Build Identity-Based Habits For Lasting Change

As you’ve probably noticed, change is hard.  We want to be better versions of ourselves- healthier, stronger, more creative, more productive, and a better family member or friend.


We start out super motivated, implement some new behaviors, but after some time we find it hard to stick to those new behaviors. Why is that?


The key to establishing lasting habits is to focus on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are a direct reflection of your current identity. What you do consistently is associated with the type of person you think you are- either consciously or subconsciously.


In order to change your behaviors for good, you have to start believing new things about yourself. You’ll have to build identity-based habits.


James Clear goes into great detail about this in his book Atomic Habits. He explains how the way we typically set goals is flawed. We tend to focus on outcomes instead of identity.


To better understand this concept, he describes the three layers of behavior change like an onion.

first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is focused on changing your results: losing weight, getting more work done, winning an award. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.


The second layer is changing your process. This level is focused on changing your habits and systems: implementing a new gym regimen, tidying up your workspace, developing a mindfulness practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.


The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is focused on changing your beliefs: your self-image, your worldview, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the assumptions, biases, and beliefs are associated with this level.


Simply put…

Outcomes are about what you get.

Processes are about what you do.

Identity is about what you believe.


The problem isn’t that one level is better or worse than another. All three are useful in their own way, but the direction of change has to follow a certain flow.


James Clear explains,

“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on whatthey 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 want to become.”


The Recipe For Sustained Success


According to Clear there are two distinct steps to changing our beliefs.


  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins


Start by deciding what type of person you want to be. What are your values? What do you stand for? Who do you wish to become? These are big questions, and most people are not sure where to start- but they do know what type of results they want: to double their salary, get a six-pack, feel more at ease. All of these goals are fine, start here and work backwards from the results you want to the type of person who would achieve these results. Ask yourself, “Who is the type of person that could attain the outcome I’m looking for?”


Here are five examples Clear uses in the book of how you can make this work in real life.


Want to lose weight?

Identity: Become the type of person who moves more every day.

Small win: Buy a pedometer. Walk 50 steps when you get home from work. Tomorrow, walk 100 steps. The day after that, 150 steps. If you do this 5 days per week and add 50 steps each day, then by the end of the year, you’ll be walking over 10,000 steps per day.


Want to become a better 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 be stronger?

Identity: Become the type of person who never misses a workout.

Small win: Do push ups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


Want to become a better friend?

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 be taken seriously 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.


What is Your Identity?


In Clear’s 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 feel inspired, watch a video, listen to your favorite hype music, and do that workout you found on Instagram. But don’t be surprised if you’re burnt out after a few weeks or months. Relying on motivation isn’t enough. You have to become the type of person you want to be, which starts with proving your new identity to yourself.


If you’re looking to make a change, stop worrying about results and start focusing on your identity. Become the type of person who can achieve the things you want to achieve. Build identity-based habits now. The results will come later.



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