Self-control strategies are cognitive and behavioral skills used by individuals to maintain self-motivation and achieve personal goals. Initially the skills may be learned from a therapist, text, or self-help book. However, the individual is responsible for using these skills in real-life situations to produce the desired changes.
There are many varieties of self-control strategies. Other terms for self-control strategies are behavioral self-control training, cognitive self-regulation, and
self-management techniques. In recent years, the term “self-management” has replaced “self-control,” because self-control implies changing behavior through sheer willpower. Self-management, on the other hand, involves becoming aware of the natural processes that affect a particular behavior and consciously altering those processes, resulting in the desired behavior change.
Most people who decide to use self-control strategies are dissatisfied with a certain aspect of their lives. For example, they may feel they smoke too much, exercise too little, or have difficulty controlling anger. Self-control strategies are useful for a wide range of concerns, including medical (such as diabetes, chronic pain, asthma, arthritis, incontinence, or obesity), addictions (such as drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, gambling, or eating disorders), occupational (such as study habits, organizational skills, or job productivity), and psychological (such as stress, anxiety, depression, excessive anger, hyperactivity, or shyness). If symptoms are severe, self-control strategies may be used in conjunction with other therapies, but should not be the only form of treatment.
The goal of self-control strategies is to reduce behavioral deficiencies or behavioral excesses. Behavioral deficiencies occur when an individual does not engage in a positive, desirable behavior frequently enough. The result is a missed future benefit. For example, a student who rarely studies may not graduate. Behavioral excesses occur when an individual engages in negative, undesirable behavior too often. This results in a negative future consequence. For example, a person who smokes may develop lung cancer.
In the case of behavioral deficiencies, one may fail to engage in a desirable behavior because it does not provide immediate gratification. With behavioral excesses, there is usually some type of immediate gratification and no immediate negative consequence. Self-control strategies help individuals to become aware of their own patterns of behavior and to alter those patterns (usually by creating artificial rewards or punishments) so that the behavior will be more or less likely to occur.
Theoretical bases for self-control strategies
Self-control strategies are based primarily on the social cognitive theory of Albert Bandura. According to Bandura, one’s behavior is influenced by a variety
of factors, including one’s own thoughts and beliefs, and elements in the environment. Bandura proposed that certain beliefs, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies, are important factors in determining which behaviors an individual will attempt, and how motivated the individual will be when engaging in those behaviors. Self-efficacy is one’s belief about how well he or she can perform a given task, regardless of that person’s actual ability. Outcome expectancies are what the person believes will happen as a result of engaging in a certain behavior. If self-efficacy and outcome expectancies are inaccurate, the individual may experience behavioral deficits or excesses.
Donald Meichenbaum developed the idea of self-instructional training, which is a major part of self-control strategies. Meichenbaum believed that learning to control behavior begins in childhood, based on parental instruction. Children eventually control their own behavior by mentally repeating the instructions of their parents. These internal instructions may be positive or negative. Self-instructional training teaches individuals to become aware of their self-statements, evaluate whether these self-statements are helpful or hindering, and replace maladaptive self-statements with adaptive ones.
Frederick Kanfer suggested that individuals achieve self-control by using a feedback loop consisting of continuous monitoring, evaluating, and reinforcing of their own behavior. This loop occurs naturally in everyone. However, the loop can be maladaptive if (a) only negative factors are noticed and positive factors are ignored during the monitoring phase, (b) standards are unrealistic during the evaluation phase, or (c) responsibility is accepted for negative behaviors but not for positive behaviors during the reinforcement phase. Self-control strategies help individuals to be aware of these phases and to make the appropriate changes in monitoring, evaluation, and reinforcement.
Development of a self-control program
Self-control strategies are often taught in treatment centers, group or individual therapies, schools, or vocational settings. However, self-control programs may also be designed without the help of a professional, especially if the problem being addressed is not severe. The use of professionals, at least initially, may increase the likelihood that the program will succeed. Following are the necessary steps for creating a self-control program:
- Making a commitment. A plan cannot succeed unless one is committed to following through. Ways of
increasing commitment level include listing the benefits of adhering to the program, telling others about one’s intentions, posting written reminders of commitments around one’s home, putting a significant amount of time and energy into designing the program, and planning ways to deal with obstacles ahead of time.
