Wows, oaths, and resolutions are made each year. Some last a few days, others a few weeks. Rarely, they last months. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution you kept for years? I haven’t.
“I am the type of person who…”
I have a colleague who after each lunch separates everybodys’ trash and food containers. Paper, plastics, aluminum. They all find their respective bins. No one asks her why she does it. We all know it — she wants to help the environment. Recently, I asked her how she does it. How does she remember to do this every single day? Every single meal? Yes, there are prompts in our environment nudging us towards trash separation, such as differently colored bins. But why does it not work for other colleagues too?
At this point, she gave a self-affirming explanation: “I am the kind of person who cares about the environment.”
She adapted caring for the environment as part of her identity. Therefore it comes naturally to be consistent in trash separation.
After having read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I realized that it is our self-perceived identity that drives our behavior most.
“In order to believe in a new identity, we have to prove it to ourselves.” James Clear on Identity Based Habits
There are three layers of changes usually associated with forming new habits or ditching the old ones. Outcomes-focused goals, process-focused goals, and identity-focused change.
The outermost layer is outcomes-focused. Outcomes are about what you get. “I want to earn 100 dollars per day.” or “I want to lose weight.” Outcomes are about what you get. This is usually how people set their goals.
The second layer is process-focused. This is when you would try to change the way you do things. You’ll come up with new habits and systems. Setting an earlier time to wake up, walking to your office instead of driving, or finding time to read a book every night. Habits are formed this way.
The innermost layer is changing your identity. It’s about what you believe in, what are your assumptions, how you see the world, and how you see yourself. Simply, it’s about who you believe you are.
“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”
We act as one’s we believe to be
Our identity, the self-image drives our behavior the most. When we aspire to change ourselves, our habits or set new goals and resolutions, we tend to set the outcome goals first.
Motivation kicks in. We find the power to overcome the hurdles. We wake up early. We put on the running shoes. We stick to our habits. We are unstoppable. For a time. The goals we set never fulfill themselves quickly. Sometimes we see no progress whatsoever. The motivation fades, and we exit our resolutions. Sometimes even before we take down the Christmas lights.
In recent years, several studies have been carried out to identify positive strategies for smokers who were trying to quit. One of the most successful strategies, mid-term, proved to be an identity change from smoker to non-smoker. Those who believed to be non-smokers were more likely to keep cigarettes free for longer as opposed to ones who still think of themselves as smokers.
There are two types of responses people give out when offered a cigarette. It’s either “No thanks, I am trying to quit” (outcome-focused) or “No thanks, I am a non-smoker” (identity-focused). Easy to identify the more successful group, isn’t it?
You can’t rely on being motivated. You have to become the type of person you want to be.
Change driven from the inside out seems to be more successful than the other way around. If we adopt a new identity and change the process of carrying out this identity, the outcomes will be automatic and we’ll not have to worry about them so much.
Want to learn to play the guitar?
Identity: become the type of person who practices guitar every day
Small win: practice for 5 minutes each day for the first week. Add 5 minutes each weak after that. At the end of the year, you would have practiced guitar for over 800 hours, averaging 2 hours and 12 minutes daily!
Want to become a professional photographer?
Identity: become the type of person who brings their camera everywhere.
Small win: take pictures twice a week.
Want to become a better writer?
Identity: become the type of person who writes 1000 words every day
Small win: write one paragraph each day this week
If you want to take it with identity change further than reading this post, there is a quick, three-step guide to start with identity-based habits — find them here. Also, I strongly recommend picking up the Atomic Habits.
In 2022, do not focus on what you want to achieve. Focus on who you want to be.