time, and an action plan that will get you there. It also requires effective self-regulation—a crucial yet often overlooked psychological and behavioral process.

Self-regulation is your executive-in-charge.

The ability to self-regulate your actions along the paths toward achieving your goals comes mainly from the executive system of the brain. Specific executive functions include memory, attention control (an element of willpower), emotional control, and generating new behaviors.

That last category is perhaps less widely known than willpower and the others, but it is a fertile arena, harboring a tremendous potential for making needed changes as people pursue desired futures. It deserves more attention than it usually gets, because it helps us set new goals, devise the best strategies and tactics for achieving them, and make smart adjustments along the way.

Proaction is the engine of self-regulation.

To be proactive is to personally choose your actions instead of deferring to situational demands and constraints, to think hard about current paths and possible outcomes, and to change course to create better futures. Sometimes proaction causes immediate impact, but positive results usually come only after more extended periods of strategic self-regulation. Willpower helps, but also essential are thoughtful course corrections in response to criticism, resistance, setbacks, and plateaus.

Proaction works better than our default tendencies.

Our jobs, careers, and lives unavoidably include both problems and opportunities. No matter which one confronts us, we can respond passively or actively.

Faced with a problem, we can passively ignore it, wish it would go away, or hope someone else tackles it. If we choose instead to take the initiative and enact substantive solutions, then we achieve progress and growth. Fixing long-standing problems or nipping new ones in the bud erases part of the past and creates better futures.

Opportunities present similar options: passively ignore them, make an effort but abandon it when the going gets tough, or pursue them hard en route to success. Like solving problems, capturing opportunities creates better futures.

Deciding to be proactive transcends circumstances and perceived personal limitations. It generates new options when none are immediately recognized. Feeling inept and frustrated by setbacks and stalled projects becomes a rarity when the mindset is: “There must be better ways, we just need to work smarter,” rather than “I have no choice… We’re stuck… this is impossible… I/we will never get there."

You have more upsides and options than you know.

Imagine that you set your sights on a remarkable achievement in a sport or your job or career. You will need to depart from the status quo and your current trajectory and start working on your new aspiration. What goals should you set, and what changes will you need to make? Through your self-regulating executive function, you transition from (relatively) mindless routines and business-as-usual to more strategic, future-changing pursuits. The specifics depend on your project, of course. But big-picture goals and transitions always pertain, and they appear in the figure at the top of this piece.

Because you’ll have to think and act in new ways, the figure has a vertical element showing important thinking goals and a horizontal component showing essential “doing” goals. The figure’s forward lean conveys movement toward your ultimate objectives. You are proactive when you consciously and decidedly move from one thinking or acting phase to the next.

An essential goal in self-regulation is to change how one thinks. When confronted with new challenges, you are being proactive when you transition from thoughtless System 1 processing into more thoughtful System 2 processing, especially when faced with unique circumstances and challenges. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work now, and you need to think deliberatively about what to do differently.

To use more System 2 thinking generally, or to apply System 2 thinking now, is a proactive goal. So is moving from deliberative but conventional System 2 thinking, with all its error-prone biases and imperfections, to acquiring new skills in critical thinking. Take the unusual step to engage in meta­cognition—to think strategically about one's thinking. You can decide to not just deliberate, but deliberate well, profoundly, and with consummate wisdom plus practicality.

Transitioning in the figure from the vertical to the horizontal—moving from thinking to doing—a considerable gap exists between having good ideas or plans in your head and taking your first concrete actions in the new direction. Psychologists call this "crossing the Rubicon." Executing this task is not a matter of wishing, hoping, or thinking “maybe someday I’ll give it a try,” but of making a conscious decision to act: “I will do this specific thing when I encounter these particular circumstances and opportunities.”

The first action step is crucial, but of course, it’s still not enough. Over time, further transitions shown in the figure include: 1) moving beyond the first steps to the subsequent actions needed to make further progress, and 2) moving from improvement to a sustained effort plus flexibility—the latter is required for making strategic and tactical changes, plus allowing room for pursuing your other important goals.

Upward and Onward

In 1961, President Kennedy famously announced a space exploration program that would put a man on the moon. Early in the Apollo 13 movie, astronaut Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) and his wife (played by Kathleen Quinlan) gazed at a beautiful moon on which they had just seen Neil Armstrong walk. Lovell said simply, “It’s not a miracle, Marilyn. We just decided to go.”

The Apollo accomplishments required much more than an idea, a plan, and stick-to-it-iveness. The real driver was almost a decade of gritty self-regulation by countless individuals and teams. While your professional and personal goals might not be as wild as a moon or Mars mission, your thinking and doing options and self-regulation requirements are no different.

So when you reach obstacles—for instance, the psychological canyon between thinking and doing, when you need to transition from the vertical to the horizontal—let the Apollo program inspire you. Decide to go, and then identify and attack every step necessary to make it really happen.

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