Habits & Your Identity


There’s a section in the book Atomic Habits where the author (James Clear) talks about our habits shaping our identity. This really resonated with me so I thought I would share it with you.

James talks about beginning the process of changing your habits by focusing on who you want to become (your identity) rather than what you want to achieve (outcome based). There is an example given of 2 people who are offered a cigarette. 

One person says “No thanks I’m trying to quit” which sounds fine but this person still identifies themselves as a smoker who is trying to be something else. 

The other person says “No thanks I’m not a smoker”. A small difference that signifies a shift in identity. They no longer identify themselves as someone who smokes.

A habit becoming part of your identity is a strong form of intrinsic motivation. 

Rather than being someone who says they ‘want’ this become a person who ‘is’ this.

The more pride attached to a certain aspect of your identity the more motivated you will be to continue habits that reflect this identity e.g. if you take pride in being physically strong you won’t want to miss a training session as that would not support your self-identity.

You could be training for a marathon but the goal is not just to run 42km, the real goal is to become a runner. 

The goal is not to lose fat and maintain a healthy weight, the real goal is to become someone that eats nutritious foods and controls their calorie intake.

People who use this identity approach can find it easier to continue with their newly formed habit/s.

“A person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn’t have to convince themselves to train.” They are simply acting like the person they already believe themselves to be.

Along these same lines is the story of a woman who was trying to lose weight. She succeeded at losing weight just by thinking to herself “what would a healthy person do?”. For example, when deciding what to eat or when faced with taking the stairs or the elevator she would ask herself this question and act as a ‘healthy’ person would. She started identifying herself as a healthy person, her actions followed suit and she lost weight.

On to how this resonated with me… 

Over the years I’ve had a few people tell me that I “must be really motivated” or ask me how I am “so motivated”, in regards to being a self-coached athlete in an individual sport that trains by himself.

My reply would be along the lines of “I am intrinsically motivated to do my best and training is just something I do now, a non-negotiable, it’s part of being a runner.” Without knowing it I was using this self-identity principle.

I don’t have any more motivation than the next person. I am focused on running as best I can and making sure I don’t retire thinking I never reached my potential. 

I Identify myself as someone who is committed, disciplined and dedicated. Not someone who is overly motivated. If I wake up early to go to the gym or go for a run I struggle to get out of bed just like anyone else. It’s not motivation that gets me out of bed, it’s the fact that I identify myself as an athlete who is dedicated, disciplined etc and to live up to that identity I need to go and train. 

I finish work for the day drained and tired and the last thing I feel like doing is trying to sprint around an athletics track but if I don’t do it then I can’t call myself a dedicated athlete.

Another example of how self-identity can help habits is if you’re really needing to give up a specific food or bad habit. Rather than saying “I’m not allowed to eat that” you could change your inner dialogue to something like “I don’t eat that food anymore”. Similar to the cigarette example above.

So next time you’re attempting to implement a new habit or kick a bad one, try focusing your habits and actions on the type of person you want to become not the end result that you want to achieve.

I’m about halfway through Atomic Habits and it’s one of the best books I’ve read, highly recommended.

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