The Secret To Making Good Habits Stick: Identity-Based Habits

Struggling to implement good habits into your life? Do this: Instead of focusing on what you want to achieve. Focus on who you want to be as a person. That’s the underlying concept of the term identity-based habits.

For years, I tried to quit smoking. I tested all kinds of treatments. Alas, nothing seemed to work.

Eventually, I realized why I was unable to quit this nasty habit. The reason? I still perceive myself as a smoker.

When I declared that I’ll no longer smoke. That I’ll not be a smoker. Not only that I never touched a cigarette again. But I shifted my identity. The act of smoking never appealed to me since then. It was all thanks to the concept of identity-based habits.

First introduced by the best-selling author James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. The idea of identity-based habits offers a simple framework to abandon your bad habits and adopt good ones.

Quick disclaimer: Simple doesn’t mean easy!

Once you understand the idea of identity-based habits. You will know what to do. But it will be hard to do it. Change won’t happen overnight. Like everything meaningful in life, it requires work and persistence.

Now, after this brief warning. Let’s start our journey by first describing why we fail to permanently implement good habits into our lives:

It’s all “thanks” to outcome-based habits.

What Are Outcome-Based Habits?

The main reason we can’t make a positive change in relation to our habits is not that we don’t have access to a miraculously large collection of tools to aid us – we do. It’s because we focus on the outcomes.

Outcome-based habits explains why reading a collection of books on habit change can keep your habits unchanged.

Or in other words, with outcome-based habits, you focus exclusively on the outcome without creating a solid foundation for a lasting change to occur.

outcome-based-habits
Outcome-based habits: You set a goal and you hope that reaching that goal will also shift your identity. However, usually, you reach the goal and you return to your old ways.

You go to the gym to lose weight. You read books to learn new things and potentially get a better job. You force yourself to write a book.

These things might help for a while, but they never lead to lasting changes.

Here’s why:

  • You lose weight, but you gain it again because you don’t become a healthy person.
  • You read a couple of books, but after that, you prefer snoozing in front of the TV because you don’t become a reader.
  • You write a book, but you stop writing once you publish it because you don’t become a writer.

All of this happens because you focus too much on the outcome and too little on the person you want to become.

A person who pursues outcome-based habits is solely focused on the outcome of losing weight. For this to happen, they follow the process of going to the gym. But when this goal is reached, they quickly return to their old ways of living.

Plainly, you keep the habits till you reach the goal. Once the goal is reached, since you are the same you, you resume doing the things that led to gaining weight.

Your identity sabotages your progress.

After all, your goal was to lose weight. Not become a healthy person who trains regularly and eats the right things.

Goals will give you results but they fail to add permanency.

Why?

Because we don’t change our beliefs. Our identity.

Our beliefs about the world and about ourselves determine what will happen to us in the long run. That’s where identity-based habits enter.

What Are Identity-Based Habits?

Identity-based habits aim to change your inner particles – your DNA, your beliefs, your personality. Not simply change the processes you do in your life.

With identity-based habits, you don’t start going to the gym simply because you want to lose weight. You boldly declare that, from now on, you’ll be a healthy person.

Identity-Based-Habits
Identity-based habits: You decide what type of person you want to become, first. Then, you slowly implement daily routines that reinforce the desired personality.

And what a healthy person does?

That’s right, he…

  • Eats healthy meals.
  • He exercises daily.
  • He takes care of his body and mind.

You first shift the way you think, and then you shift everything else – not the other way around.

You keep the habits for as long as you believe yourself to be a healthy person.

Your Habits Shape Your Identity

So, what’s the verdict in relation to identity-based habits vs outcome-based habits?

Well, we shouldn’t totally dismiss habits focused on outcomes.

Let me elaborate…

Outcome-based habits are not bad per se. There is a chance that if you continue to workout out daily, you will convince yourself that you need to be a healthy person.

If you regularly do something, this can shift your identity.

As happens when we end up loving someone.

Falling in love with someone at first sight only happens in the movies. Usually, you meet, you hang out, you build a certain relationship. Eventually, if you “click”, you realize that you love the person. That he/she is part of your life. Part of your heart.

Something similar can happen when you start with outcome-based habits.

You set a goal. You focus on reaching that goal. And somewhere along the way, you realize that you want to be a healthy person. You want to be a person who exercises regularly. Then, your identity shifts. And your outcome-based habits become identity-based habits.

It’s like, for example, signing up for a drawing course. You don’t know if you are good at drawing. You don’t know if you’d enjoy it. You first need to try to see. So, you give yourself a chance to explore the subject.

In this regard, outcome-based habits can be quite helpful.

You can set a goal to draw for one full month. Once the month is over, you can decide how to proceed… become an artist, or not. If the answer is yes, you can then focus on acquiring identity-based habits that will make you an artist. If not, you can search for a different outlet.

