Temporal Self-Regulation Theory: Why we keep trying (and failing) to go for that early morning run.

keep-the-dream-alive Last night in a burst of optimism I set my alarm for 5:30 AM. I thought I would sneak in an early morning run around the neighborhood before work. But as bells rang at that un-godly hour, I cracked an eye to a dark, cold room and groped for the snooze button. Ten minutes later, with a slight increase in clarity, I delayed once more “today, sleep is more important”…snooze again. As you might have guessed, I didn’t wake up in time to run.

We’ve all had a similar experience. Our preconceived intentions to engage in healthy behavior too often fail to come to fruition when it’s time to act. But we also intuit that our intentions are somehow linked to our behavior.

Most of the prevailing theoretical models of health behavior such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen & Madden, 1986, request pdf), posit that intentions in combination with a number of other factors, such as behavioral beliefs, can predict likelihood of behavior. And these theories do predict behavior reasonably well (see Godin and Kok, 1996), but they fail to explain why large increases in intention only lead to small changes in behavior (see review by Webb and Sheeran, 2006). In this way these theories fail to fully explain health behavior.

Hall and Fong (2007), developed Temporal Self-Regulation Theory to help explain why, when it comes to health-related actions, the intention–behavior link may break down. They postulate that perhaps our intentions sometimes fail to lead to behavior because,

[many health behaviors are] associated with a characteristic set of contingencies whose valence changes dramatically depending on the temporal frame.

I’ve added emphasis to the quote to help break it down. In generally when psychologists talk about behavioral “contingencies” they are referring to if-then conditions that create potential for the occurrence of certain behavior and its consequences. Using the running example above, one behavioral contingency could be stated, “if I run in the morning, then I might be healthier when I’m older”. The “valence” of this contingency is positive—who doesn’t want to live a long and healthful life? “Temporal frame” refers to the very human capacity to think not only in the present moment or short-term, but also to weigh long-term consequences of our actions. Our example contingency has a long-term orientation. The authors contend that valence of the contingency changes with temporal frame, so let’s say I am thinking in the short-term, the behavioral contingency could then be stated, “if I run in the morning, then I might be tired for the rest of the day”. This is, of course, negative in valence. So the theory predicts that I will be more likely to create an intention to run in the morning if I’m focussed on the long-term as opposed to the short-term. This helps explain why it’s so hard to engage in health protective behaviors (such as running) and dis-engage in health risk behaviors (such as smoking). It is hard to delay gratification and most health risk behaviors are satisfying in the short-term and unsatisfying in the long-term, while most protective behaviors are predominately unsatisfying in the short-term and satisfying in the longer-term .

So, back to why my intention to run in the morning failed to lead to running after the alarm went off.

Last night when I set my alarm for 5:30 AM I was thinking about my long-term health, “I’ll look and feel so good in my summer swimsuit after working out” or “I’ll be less prone to disease when I’m older”.  Further the immediate costs of setting the alarm were low—I only had to click few buttons. In contrast, while reaching for the snooze, the costs of running were more immediate and the short-term consequence were salient, “I’m tired now, and I’ll be too sleepy to be productive today if I run”.

These tables and figures from Hall and Fong (2007) demonstrates how protective and risky health behavior have the opposite contingency valence with respect to time orientation. As depicted in the table 1, participants in this study estimated the point in time at which they would notice the benefit/cost of health protective behaviors (e.g. exercise and dieting), and health risk behaviors (e.g. smoking and drinking).

temporal proximity measure Hall and Fong (2007) Sticking with our morning run example, Figure 1 below demonstrates that people don’t notice the cost of running when thinking about rising at the crack of dawn for a run (question #1) or when deciding to run by setting the alarm an hour early (question #2). We start to feel the cost when the alarm goes off and we have to get out of bed and dress (questions #3). The perceived cost continues to grow as we run and after we’ve successfully run once (questions #4 and #5). We start to feel the cost less once we’ve made this morning run a regular routine for a week (question #6). As we continue to engage in our morning run routine the perceived cost continues to decrease, completely disappearing after a several years (question #9).

Now, what about the benefit of running early in the morning? Figure 1 indicates that we don’t feel the benefit of our run until we’ve done it regularly for a week (question #6), at which point the benefits grow exponentially for a year (question #8) and then decreases toward zero as we approach a decade (question #10).

These results provide evidence that the perceived benefit of running occurs well after the initial behavior occurs, while the perceived cost is felt just before, during  and a short while after the behavior initiates.

So when we are making the decision to set the alarm early for tomorrow’s run costs are low and abstract, so we are focusing on the long-term. When the alarm goes off and we are engaging in the behavior the costs are high and concrete, so we are focusing on the short-term. 

Before looking at Figure 1 below, notice that numbers 0 through 9 on the x-axis correspond to questions 1 through 10 in Table 1 pictured above. This is because academics like to make things more complicated than they need to be :). Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 9.00.55 AM Figure 2 shows that the same trend holds for another health protective behavior (dieting). Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 9.01.08 AMAs expected, the authors found the opposition result for health risk behavior—costs come after engaging in behavior and benefits occur before/during, see Figures 3 and 4 below. Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 9.01.19 AM Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 9.01.31 AM

So how does Temporal Self-Regulation Theory help me running in the morning? It suggests that on thing that might help is to try to minimize the short-term costs and maximize the short-term benefit. This can be hard, but may be as simple as rewarding yourself with a favorite breakfast if you complete the morning run.

