At the core of all of our behaviors lie the beliefs we have about ourselves. To create a sustainable habit, we must decide whom we want to be and act consistently like that person until we convince ourselves that is whom we have become.
The first post of my three-part series on James Clear’s excellent book, Atomic Habits, we discovered the importance of taking big, annual goals and breaking them down into the small, intentional habits that puts us on the path to achieving those goals. In this post, we’ll explore how to get to the heart of lasting habit change; building identity changing habits.
Clear stresses “the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.”
True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. James Clear
He uses the example of quitting smoking to illustrate this idea. Consider two people resisting the temptation to smoke when being offered a cigarette.
Person 1 (outcome-based habit): “No, thank you. I’m trying to quit smoking.”
Person 2 (identity-based habit): “No, thank you. I’m not a smoker.”
While it may appear to be nuanced, the identity-based habit approach is reinforcing the idea of the person you want to become. Our default mode is to act consistently with our core identity, Reprogramming our identity means our desired behavior becomes our new, improved default mode.
Changing this default mode requires that we reframe our goals concerning whom we want to become, not just what we want to achieve. For example:
- The goal is not to write a book, the goal is to become a writer.
- The goal is not to run a marathon but to become a runner.
- The goal is not to lose 40 lbs but to become a healthy person.
These identity-based habits are sustainable and they will serve us beyond annual goals.
The Two-Step Process
Clear describes the two-step process of identity change as:
Step 1: Decide the type of person you want to be.
Step 2: Prove it to yourself with small wins.
You can back into this by looking at the big goals you’ve set for yourself. Let’s take losing 40 lbs as an example. What kind of a person loses 40 lbs? What kind of behaviors would a healthy person exhibit? Then, attribute those behaviors to yourself like this:
- “A healthy person would take the stairs” becomes “I’m the kind of person who takes the stairs.”
- “A healthy person would exercise regularly” becomes “I’m the kind of person who exercises regularly.”
- “A healthy person would choose water with lunch over a soft drink” becomes “I’m the kind of person who drinks water with my meals.”
Every time you take the stairs, workout, or order water over soda, you reinforce the notion that you are a healthy person. As being a “healthy person” becomes your default identity, you’ll compound the benefits of this thinking by adding more and more behaviors that align.
Momentum works for you as productive behaviors beget even more productive actions.
Idea into Action
Think about your most important goal. Yes, that huge one!
- Imagine the kind of person who would crush that goal. What are the two or three important behaviors that person would exhibit?
- Create identity sentences for each of those behaviors. Write them down and put them somewhere visible to you. You can even make one your primary password. Use the format, “I’m the kind of person who….”
- Look for proof: Catch yourself exhibiting these desired behaviors and reinforce the idea that this is your default behavior. Eventually, it will be.
Sure, we want to run a marathon; yes, we want to write a book; and who doesn’t want to start a new business? However, at the core of it all, our goals are about our identity, about becoming the best version of ourselves. Using this framework to reframe our big goals into statements about whom we want to be and how we want to act is a powerful way to help us get there.
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