- Identifying the problem. The behavior in need of change is referred to as the target behavior or the controlled behavior. A precise definition of the target behavior is a crucial first step. This is usually done by keeping detailed records about when, where, and how the behavior occurs for one to two weeks. The record-keeping should also focus on other competing behaviors that may be interfering with the target behavior. For example, for a person who is trying to cut down on calorie consumption, a competing behavior would be eating high-calorie snack foods. It is important to note the antecedents and consequences of the target and competing behaviors; in other words, what typically occurs immediately before (antecedents) and after (consequences) these behaviors? The antecedents and consequences are factors that influence the occurrence of the behavior. Sometimes just the process of record-keeping alters the target behavior by increasing the individual’s awareness of what he or she is doing.
- Setting a goal. Once the target behavior has been defined, the individual must decide in what way that behavior should be changed. The goal should be specific so that future progress can be measured. This may entail listing circumstances or behaviors that must be present, as well as to what degree they must be present, in order for a goal to be achieved. For example, a goal to “reduce hyperactivity” in a grade-school student is vague. “Remaining in seat for seven out of fourteen half-hour periods daily” is much more specific. Indicating a time frame in which the goal can realistically be achieved is also recommended. Goals should be realistic. It is better to set a small goal and progress to bigger goals than to set a big goal and become quickly discouraged.
Applying self-control strategies. The self-control strategies are known as controlling behaviors. Choice of strategies will depend on the target behavior. Types of strategies are discussed later.
- Self-monitoring. While using the self-control strategies, one should continue to keep records regarding the occurrence of the target behavior. Keeping written records is essential for determining if the strategies are effective. If one is gradually meeting the goal requirements, the strategies can be assumed effective. If little progress towards the goal is evident, either the strategies are being used incorrectly, or the
strategies are ineffective and should be changed. Self-monitoring can be done informally (for instance, by making notes on an index card) or formally (by using pre-designed data sheets). In any case, self-monitoring should gather the necessary information, but should not become too lengthy or complex. The individual will lose motivation to continue monitoring if the procedures are overly time-consuming or inconvenient.
- Making revisions as necessary. Based on the information gathered during self-monitoring, the individual decides if changes in the plan are necessary. One advantage of self-control programs is that the individual chooses the strategies that will work best for him or her. This freedom of choice increases the likelihood that the individual will adhere to the program. Therefore, self-control programs should always be flexible and adaptable.
Types of self-control strategies
Self-control strategies can be grouped into three broad categories:
Environmental strategies involve changing times, places, or situations where one experiences problematic behavior. Examples include:
- changing the group of people with whom one socializes
- avoiding situations or settings where an undesirable behavior is more likely to occur
- changing the time of day for participating in a desirable behavior to a time when one will be more productive or successful
Behavioral strategies involve changing the antecedents or consequences of a behavior. Examples include:
- increasing social support by asking others to work
towards the same or a similar goal
- placing visual cues or reminders about one’s goal in
one’s daily environment
- developing reinforcers (rewards) for engaging in
desirable behaviors or punishers for engaging in
- eliminating naturally occurring reinforcers for undesirable behavior engaging in alternative, positive behaviors when one
is inclined to engage in an undesirable behavior
- creating ways to make a desirable behavior more
enjoyable or convenient
- scheduling a specific time to engage in a desirable
- writing a behavioral contract to hold oneself accountable for carrying out the self-control program
Cognitive strategies involve changing one’s thoughts or beliefs about a particular behavior. Examples include:
- using self-instructions to cue oneself about what to do and how to do it
- using self-praise to commend oneself for engaging in a desirable behavior
- thinking about the benefits of reaching one’s goal
- imagining oneself successfully achieving a goal or using imagery to distract oneself from engaging in an undesirable behavior
- substituting positive self-statements for unproductive, negative self-statements
In a therapeutic setting, self-control strategies are usually taught in weekly group sessions over a period of several weeks. The sessions typically include an educational lecture regarding a specific strategy, group discussion of how the strategy should be applied and how to cope with potential obstacles (relapse prevention), role-plays or rehearsal of the strategy, a review of the session, and a homework assignment for further practice. Sessions usually focus on one type of strategy at a time. Preferably, an individual should master one strategy before attempting another. After the series of training sessions are complete, the individual is responsible for implementing the strategies in daily life.
