HOW YOU SEE YOURSELF MATTERS
Habits Aren’t Enough — But “Identity” Is
You’ve read all the books and blogs about the miraculous power of habits and how they make it possible to do that work you keep postponing.
Habits, they say, turns a set task into something you do without thinking about it. According to behavior researcher Nir Eyal, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Stopping at a red traffic light is a simple habit. Brushing your teeth is a more complex habit.
But most of the things you call “habits” are not really habits; they are called routines. (You may want to read “Stop Confusing Habits for Routines”, also by Nir Eyal.) A routine can’t be done automatically; it requires attention, effort, and ongoing decision-making. If you try to treat a routine as a habit, you will fail.
Here’s how you know whether something is a habit or a routine. If you don’t do the habit, you feel bad about skipping it. If you don’t do a routine, you feel good, because you’ve postponed the work you don’t want to do and can instead do something enjoyable.
How identity solves the problem of routines
Why is it so hard to work on a routine? Put simply, it is because there is a mismatch between “who you are” and “who you need to be to adopt the routine”.
Here’s an example. Say that where you work, your goal is to hire five new people for your department.
“Who you are” (your current identity) wants to do things that are unconnected to your routine. You procrastinate. You work on other projects. You drift through the day, doing whatever takes you away from the discomfort of working on your routine.
“Who you need to be” is your new identity. When you become “who you need to be to adopt the routine”, it obviously becomes much easier to do the work that the routine requires.
In the example above, if you tell yourself, “I am the new-hire manager”, your identity will align with tasks like interviewing candidates, doing the paperwork to hire new employees, and helping these employees mesh into the group they’re working in. Your work will be focused. You will attack your tasks with purpose and energy.
There is no force as powerful as the drive to do work that is consistent with your identity. When you contemplate an action that is contrary to your identity, your brain automatically says, “That’s not who I am” — and rejects this off-task action in favor of the work that matches your “who I am” identity.
Distinguishing between habits and routines is powerful. It enables you to use the right set of tools and avoid the anguish from using the wrong tools.
Identity clarifies your life. It provides focus. It provides purpose. It leads to success and avoids a lot of painful struggle.