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Create New Habits: Self-Regulation

written by Senia Maymin 1 February 2007

Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP, PhD, is the coauthor of Profit from the Positive. Maymin is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Maymin runs a coaches network and is the founder and editor in chief of PositivePsychologyNews.com. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio.

Senia's solo articles are here, her articles with Margaret Greenberg here, and with Kathryn Britton here.

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. 


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 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.


Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 379–384. Abstract.

Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books. (Added later)

Hall, P., Elias, L., & Crossley, M. (2006). Neurocognitive influences on health behavior in a community sample. Health Psychology, 25(6): 778-82. DOI: 10.1037/0278-6133.25.6.778

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Senia Maymin 1 February 2007 - 5:49 pm

This article follows two great articles on habits and goals by Kathryn Britton and by David J. Pollay.

Jeff 1 February 2007 - 7:18 pm

This was a particularly tight and important article. As someone who scores very low in self-reg on the VIA, this advice is directly applicable as an intervention of sorts.

I wonder how this research fits in with Duckworth & Seligman’s Grit studies. Hopefully they will come up with some good evidence based strategies on that front.

Well written and informative.

David J. Pollay 2 February 2007 - 2:14 am

Hi Senia,

Great post! I love Baumeister’s work and your tour through it is great. I think your post represents the best of Positive Psychology. You demonstrate how much good research there is to help us make successful changes in our lives. I love the continued call to all of us to see that making a change like you suggest has a positive ripple effect in our lives. Self regulation pays off in more ways than one might expect. Thanks for the informative post and the added motivation to stick to my plans.



Dana 2 February 2007 - 9:23 am

Hey Senia! Just wanted to say thanks for such a great, well-researched article…I especially liked the appication bit on how to start self-regulating today! Dana

Senia.com - Positive Psychology Blog 2 February 2007 - 5:02 pm

Hi Jeff, David, Dana,

Thank you guys very much for the great words.

Jeff, I am very interested in the Grit work. I’ve always thought Grit and Goals are related, and want to look into that sometime.

David, you and I both wrote about Baumeister! Thank you for your wonderful words. I really am a fan of the research in Pos Psych that is immediately useful – as are you!

Oooo, Dana, thanks, then I’ll make sure to include more of those parts about what to do starting now when I write the follow-on articles. Thanks for that tip!

Dave Shearon 5 February 2007 - 9:56 pm

Really interesting, Senia! Thanks. I had thought of some of Baumeister’s work as suggesting that we only have so much self-regulation “muscle” so be careful where you use it. The aspects you bring out, while still supporting the muscle analogy, give it a different spin. Very, very interesting!

Senia.com - Positive Psychology Blog 6 February 2007 - 9:17 am

Dave, thanks for the comment. That’s interesting – and if you thought that, then many other people think that when coming across the muscle analogy – very good to know to anticipate this. Thank you. Best, S.

Editor S.M. 20 February 2007 - 12:20 pm

Master-Reality.ru website has reprinted this article in Russian.
Here it is:

Mimi 28 March 2007 - 9:15 pm

Sen— made me think of a quote that one of my yoga teachers always uses when encouraging us to set ourselves up properly for certain postures… “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Seems pretty related to self-regulation to me!

Beth Waddel 6 January 2008 - 7:32 pm

Thank you so much for calling this research to my attention.
Fascinating stuff.
I am most interested in the element of depletion and how THAT impacts self regulation.
Having been in independent practice for over 20 years, I am fascinated by the impact of different forms of depletion (i.e. “You did WHAT?” ) as opposed to, “say more about that” impacts self regulation and care givers…
Fascinating stuff, as usual.


Neva 13 April 2009 - 1:41 pm

Why is it that if you start to exercise regularly, then that may result in you getting better grades or being a neater person?

Should be: Why is it that if you start to exercise regularly, then that may result in YOUR getting better grades or being a neater person?

Mark Davis 30 April 2009 - 4:06 am

I use imaginal rehearsal with clients to immediately develop those automatic responses. Aren’t we really talking about some fairly simple classical conditioning here?
Present the stimulus and rehearse the desired response + have the client generate a positive affect (emotional state).
I use hypnosis as framework for that. But one could also look at this as habit reversal training too.

Senia 30 April 2009 - 4:04 pm

Hi Mark,

I completely believe in role-playing. I think it’s one of the most useful activities in executive coaching. I also think it gives people confidence, calm, and ease in a situation later. And not playing a situation out in your head, but actually role-playing the dialogue with a friend, for example.

My best,


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