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.

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: 1. memory, 2. attention control, 3. emotional control, and 4. generating new behaviors.

Being able to generate new behaviours is one of the lesser known aspects of self regulation. 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. This generation of new behaviours is also referred to as being proactive.

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, and setbacks.

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 until you to succeed. Like solving problems, capturing opportunities creates better futures.

Deciding to be proactive generates new options when none are immediately recognized. Feeling inept and frustrated by setbacks and stalled projects becomes rare 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 will never get there.”

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 into more thoughtfulness, especially when faced with unique circumstances and challenges. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work now, and you need to think deliberately about what to do differently.

So when you reach obstacles—for instance, between thinking and doing—let the possibility of achieving more inspire you. Decide to go, and then identify and attack every step necessary to make it really happen.


Mel McElhatton holds a degree in Social Work from the University of Malta. With Willingness, Mel does life coaching and is one of the facilitators in the IRL – In Real Life team. They are also the producer of the radio show Niddiskutu s-Sess. They can be contacted on or call us on 79291817.