One of the biggest challenges we face when building habits is to align them with our identity. It’s often the case our behaviours aren’t a reflection of where we would like to get to. We read for a couple of days, then don’t touch a book for months. We go to the gym three times in one week but skip exercise for the next month. The theme of inconsistency presents itself because of two reasons 1) We’re focused on the result, and two 2) We attempt to change our habits the wrong way.
Level Structure Of Building Habits Into A New Identity
We go through three levels when turning a behaviour into a habit.
Level 1: Goals. When focusing on changing the outcome, the focus is solely on changing the results: being promoted, buying a house, losing weight, writing a book. These are the goals you set for yourself. The battle we face is educating ourselves on a process that brings us closer to our identity, and all we have so far is an outcome.
Level 2: Process. The second layer provides that essential link in turning our actions into consistent behaviours. Changing your process concerns the routines, systems and ideas you create when changing your habits. For example, you might book your gym classes in advance to promote your attendance. Most of the habits you build are associated at this level, providing a gateway to who you want to be.
Level 3: Identity. Reaching this stage offers a deeper understanding of your beliefs, views, self-image, and judgements on yourself and others. When it comes to building good habits, the focus should be on the direction of change in our behaviour. Many of us build habits based on the outcome— or what we want to achieve when we start off. By considering our identity and who we wish to become, we practice our habits from a place of evolution, shifting our trajectory in line with who we want to be.
Although there are three levels, we can’t start at level two and jump to level three. We must start with an outcome to create a new habit and new identity. Consider the below image
Imagine two people who wake up at the same time each morning. When questioned why they wake up before sunrise, the first person says, “I try and wake up early each day”. While there’s no reason to question the response, the language implies this person hasn’t yet tied their identity to their behaviour. When person two is asked about why they wake up early, they respond, “I’m a morning person”. The slight difference in how they respond lets us know who they are and who they’re trying to become. When attempting to improve, most of us don’t consider who we would like to become. We just think, “I want to wake up earlier”, but haven’t considered the beliefs which drive our actions. If we cannot shift the way we look at ourselves, we encourage our old identity to sabotage our new behaviours.
I want to wake up earlier (outcome).
I try and wake up early each day (process).
I’m a morning person (identity).
Amongst every system of action is a system of belief. A professional sports team routinely trains each week with a belief to win a championship. A writer sits down to write each day with a belief to publish a book. An employee shows up to work each day believing they will get paid. When a behaviour isn’t aligned with our identity, it will not last. In the example of waking up early— if you’re looking to get out of bed before sunrise but consistently go to bed late— you will continue to choose sleep over early mornings. The same goes if you seek exercise but continue to choose excuses over achievement, your thoughts revert to finding a reason as opposed to going to the gym. Changing our habits is challenging if we cannot connect our new beliefs with the new behaviour.
For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself a writer. It wasn’t until 2021 that I maintained a consistent publishing schedule, sharing articles on my website. When I became consistent, I took tremendous satisfaction from taking a step back and seeing the work I had done and still had to do. All of a sudden, I was proud. I was proud to cringe at my early work— and enjoyed reading my recent work. From when I first started writing back in 2018, I can say it’s now embedded in my identity. If I miss a day, it feels unnatural.
Follow Your Pride
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when your habit becomes your identity. When this occurs, you take pride in the behaviour performed, and you’re more motivated to maintain the associated habit. Once your pride gets involved, you can channel your ego to continue on the path of doing something remarkable. The only way to truly change your behaviour is to change your identity. You might start a habit because of the inspiration you receive, but you need to live with it to continue it. Don’t become someone who wakes up early; become a morning person. Don’t become someone who shares knowledge; become a coach. Don’t become someone who learns guitar; become a musician. Engaging in this approach will then set you up for progress and achievement– applying a strong foundation to build better habits.