Self-Regulation, I choose you!

‘It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ – Albus Dumbledore

Self-regulation, n., Regulation, control, or direction by or of oneself.

It turns out there is a difference between want-to and have-to motivation. First, let’s get some definitions worked out.

“[W]ant-to goals are goals that reflect a person’s genuine interests and values and are personally important and meaningful.”1 I might use the word intrinsic, I suppose, to describe this type of motivation. “[H]ave-to goals [are] pursued either for external reasons or are accompanied by…feelings of shame or obligation…”1 Here, I suppose these are the things I do because “Mother said so.”

What I found fascinating about the study I read this week is that the difference between the things I want to do versus the things I have to do is, to some extent, entirely the one I choose in my mind.



Suppose I am told that I have to learn mathematics all through grade school. I don’t particularly care to do such things, but it is an obligation. Essentially, for me, mathematics was a have-to goal. Boo.

Then, suppose I was told at some point that I’d never do well in mathematics, not like Kyle* would. What if I decided that, to prove that advice wrong, I was a mathematician, and, in fact, I really enjoyed mathematics? What if I realised one day that mathematics wasn’t about speed drills, but rather theorems and proofs? What if I had decided mathematics was a want-to goal? Something I enjoyed? I suppose I might just have gotten a couple of degrees in mathematics.

Bringing this back to emotional intelligence, I think how we understand our choices is essential. What we end up doing, doing over the long term, is actually not so much a feature of our ‘sheer cussed willpower’ (aka self-regulation). Rather, it is a feature of seeing ourselves in some integral fashion as embodying that type of behaviour. Take a look at this table, which shows some different ways to make some choices:

Want-to Have-to
·         I enjoy healthy living because I want to live a long, productive life.
·         Learning new things is fascinating, and patiently perfecting a new skill is something I find rewarding.
·         Communicating and partnering with my colleagues is how we develop the relationships that allow us to help so many students.
·         I have to go to gym again today.

·         I have to spend 7 hours doing homework.

·         I have to have another meeting today.

Self-regulation is much harder than just choosing to have to do something. Self-regulation is about choosing to want to become something first. This will not only positively influence motivation (which we’ll discuss next week), it will also reduce the power of the various temptations that can derail goals! In a way, perhaps that old trope of “fake it till you make it” has some meaning after all.

What choices do you face this week? How can they be transformed to be want-to choices rather than just have-to choices? If they’re not too scary, comment some below! If they are scary, don’t be shy about visiting me if you want a friendly ear – I’ve got chocolate in my office.**

1              Milyavskaya, M., Inzlicht, M., Hope, N., & Koestner, R. (2015). Saying ‘no’ to temptation: Want-to motivation improves self-regulation by reducing temptation rather than by increasing self-control. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(4), 677-693. doi:10.1037/pspp0000045

*Kyle was not Kyle’s real name.

**Chocolate is eaten at your own risk. Also, I am not licensed in any jurisdiction to talk to people.



Matt Wiley is a tenured, associate professor of mathematics with awards in both mathematics education and honour student engagement. He earned an assortment of degrees in computer science, business, and pure mathematics from the University of California and Texas A&M systems. He is the director of quality enhancement at Victoria College, assisting in the development and implementation of a comprehensive assessment program to enhance institutional performance outcomes. A programmer, a published author, a mathematician, and a transformational leader, Matt has always melded his passion for writing with his joy of logical problem solving and data science. From the boardroom to the classroom, he enjoys finding dynamic ways to partner with interdisciplinary and diverse teams to make complex ideas and projects understandable and solvable.


  1. Oof, this is a good reminder that mindset makes all the difference! I needed this kick in the pants. It’s all too easy to fall into “have-to” thinking about goals & projects.

    This week, I have to deal with a total of 150 elementary & high school students running around the museum…or, I want to/get to share Victoria’s amazing history with a bunch of eager minds who are excited to be out of their normal routine.

    I have to work late on Thursday…or, I want to kick off our new exhibit in style with the grand opening! 🙂


    • I felt the same way – I’m staring at a mountain of grading between me and Thanksgiving Freedom! Or, I’m ready to help another generation of students understand some key ideas before an exam with helpful comments and feedback.

      As a side note – thank you for the post! For someone used to instant feedback in a classroom, it’s tough to throw things out in cyberspace. Plus, I hadn’t really made the connection about the new exhibit opening Thursday. Is that open to anyone? What time?


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