Change is hard. You've probably noticed that.
We all want to become better people, stronger and healthier, more creative and more skilled, a better friend or family member.
But even if we get really inspired and start doing things better, it's tough to actually stick to new behaviors. It's more likely that this time next year you'll be doing the same thing than performing a new habit with ease.
Why is that? And is there anything you can do to make change easier?
The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).
To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity based habits.
Imagine how we typically set goals. We might start by saying “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get stronger.” If you're lucky, someone might say, “That's great, but you should be more specific.”
So then you say, “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to squat 300 pounds.”
These goals are centered around outcomes, not identity.
To understand what I 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 percent improvements, the problem is not that one level is “better” or “worse” than another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is 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 habits. The alternative is to build identity habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.
Want to become a writer?
Identity: Become the type of person who writes 1,000 words every day.
Small win: Write one paragraph each day this week.
Want to become healthier?
Identity: Become the type of person who never misses a workout.
Small win: Do pushups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Want to be become a friendlier?
Identity: Become the type of person who always stays in touch.
Small win: Call one friend every Saturday. If you repeat the same people every 3 months, you’ll stay close with 12 old friends throughout the year.
Want to become excellent at work?
Identity: become the type of person who is always on time.
Small win: Schedule meetings with an additional 15–minute gap between them so that you can go from meeting to meeting and always show up early.
In our experience, when you want to become better at something, proving your identity to yourself is far more important than getting amazing results. This is especially true at first.
If you want to get motivated and inspired, then feel free to watch a YouTube video, listen to your favorite song and do P90X. But don't be surprised if you burn out after a week. You can't rely on being motivated. You have to become the type of person you want to be and that starts with proving your new identity to yourself.
Most people want to become better. Many of us, however, will set performance and appearance based goals in hopes that they will drive us to do things differently.
If you're looking to make a change, then we say stop worrying about results and start focusing on your identity. Become the type of person who can achieving things you want to achieve. Build identity habits now. The results can come later.
Let's define habits. Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day. According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day.
Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits. How happy or unhappy you are? A result of your habits. How successful or unsuccessful you are? A result of your habits.
What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. Everything we want to change, from procrastination and productivity to strength and nutrition, starts with better habits. When you learn to transform your habits, you can transform your life.