Anyone who’s ever tried to build a new habit from scratch knows – change is difficult.
Think about it, how many times have you gotten really fired up about wanting to start something new, whether it was a new exercise program, studying a second language, writing a book or even just getting in the habit of stretching a little each morning?
As fired up as you were, how long until that initial motivation wore off and you were back to your old habits of not working out, studying, writing or whatever? For most people it’s usually not long at all. So what’s the trick to making a new habit stick if being really pumped about it initially isn’t enough?
The use of identity based habits.
What are identity based habits?
I’ve written about using identity based habits to achieve goals in the past, but in case you aren’t familiar with them the basic idea is that you can best solidify a habit by becoming the kind of person who would perform that action habitually.
Ok, that may actually sound more confusing – here’s how it works.
Without getting too much into discussions of free will, determinism and compatibilism, essentially all of your thoughts and decisions arise out of processes that begin unconsciously. In other words, while it may feel like you consciously decided to have a cup of coffee this morning in reality that decision was made well before you were aware of it by a long chain of neurological and causative factors.
In fact, studies have been done where researches hooked participants up to brain scanners and could accurately predict what the people were going to do when left alone in a room (for example, pick up a magazine, walk around, etc.) several moments before that person was aware they were going to do it. This was possible because regions of the brain the participants weren’t consciously aware of fired well before they had the ‘conscious decision’ to do what they were going to do.
Alright, so that’s kind of freaky – but what does it have to do with building habits?
Well what that demonstrates is that whether you like it or not, your decisions and behaviors really are largely if not entirely dictated by factors that exist outside of or independent of your conscious mind. In other words if you’re trying to form a new habit by sheer willpower alone, you’re already setting yourself up in a losing battle – or at least a battle over which you have very little control over the outcome.
Rather than just throw the dice and hope you roll high enough to form the habit (some D&D player somewhere is reading this and nodding), using identity based habits lets you rig the dice in your favor.
An identity based habit is formed by acting like the person you want to be until you actually become them. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.
Then, gradually, you would set yourself up to really live like you were already ‘a fit person’. You would do whatever things in your mind ‘a fit person’ does, maybe read about lifting and nutrition, talk about it with other people, and (most importantly in this case) lift regularly. Before long it become self-reinforcing and the new parts of your identity that you’ve been ‘faking’ would become part of your real identity.
In other words, by thinking of yourself as ‘a fit person’ and strongly identifying as such it becomes contrary to your nature to not go lift. Before long it will get to the point where it will feel strange to not do the very thing you’ve been struggling to make habitual.
This rigs the system by changing the environment, background causes and subconscious neurological factors that determine our choices before we are aware of them. Put simply, you’re making it hard to lose by playing a winnable game.
How to Establish Identity Based Habits
You may at this point be saying, “Ok, that makes sense, but how in the world do I just change my identity? Isn’t that as hard as changing my habits in the first place?”
Not quite as difficult, but to be fair there is some truth to it – suggesting that you should wake up tomorrow and just decide to have an entirely new identity is a lot like suggesting to someone suffering from depression to decide to cheer up – it’s not going to be that easy.
The best ways to make the transition process easier are by playing pretend and using small winnable goals to prove to yourself that you really are the kind of person who you want to be. We’ll look at playing pretend first.
Remember being young and playing make-believe? Well if you can’t try really hard because that’s exactly what we’re going to use to get your new habits to stick.
Rather than try to force yourself to genuinely believe right off the bat that you are now, say, ‘a person who can speak four languages’ rather than someone who speaks one pretend to be that person. Fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes.
This works because in the end it doesn’t really matter if you believe it, as long as you pretend well enough to do the things the person you want to be would do, then eventually you’ll wake up one morning as that person. Using the above as an example, if you pretend like you’re the person who learns languages easily and do all the things that you imagine that kind of person would do (study up on target languages, read news in those languages, watch TV in those languages, etc.) than eventually you’ll have done so much of that you will actually be the kind of person who does those things – see how that works?
The other good way to ease into it is by using small goals as ways to prove to yourself that you can actually be the person you want to be.
By small goals I mean significant things that are still small enough to accomplish without much trouble. For example, if you want to redefine yourself as a writer you don’t want to shoot for writing a book in a week – that’s just setting yourself up to fail at which point you’ll doubt that self-image. Instead you would pick something like writing 500 words everyday. That’s maybe half a page or so.
That type of goal is achievable enough that you really have no excuse not to do it. No matter how busy you are you have the ten minutes or so per day necessary to write half a page worth of something. After a couple weeks, when you look back at all you’ve written, you can say to yourself, “Hey, look at all this I’ve accomplished. I guess I really am a writer!” Then you can kick it up a notch to 1,000 words per day or whatever the next step would be in solidifying that self-image.
Just like with faking it, before long you’ll find it just feels wrong to not write something each day. After all, you’re a writer and that’s what writer’s do. When you get to that point – congratulations, you’ve just formed a lifelong habit.
The best results will always come from not focusing on the end goal or result (I want to be fit) but instead by focusing on embracing and internalizing the process itself (I want to be the kind of person who trains regularly and eats right).
Have you ever tried to change your self-identity in order to better solidify or create a habit? How did it go? Do you have any other advice for other people who would like to try? Share it with us in the comments!
Photo Credit: An Untrained Eye