What is it?

Experts define self-regulation differently. However, the common denominator of self-regulation across the literature is that self-regulation is the ability to control one’s behaviour, cognitions, and emotions in a goal directed manner that will eventuate in outcomes aligned with an individual’s values. Self-regulatory skills are often associated with underlying mechanisms such as: self-monitoring, suitable thresholds of standards for performing a behavior, motivation, and contextual judgment of behaviour. The enhanced competence of self-regulation has been linked to desirable outcomes, such as: the capacity to attain one’s goals while maintaining sufficient motivation (Latham & Locke, 1991; Locke & Latham, 2002; Wieber, Thürmer, & Gollwitzer, 2012) and adhering to healthy behaviors in the face of challenging circumstances (Hagger & Luszczynska, 2014; Manjunatha & Saddichha, 2011; Mann, de Ridder, & Fujita, 2013).


Hagger, M. S., & Luszczynska, A. (2014). Implementation Intention and Action Planning Interventions in Health Contexts: State of the Research and Proposals for the Way Forward. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 6(1), 1–47.

Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 212–247.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717. Retrieved from

Manjunatha, N., & Saddichha, S. (2011). Universal mental health program: An extension of life skills education to promote child mental health. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(1), 77–8.

Mann, T., de Ridder, D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Self-regulation of health behavior: Social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32(5), 487–498.

Smithers, L. G., Sawyer, A. C. P., Chittleborough, C. R., Davies, N. M., Davey Smith, G., & Lynch, J. W. (2018). A systematic review and meta-analysis of effects of early life non-cognitive skills on academic, psychosocial, cognitive and health outcomes. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(11), 867–880.

Wieber, Thürmer, & Gollwitzer. (2012). Collective Action Control by Goals and Plans: Applying a Self-Regulation Perspective to Group Performance. The American Journal of Psychology, 125(3), 275.

Muraven, M., Baumeister, R., & Tice, D. (1999). Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise. The Journal of Social Psychology, 139(4), 446-457.

Why is it important for behaviour change?

An enhancement of self-regulation skills not only aids in the mastery of target behaviors, but can also be generalised to other domains of life that can produce positive benefits (Smithers et al., 2018). Increasing self-regulation and volitional control of behavior is an essential means to promote sustained change. Consequently, empowering the ability to make a preferable decision, stay motivated amidst adversity, and monitor behavior, as an autonomous agent of action is crucial for any change in behaviour.

How could you apply this theory?

Self-regulation skill building can include implementation intention planning (if-when/then plans) or planning according to goal-setting theory (SMART goals) (Hagger & Luszczynska, 2014, Latham & Locke, 1991).

Repeated exercises of self-control such as monitoring and improving posture, regulating mood, or monitoring and recording eating, has been found to increase self-regulatory capacity (Muraven, Baumeister & Tice, 1999).

Example of Theory Applied

The Parable of Farming

For three years we worked with cane farmers to increase positive environmental outcomes and improve their lives. Project Cane Changer finished in 2020 and the project team came back five years later to see how things were going. Remarkably, growers were engaging in the same behaviours they had adopted during the project.

-   Catch a man to fish and he will be fed for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will be fed a lifetime. (*like Aesop’s fables)

Related Concepts


Social Cognitive Theory

Self-Determination Theory