Obviously, perceived temporal proximity with regard to behavior is only part of the picture. The authors introduce a working model (below) to illustrate Temporal Self-Regulation Theory more fully, which I’ve enhanced with definitions of each component. The model introduces two factors, behavioral prepotency and self-regulatory capacity that (1) influence (or moderate) the link between intentions and behavior; and (2) directly influence behavior in the absence of intentions. Health behaviors are complex and theories require continuous testing and refinement but Temporal Self-Regulation Theory adds an interesting new component to existing theories that is surely worth further consideration and testing.

Enhanced schematic representation of Temporal Self-Regulation Theory


Ajzen, I., & Madden, T. J. (1986). Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22, 453-474.

Godin, G., & Kok, G. (1996). The theory of planned behavior: A review of its applications to health-related behaviors. American Journal of Health Promotion, 11, 87-98.

Hall, P. a., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behavior. Health Psychology Review, 1(1), 6–52. doi:10.1080/17437190701492437

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 249-268. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.249



How To Keep Your Running Resolutions

iverson practice

Allen Iverson questioning practice.

This is a cross-post from an article I wrote for Today While Running… There’s some interesting psychology throughout so I thought I would share it here as well.

If you are anything like me, February is when the new year resolutions begin to fall apart. So today I am reflecting on my running resolutions for 2014 and my ability to keep them. In particular how important it is to have concrete measures that match your goals.

Everyone knows that consistency is the key to successful running. The old “practice makes perfect” mantra. Just run a little bit everyday and you will get better. But Allen Iverson was right to question practice. Consistent practice is only part of the successful runner’s story.

Set concrete goals and measures to match. 

When I first sat down to record my running goals for 2014 I wrote this:

“Run 2,500 miles. That is roughly 50 miles/week and somewhere around 20,000 minutes.”

Now, while this objective is both measurable and concrete, it is lacking one essential quality, it doesn’t capture what I want to accomplish in my running life.  If my goal were to run more consistently it would be perfect, but consistency is really just a means to my actual objective: run better.

Be consistent. Be deliberate. 

Consistency is the key to developing new habits. And good habits (like running) are most-likely good for your health. But consistency will not necessary help you be a better runner.

Psychologist have found that the largest difference between experts and novices on a given task is the time spent engaged in deliberate practice (See Ericsson et al., 1993). In essence deliberate practice is time spent grappling with the hard stuff. For running this means you should strategically schedule days when you pick up the pace, and log more miles. You need to push out of the comfort zone, and change-up the daily routine. To keep improving you also need to regularly analyzing your weaknesses in a effort to understand and overcome them (e.g. to prevent my regular side stitches I need to keep my head still, and my arms straighter, and maybe engage in more core strengthening exercises). In order to analyze your weaknesses you need to track your progress and tick-off your successes. I do this via Strava and a spreadsheet.

The lesson here is that you will only ever be as good as you practice. It is not enough to practice consistently, you have to engage your brain and push your body to it’s limits with deliberate practice if you want to see substantial improvement.

But how do you develop measures to match a deliberate practice resolution?

One option is to get very specific. For example, On Tuesday, February 4th, I will run that 20 x 200m workout and focus on keeping my head still and arms straight. This takes a lot of work (especially if you don’t have a coach). It is unreasonable to plan out the entire year in this fashion.

Another option is to focus on outcomes. For example, I will race the Boston marathon and finish in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. The problem is that successful completion of this measure doesn’t accurately demonstrate that you are consistently practicing deliberately over the entire year. Perhaps you worked hard up until race day and then sat on the couch the rest of the year. Or perhaps success in the race was due to an under estimation of your ability.

In general I think it is best to use a combination of very concrete measures and outcomes.

After this deliberation here is how I amended my running resolution for 2014.

  1. Run 2,500 miles. That is roughly 50 miles/week and somewhere around 20,000 minutes.
  2. Push limits with up-tempo workout twice/week.
  3. Focus on technique on 2 runs/week.
  4. 2-15 minutes of strenuous strength training at least 5 days/week.
  5. Place in top 3 at the East Bay Triple Crown Trail Championships.
  6. Track and tick-off training and successes in spreadsheet and Strava.
  7. Continue to add outcome measures. New 5k PR later this year, location TBD?

Some final notes on resolution keeping from the psychologist in me:

Make one change at a time. Will-power requires cognitive resources that are deplete-able. In other words, we have a limited capacity for self-control. When forced to use restraint in one area, we more readily give-up on hard tasks in another area or compensate by indulging in some other vice (see the original Baumeister et al. (1998) “cookie” study or read an overview). For me running daily isn’t a change, but incorporating more strength work, technique honing, and strenuous workouts constitute more than enough change for now.

Reinforce behavior by tying rewards to actions. Cash in on the power of negative reinforcement by depositing your hard earned money in PACT and earning it back, or losing it all, through the pursuit of your goals.

Relish ing the big picture (occasionally). When things get hard sometimes it is helpful to visualize the big picture. Think back on your concrete goals. What do these lead to? 50 miles/week =  2600 mile in a year = rough distance from New York to San Francisco = Woah! = Good Health = Winning Races = Glory!… BUT don’t over do it, you need to stick to the daily grind and focus in order to reach those lofty goals.