Here’s a short list of examples that will help you understand the nuances of identity-based habits:

Identity-Based Habits Examples

Becoming a Learner

Your goal shouldn’t be to read [insert an insanely large number of books] per year. Your goal is to become a curious, continuous learner.

Identity-based habits: You become a person who focuses on reading books daily and ignores the surface content presented on social media.

System you can implement: Uninstall your social media apps – even quit social media for good if you’re brave enough. Schedule time for reading and implementing what you’ve read.

Becoming a Healthy Person

Your goal should be to lose [insert your desired weight] till the end of the year. Your goal should be to become a healthy person.

Identity-based habits: You become a person who exercises regularly. A person who does not smoke or drink. A person who takes care of his body daily.

System you can implement: You fill your refrigerator with fruits. Schedule time for exercising. Declares that you are not a smoker.

Building a Lasting Business

Your goal shouldn’t be to create a business and sell it for [insert absurdly huge sum of money] 3 years from now. Your goal should be to create a product or a service that is helpful.

Identity-based habits. You become a person obsessed with helping others. You clearly define your strengths and use them to be helpful to society.

System you can implement: After determining what can be the most helpful thing you can do. Your daily actions are focused on delivering results.

The Downside of Identity-Based Habits

OK, so far, it seems pretty obvious. Identity-based habits are the holy grail to making good habits stick.

But there is one thing you should know about.

A nasty side effect.

Namely, choosing the wrong identity. Or even worse, if you don’t take the time to define yourself.

If you do the latter, you’ll most probably adopt a handful of bad habits that will hinder your progress in life.

For instance, like every living person. You want others to like you. To admire you. To refer to you as smart, sexy, courageous, etc. But instead of focusing on creating something valuable and being a valuable person – i.e., things that require time and persistence. You might focus on consumption and after that rigorous distribution of your possessions to the online channels that are “eating the world” – i.e., post how your life is perfect on social media.

In other words, you unconsciously choose to be the type of person who spends money on things he doesn’t really need and wastes time watching people he doesn’t really know.

This is a common trap.

Not only consuming stuff and sharing them to gain small quick wins is much easier than creating something useful and waiting for bigger rewards. But these activities are enhanced by our materialistic society.

Since everybody is doing it. You do it as well.

René Girard, a famous French philosopher who published nearly 30 books. Labels this mimetic desire. (You can get the gist in my René Girard’s Mimetic Theory book summary.)

You think you are the producer of your wants and needs. That you are the master chieftain of your aspirations. But that’s not usually the case. We, humans, form our desires based on the desires of the surrounding people.

So, it’s of vital importance not only to carefully think about the type of person you want to become – and be. But ensure that the people around you are supporting this self-selected persona.

All of this leads us to…

How Do You Build Identity-Based Habits?

A big part of changing your habits – replacing bad ones with good ones. Is about clearly defining who you are and who you want to be.

This perk usually comes with adulthood.

When we are younger. The future doesn’t exist for us. We focus strictly on having fun now over waiting for bigger rewards tomorrow. Plainly, we are obsessed with instant gratification and we can’t imagine ourselves delaying pleasure.

On top of this, our actions are heavily influenced by our peer group. A range of our daily rituals are determined by the rituals of our friends and schoolmates.

Your friends consider reading books an activity for nerds? Well, you probably won’t become a reader.

Your friends consider smoking something cool people do? Well, you’ll likely adopt this habit yourself.

Having the willpower to do things differently from what your friends are doing is not a strength a lot of people possess. Besides, say you do resits. You do read books even when your “friends” are labeling them useless. Well, if this happens, there is a high chance that you’ll move in separate directions. Which, in translation, means that your friends will eventually become only acquaintances.

So, to return to our question: How do you build identity-based habits?

In conjunction with asking yourself who you want to be. It does help to explore different avenues and see what works best for you.

For instance…

  • You don’t know if you are good at writing until you write something.
  • You don’t know if you’re good at painting until you pain something.
  • You don’t know if you’ll enjoy coding until you bury yourself in lines of code.

Once you identified the things you enjoy doing. The next question is rather simple yet not easy.

You need to ask yourself this: What writers do?

Fortunately, answering this nowadays doesn’t require a lot of work. Besides the obvious, “hm, they write!” You can find online the daily rituals of famous authors. You just need to search.

The hard part comes from becoming such a person.

You have to start writing daily. Figure out how to embed writing into your life. Probably experiment with hiding your clothes. Like the famous author, Victor Hugo who practiced naked writing. Yes, I know! He locked his clothes away so he can prevent himself from going out. Thus, make room to write abundantly.

All of these things can be achieved when you focus on designing systems instead of goals – more on that below.

But the obstacles don’t end.

Adopting a new identity is hard not only because you’ll do more stuff. It’s hard because you’ll do different stuff.