Relapse is a concern in any therapeutic situation. Current research suggests that individuals are more likely to continue using newly learned self-control strategies if they have periodic follow-up contact with a professional or other designated person. The contact serves at least three purposes: (1) a source of accountability, (2) review of strategy use to ensure proper application, and (3) discussion of problematic situations and development of plans to overcome these situations.
Self-control strategies are especially prone to short-circuiting of contingencies. This refers to the tendency for individuals to partake of reinforcers at inappropriate occasions, or to avoid punishers designated in their plan. If contingencies are short-circuited, the desired behavior change is unlikely to occur.
Relapse is another risk involved in self-control strategies. Causes of relapse include: (a) a poorly defined target behavior (progress cannot be recognized);
Antecedents —Events that occur immediately before the target behavior.
Behavioral deficiency —Failure to engage in a positive, desirable behavior frequently enough.
Behavioral excess —Engaging in negative, undesirable behavior too often.
Competing behaviors —Behaviors that interfere with the target behavior because they are preferred by the individual.
Consequences —Events that occur immediately after the target behavior.
Contingencies —Naturally occurring or artificially designated reinforcers or punishers that follow a behavior.
Controlled behavior —The behavior to be changed by self-control strategies; also known as the target behavior.
Controlling behaviors —Self-control strategies used to change the controlled or target behavior.
Feedback loop —A naturally occurring process whereby individuals control their behavior by self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement.
Outcome expectancies —What one believes will happen as a result of engaging in a certain behavior.
Punisher —Anything that causes a decrease of a particular behavior.
Reinforcer —Anything that causes an increase of a particular behavior.
Self-efficacy—One’s belief about how well he or she can perform a given task, regardless of that person’s actual ability.
Self-instructional training —Teaches individuals to become aware of their self-statements, evaluate whether these self-statements are helpful or hindering, and replace maladaptive self-statements with adaptive ones.
Short-circuiting of contingencies—The proper rein-forcer or punisher for a given behavior is not administered.
Social cognitive theory —The theory that behavior is determined by an interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors.
Target behavior —The specific behavior to be increased or decreased during treatment.
(b) unrealistic or long-term goals without immediate sources of reinforcement; (c) failure to anticipate and plan for obstacles to goal-achievement; (d) overreaction to occasional setbacks; (e) negative self-talk, especially when one feels goals are not being satisfactorily met; (f) failure to use desirable or frequent reinforcers; (g) ineffective consequences for undesirable behavior; and (h) an inaccurate or unnecessarily complex monitoring system.
Ideally individuals will use self-control strategies independently in their everyday surroundings to meet their designated goal. They will decrease behavioral deficiencies and excesses, engaging in desirable behaviors more often, or engaging in undesirable behaviors less frequently or not at all.
If the self-control strategies are ineffective or used improperly, individuals may show no changes or increases in behavioral deficiencies or excesses.
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Association for Behavioral Analysis. 213 West Hall, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008-5301. (616) 387-8341; (616) 384-8342. http://www.wmich.edu/aba
Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy. GSB Building, City Line and Belmont Avenues, Suite 700, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania 19004-1610. (610) 664-3020. http://www.beckinstitute.org
Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. 336 Baker Avenue, Concord, Massachusetts 01742-2107. (978) 369-2227. http://www.behavior.org
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Institute. 211 East 43rd
Sandra L. Friedrich, M.A.