It often feels difficult to keep good habits going for more than a few days, even with sincere effort and the occasional burst of motivation. However, once your habits are established, they seem to stick around forever—especially the unwanted ones.
Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: 1. we try to change the wrong thing and 2. we try to change our habits in the wrong way.
There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity. 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 like losing weight. 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 like implementing a new routine at the gym. 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 like your worldview, your self-image, and your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.
So, outcomes are about what you get, processes are about what you do, and identity is about what you believe.
Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.
In other words, with outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve, and with identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.
Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).” They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.
There are a set of beliefs and assumptions that shape the system, an identity behind the habits. Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. Originally, 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. For instance, if you’re proud of how your hair looks, you’ll develop all sorts of habits to care for and maintain it.
True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.
Also, your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are— either consciously or nonconsciously. Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief.
Doing the right thing is easy. After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.
Like all aspects of habit formation, this, too, is a double-edged sword. When working for you, identity change can be a powerful force for self-improvement. When working against you, though, identity change can be a curse.
The biggest barrier to positive change at any level—individual, team, society—is identity conflict. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and upgrade and expand your identity.
The two-step process of changing your identity:
Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience. More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person.
The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.” Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. For example, if you study biology for one hour every night, you have evidence that you are studious. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it.
Of course, your habits are not the only actions that influence your identity, but by virtue of their frequency, they are usually the most important ones. Your habits contribute most of the evidence that shapes your identity. In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself. This is a gradual evolution. We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.
Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it actually is big. That’s the paradox of making small improvements. Putting this all together, you can see that habits are the path to changing your identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.
Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far more important: to trust yourself. You start to believe you can actually accomplish these things. When the votes mount up and the evidence begins to change, the story you tell yourself begins to change as well. Of course, it works the opposite way, too. Every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that identity. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for bad behavior or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time.
New identities require new evidence. It is a simple two-step process: 1. Decide the type of person you want to be. 2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
First, decide who you want to be. This holds at any level—as an individual, as a team, as a community, as a nation.
Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, you can begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity. The focus should always be on becoming that type of person, not getting a particular outcome.
Why habits matter:
Identity change is the north star of habit change. Building better habits aren’t about littering your day with life hacks. It’s not about achieving external measures of success like earning more money, losing weight, or reducing stress. Habits can help you achieve all of these things, but fundamentally they are not about having something. They are about becoming someone. Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself.
In summary, the most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become.
Your identity emerges out of your habits. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and upgrade and expand your identity.