Why is it so easy to repeat bad habits and so hard to form good ones? We’ve all been there, trying to make a change in our lives, only to revert to our old ways shortly after. In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind this common phenomenon and how to build lasting habits. We’ll delve into the concept of identity-based habits and understand why they are the key to real, sustainable change.
Table of Contents
The Three Layers of Behaviour Change
To comprehend why habits are so challenging to change, let’s first understand the three layers at which change can occur.
Layer 1: Changing Outcomes
This layer focuses on altering the results you achieve. It’s about losing weight, publishing a book, or winning a championship. Most of the goals we set fall into this category.
The desire to change outcomes often leads us to establish outcome-based habits. These are the habits where we focus on what we want to achieve, such as getting in shape, writing a novel, or excelling in a sport.
The problem with outcome-based habits is that they often miss the core of what creates lasting change. These habits can be short-lived because they lack a deep connection to our identity and beliefs. They are external goals that may motivate us temporarily but rarely lead to long-term transformation.
Layer 2: Changing Processes
At this level, the focus shifts to changing habits and systems. It involves implementing new routines, decluttering, or developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits we build are associated with this layer.
Processes are the bridge between outcomes and identity. They are the daily or regular activities that can lead to the desired results. For example, if your goal is to become a successful author (outcome), the processes might include writing a certain number of words each day, editing your work, and submitting manuscripts to publishers.
These habits are closer to lasting change because they involve consistent action, but they can still falter if they aren’t deeply ingrained in our identity.
Layer 3: Changing Identity
The deepest layer involves transforming your beliefs, worldview, self-image, and judgments about yourself and others. Our beliefs, assumptions, and biases are rooted in this layer.
Identity-based habits are the ultimate keys to lasting change. These are habits that are rooted in your sense of self. Instead of focusing on what you want to achieve or what you need to do, identity-based habits revolve around who you want to become.
Outcome-Based vs. Identity-Based Habits
Imagine two individuals resisting the temptation to smoke. The first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” This response reflects someone who believes they are still a smoker trying to become something else. They hope their behaviour will change while retaining the same beliefs.
On the other hand, the second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” This small difference signifies a shift in identity. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.
Most people never consider identity change when they seek self-improvement. They focus on the desired outcome and the actions needed to achieve it without addressing the beliefs behind their actions. Changing habits becomes difficult if the underlying beliefs remain the same.
The Power of Identity-Based Habits
Identity-based habits go beyond just the habits themselves; they are about changing who you are. When a behaviour becomes part of your identity, it becomes intrinsic, and you no longer need to rely on external motivation. Let’s explore the profound impact of identity-based habits using practical examples.
Example 1: The Reader’s Identity
Imagine someone who wants to make reading a regular habit. They can set an outcome-based goal like reading 20 books in a year, or they can focus on building an identity-based habit of becoming a reader.
An outcome-based approach might lead to frantic reading near the end of the year to meet the target. But someone who identifies as a reader will naturally integrate reading into their daily life. They’ll seek out books, prioritize reading time, and make it a part of who they are.
Example 2: The Runner’s Identity
Consider another scenario where someone aspires to run a marathon. They could set a clear outcome-based goal, such as completing a marathon in under four hours. This goal may drive them to train hard, but once the marathon is over, their motivation wanes.
Now, let’s shift to an identity-based approach. Instead of aiming to run a marathon, they strive to become a runner. Their identity revolves around being a person who enjoys running. This shift ensures that they continue running not only to prepare for a single event but because it aligns with who they are.
Example 3: The Musician’s Identity
For our third example, let’s consider someone who wants to learn to play a musical instrument. They could set an outcome-based goal, like playing a specific song perfectly. This goal may lead to practice sessions focused solely on that song.
However, if they choose to embrace an identity-based approach and see themselves as a musician, their practice becomes a natural part of their life. They don’t aim for perfection in one song; they aim to become a musician, which means consistent practice and improvement over time.
The Double-Edged Sword of Identity Change
While identity-based habits are a powerful force for self-improvement, they can also present challenges. When your identity is deeply rooted in certain beliefs, it can be difficult to change. Let’s explore this double-edged sword further.
The Comfort of Identity
Identity often provides a sense of comfort and familiarity. We gravitate towards actions that align with our identity because they feel safe and known. For example, if you’ve always identified as “not a morning person,” changing your waking habits can be a struggle.
The challenge lies in the internal pressure to maintain your self-image. When your identity is firmly established, there’s resistance to behaviours that contradict it. You find ways to avoid contradicting yourself, even if it means maintaining habits that no longer serve you.
Overcoming Identity Barriers
To overcome the barriers presented by identity-based habits, you must recognize the malleability of your identity. Just as beliefs and worldviews can change, so can your identity. Embrace the idea that your identity isn’t set in stone; it’s a flexible concept that can evolve.
This brings us to an important question: If your beliefs and worldview play such an important role in your behaviour, where do they come from in the first place? How, exactly, is your identity formed? And how can you emphasize new aspects of your identity that serve you and gradually erase the pieces that hinder you?
The Formation of Identity
Understanding how your identity is formed is crucial for creating lasting change. Your identity isn’t static; it’s shaped by various factors over time. Let’s delve into the sources of identity and how you can influence them.
Your early experiences, especially during childhood, have a profound impact on your identity. The values, beliefs, and behaviours you were exposed to as a child shape your initial identity.
For example, if you grew up in a family that valued education and learning, your identity might include being a curious and knowledgeable person. On the other hand, if you were raised in an environment that emphasized athleticism, your identity could center around being an active and sporty individual.
Social and Cultural Influences
Your identity is also influenced by the society and culture you belong to. The norms, values, and expectations of your social and cultural environment shape your identity.
For instance, if you live in a culture that values punctuality and efficiency, being known as someone who is always on time might become part of your identity. Conversely, if your social circle values a laid-back and relaxed approach to life, your identity may align with being easygoing.
Personal Reflection and Self-Discovery
As you grow and experience the world, you have the power to reflect on your identity and consciously shape it. This is where self-discovery and personal growth come into play.
You can examine your beliefs, values, and behaviours and make intentional choices to change them. This process may involve unlearning certain aspects of your identity that no longer serve you and adopting new elements that align with your goals and values.
Embracing New Aspects of Identity
Changing your identity isn’t an overnight process, but it’s entirely possible. Here are some practical steps to embrace new aspects of your identity that serve your personal development and success:
Start by reflecting on your current identity. What beliefs, behaviours, and values make up your self-image? Identify the aspects that hinder your growth and those that align with your goals.
2. Define Your Desired Identity
Consider who you want to become. What are the beliefs and behaviours that would support your journey towards personal development and success? Paint a clear picture of your desired identity.
3. Create Identity-Based Habits
Once you’ve defined your desired identity, work on forming habits that align with it. If you want to be a reader, start by setting aside time for daily reading. If you want to be a runner, establish a regular running routine.
4. Consistent Practice
Consistency is key to making identity-based habits stick. Regularly practice the behaviours associated with your desired identity. Over time, they will become an intrinsic part of who you are.
5. Seek Support and Accountability
Share your identity transformation journey with supportive friends, family, or a coach. They can provide encouragement and hold you accountable for your habits.
6. Embrace Change
Remember that identity is not fixed. Embrace the idea that your identity can evolve as you grow and learn. Be open to adjusting your beliefs and behavio9rs as needed.
Lasting behaviour change comes down to identity change. To build lasting habits, focus on who you want to become, not just what you want to achieve. Change your beliefs, and your habits will follow suit. As you navigate your journey of self-improvement, remember that your identity is a flexible concept, and with conscious effort, you can redefine it to serve your goals.