Also, it’s hard because you will have to prevent yourself from executing the already familiar habits. The rituals you cultivated through the years. Done by the old identity. The identity you want to banish from your life.

You see, you’ve been building certain paths in your brain for years. Every habit creates something like a route inside the brain.1 That’s why some things become automatic. You immediately unlock your phone when you hear a buzzing sound. When you’re buying a coffee, you also buy a chocolate cookie. Not necessarily because you’re hungry. But because you’ve done this a thousand times before.

When you start creating new identity-based habits. They will wrestle with your old identity-based habits.

The problem is that your current identity is stronger. After all, it was building these inner pathways for years. That’s why it easily knocks the newcomer.

old-identity-vs-desired-identity
The current (old) identity has more habits that support it compared to the desired (new) identity. For the new identity to overtake the throne, you must signal to yourself, through daily actions, that you are becoming that new person – i.e., exercise, don’t lay all day.

You want to exercise, but your old self is so used to resting that it overtakes your good intentions.

What can you do?

A couple of simple adjustments that need to be repeated regularly:

  • Start small: Small changes can lead to big results. Accept that the transformation can’t be instant. As mentioned, you were, probably, not a healthy person for years. Don’t assume you’ll become such within a week. Start with exercising for a couple of minutes per day and increase this duration over time. This way, every time you exercise. This activity will reinforce the person you want to become. Internally, it will look like this: “Hey, I exercise every day and I choose carefully my meals. I’m becoming a healthy person!”2
  • Create systems: Another thing that was mentioned before. Focus on systems, not goals. Create a daily system that reinforces the person you want to become. The idea here is that you’re not focused on losing weight. You are more concentrated on exercising daily. You adopt the belief that change is a direction, not a destination.
  • Find people who support your identity: Trying to convince your friends who have never walked for more than 5 minutes that running 5k in the morning is good for them rarely works. They have their own beliefs and their own agendas. That’s why it’s better to find a group of people where the default behavior is the desired behavior. People who already possess that identity – the one you want for yourself. So, the best thing you can do is to join a group of people where everyone is interested in staying fit. Meeting such folks regularly will keep you engaged.

In addition to the above three. There is one more thing that can help you with adopting new identity-based habits…

Answering the question: Why?

When you give your habits a stronger why. You will rigorously defend these activities.

Let me give you an example from my life:

Before, I was pretty frustrated with how I allocated my time. I spent a lot of time browsing social media doing nothing meaningful. So, I stated that I want to be more productive. That I don’t want to waste my time online. Hence, I implemented a variety of daily habits to keep me away from time-wasting activities. Eventually, I did get better. However, I was still, to a degree, maniacally obsessed with what was happening on Facebook and Twitter.

The real change happened when I stated that I want to be more productive because I want to become a writer. A writer online that is using writing to grow this site.

I realized that if I want to do something interesting with my life. I have to stop wasting time solely watching how others do interesting things in their lives.

When this realization morphed in my brain, I left social media instantly. I wanted to follow my dreams. Not follow what others dream about.3

As my writing got better. It reached more people. More people started sending me positive comments about my work. This further reinforced my habit of writing.

I become even prouder of what I was creating, and this helped me develop all sorts of extra habits to care for and maintain my writing.

Or as James Clear writes in his book on habits:

“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.” James Clear

Some Closing Thoughts

One thing I often see in other articles about habit change and habit formation is that the intention is good. But the information rarely helps.

Most of what is shared on habits is what you want to see. Good habits are advertised, but flaws are hidden. Adopting successful daily routines is exaggerated.

This gives a false view of success.

Simply throwing a list of good habits into the internet void won’t help you actually obtain them. There is a lot of work involved.

This is the case with identity-based habits as well.

In theory, everything sounds reasonable but it’s hard for implementation.

Why?

As said, there are already existing identity-based habits in you. Your new self wants to be healthy but your old lazy self is doing everything possible to sabotage your desired persona.

Once you realize this. You will better understand why change doesn’t happen as fast as you wish.

Identity-based habits are a reflection of you – created by you, for you.

At some point, intentionally or not, you became a lazy person and one that doesn’t exercise.

Now, since you took the time to figure out the type of person you want to become. You can slowly but surely become this person.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Footnotes:

  1. The concept that certain behaviors create pathways inside your brain is beautifully presented in this Kurzgesagt video: Change Your Life – One Tiny Step at a Time. The content of the video is based on the following resources on habits: LINK.
  2. In addition to starting small, consider the following tactic: temptation bundling. In short, you bundle an enjoyable activity with an effortful one – i.e., you watch your favorite TV show only while you exercise.
  3. This is the main concept in my guide: Follow Yourself. If you are interested in making more room for your own interests – and stop consuming what others people are interested in. I recommend checking my guide.
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