Identity-Based Habits

by | Dec 12, 2018

This person is “a runner”

Relying on willpower is not a good strategy to create lasting change. We only have so much willpower and it is easily used up. Instead, research has found that lasting change occurs when we create positive habits and cease practicing negative habits.

Related IFOD on Willpower! and on Habit Stacking.

An effective strategy for habits is to change your identity with respect to the desired behavior.  It can be very power to change your self-identity and can lead to behavior in furtherance of that identity. For instance, Dr. Gary McPherson of the University of Melbourne found that children who at some point decided “I am a musician” practiced significantly more and showed greater commitment to music and their chosen instrument than those children who didn’t identify themselves as musicians.

Reading about identity-based habits resonates with me because I had an experience in this regard when I became a vegan.  Once I thought of myself as “someone who does not eat animal products” my behavior changed. At first, it was hard to be a vegan, but thinking of myself as a vegan helped a lot. For me, being a vegan takes no willpower; it is just who I am.  Some background on that here: Why I am (Still) a Vegan.

Similarly, I was at a presentation last week for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. The founder said he formerly used drugs and alcohol but now is a “sober man” and has been for years. Calling himself a “sober man” caught my intention – you could tell that he had changed his identity and his view of his self. Talking to him afterwards, he said that helping their clients change their identities with respect to drugs and alcohol and become “sober men” was an important part of their process.

Note that merely stating that you have a new identity isn’t enough – that is just the first step. You must believe it and act upon it as well to justify your new identity. Thus, there are two steps: (1) change your belief about yourself, and (2) take steps in furtherance of that belief. Examples:

New identity: “I am a runner.” Steps: (1) decide that being a runner means getting up and running at 6am five days a week. (2) actually get up and run. (3) tell yourself (and others) daily that you are a runner.

New identity: “I am a person who is a good listener.” Steps: (1) decide that being a listener is actively focusing on what other people are saying and not interrupting. (2) Practice active listening. (3) Tell yourself (and others) daily that you are a person who listens.

New identity:  “I am a writer.” Steps: (1) decide that being a writer means writing 1,000 words a day. (2) Set aside time each day to write and actually write 1,000 words. (3) Tell yourself (and others) daily that you are a writer.

Changing your identity is simple, but it is not easy. If you don’t really believe the new identity then the new habit probably won’t take hold. You have to decide that your new identity is _________ . It helps to remind yourself everyday (and multiple times a day) of your new identity and ask yourself what a person of that identity would do. Telling others of your new identity also helps the identity take hold.

Want to read more on identity-based habits? James Clear discusses the importance of changing your identity in establishing effective habits in  his excellent book Atomic Habits.


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