Many people have grown up hearing the same exhortations: "Put your shoulder to the wheel!" "Pull yourself together!" "Shape up!" All these demands are aimed at the same thing: self-control. This ability is an essential life skill, yet it also has the obvious drawback of being stressful. It is hard enough for most people to force themselves to see a dentist for an annual checkup. Accomplishing a larger, longer-range goal can be so daunting that we often never confront it.
The reason we demur, psychologically, is that self-control does not give us enough sustained motivation to achieve big plans. For that we need self-regulation, something we do every day without realizing it. Understanding how to spot your own self-regulating mechanisms, and then how to exploit them, will give you greater power to reach your most prized objectives.
I Will Go Jogging
Our brains employ two forms of willful control. The first is volitional memory. It comes into play, for example, when Beverly, an architect, makes up her mind on Wednesday morning that at the upcoming Friday meeting, "I will voice my objection to the design of the new school's facade." Her volitional memory has to keep her intentions intact for two days. That's not too hard, but not simple either; anyone who has ever said to herself, "This weekend I will go jogging," knows how hard it can be to keep that intention afloat. Beverly's volitional memory has to inhibit her will to say something before Friday and to see that she waits until the right moment at the meeting to most effectively interject her ideas.
Self-control is enough to accomplish this kind of task because the goal is very concrete, relatively short range and not overly demanding. But for loftier goals, our volitional memory tends to run out of gas. Resolutions evaporate as soon as we are under stress or are distracted.
For these challenges, we must engage the second form of willful control: emotional experiential memory. This function stores all experiences and evaluates them from an emotional perspective. In contrast to volitional memory, it operates unconsciously. Rather than posting a verbal idea in our conscious minds ("I have to wait until the meeting on Friday"), experiential memory makes use of somatic markers, emotions or physical sensations that inform us about a situation based on past experiences or feelings. Somatic markers include the churning in our stomachs when we are anxious, a flushing of the cheeks when we are embarrassed, wide-open eyes when we hear an idea that excites us, or a relaxation of body muscles signaling the relief we feel when we get something off our chest.
Self-regulation will not work for externally set goals, such as "Beginning tomorrow I will go on a diet because the doctor told me that being overweight is unhealthy" or "I want to work harder because then my boss will pay more attention to me." These impositions go directly to our volitional memory, putting us into a self-control mode that simply cannot sustain the effort required.
A Ph.D. student can resist friends' invitations to carouse by envisioning a rewarding life as a professor.
To use emotional experiential memory, such goals have to be reformulated into more general targets that will evoke strong positive emotions in us, such as "I would like to have an attractive, sexy figure" or "I would like to contribute more to this company project because I am excited about how it could turn out."
Once such an internally generated, emotional goal is identified, experiential memory will provide the necessary motivation. It offers a tool kit of clever tricks. For example, it can influence the parts of the brain that are responsible for mood and general arousal.
We can fuel the fire by creating in our minds an intense representation of the desired goal that draws on as many of the senses as possible. A woman who wants an attractive figure could imagine how she would arrive at a boisterous party wearing a miniskirt, attracting admiring glances from the men there--and perhaps even a little praise (or envy) from the women.