Identity Law #4 

Why is it so easy to repeat bad habits and so hard to form good ones? Few things can have a more powerful impact on your life than improving you daily habits. And yet it is likely that this time next year you'll be doing the same thing rather than something better. That is unless you create identity driven habits. 

It often feels difficult to keep good habits going for more than a few days, even with sincere efforts and the occasional burst of motivation. Habits, like exercise, meditation, journaling and cooking are reasonable for a day or two and then become a hassle. 

However, once your habits are established, they seem to stick around forever. Especially the unwanted ones. Despite our best intentions, unhealthy habits like eating junk food, watching too much television, scanning your phone a lot, procrastinating and even smoking can feel impossible to break. 

Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons. (1) we try to change the wrong thing and (2) we try to change our habits in the wrong way. Determining your " Who " addresses the first point. Creating " Identity Habits " answers the second point. 

Our first mistake is that we try to change the wrong thing. To understand what we mean, consider that there are three levels at which change can occur. You can imagine them like the layers of an onion. 

The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.

The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.

The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions and biases you hold are associated with this level.

Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe. When it comes to building habits that last, when it comes to building a system of 1% improvement each day, the problem is not about that one level is " better " or " worse " than the another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is in the direction of change. 

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we want to become. 

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke the first person says " No thanks, I am trying to quit ". It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same belief. 

The second person declines by saying " No thanks, I am not a smoker ". It's a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes. 

Most people don't even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think " I want to be skinny ( outcome ) and if I stick to this diet, then I'll be skinny ( process)". They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves and they don't realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change. 

Behind every system of actions are the system of beliefs. The system of a democracy is founded on the beliefs like freedom, majority rule and social equality The system of dictatorship has a very different set of beliefs like absolute authority and strict obedience. You can imagine many ways to try to get more people to vote in a democracy, but such behavior change would never get off the ground in a dictatorship. That's not the identity of the system. Voting is a behavior that is impossible under a certain set of beliefs. 

A similar pattern exists whether we are discussing individuals, organizations or societies. There are a set of beliefs and assumptions that shape the system, an identity behind the habits. 

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity is someone who consumes rather than creates, then you'll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you'll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It's hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven't changed who you are. 

Identity Habit - Speaking To Your Soul

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It's one thing to say I'm the type of person who wants this. It's something very different to say I'm the type of person who is this. 

The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it. If you're proud of how your hair looks, you'll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it. If you're proud of the size of your biceps, you'll make sure you never skip an upper-body workout. If you're proud of the scarves you knit, you'll be more likely to spend hours knitting each week. Once your pride gets involved, you'll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits. 

True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you'll stick with one his that it becomes part of your identity. Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don't shift the belief behind the behavior, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. 

  • The goal is not toe read a book, the goal is to become a reader
  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner
  • The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician. 

Your behavior are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are, either consciously or nonconsciously. Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. For example, people who identified as " being a voter " were more likely to v ote than those who simply claimed " voting " was an action they wanted to perform. Similarly, the person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn't have to convince themselves to train. Doing the right thing is easy. After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the version of the person that you already believe yourself to be.

Like all aspects of habit formation, this too is a double-edged sword. When working for you, identity change can be a powerful force of your self-improvement. When working against you, though, identity change can be a curse. Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity. 

  • " I'm terrible with directions "
  • " I'm not a morning person "
  • " I'm bad at remembering people's names "
  • " I'm always late "
  • " I'm not good with technology "
  • " I'm horrible at math "

and a thousand other variations....................

When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because " that's not who I am ". There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs. You find whatever way you can to avoid contradicting yourself. 

The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it. It can feel comfortable to believe what your culture believes ( group identity ) or to do what upholds your self-image ( personal identity ), even if it's wrong. The biggest barrier to positive change at any level, individual, team, society - is identity conflict or even identity crisis. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action. 

On any given day, you may struggle with your habits because you're too busy or too tired or too overwhelmed or hundreds of other reasons. Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can't get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity. 

This brings us to the an important question. If you beliefs and world-view play such an important role in your behavior, where do they come from in the first place? How, exactly, is your identity formed? And how can you emphasize new aspects of your identity that serve you and gradually erase the pieces that hinder you?