We’ve talked about how you can set goals and adapt your systems to enable behavior change. However, there’s another aspect of behavior change that is at the core of both of these concepts: identity. Your identity includes your self-image, self-confidence, worldview, and judgements about yourself and others.
Think about it like this. A goal is the outcome you would like to achieve. A system is what you do to achieve those goals. And identity is who you want to become.
For example, a goal might be to meditate for 5 minutes every day. A system could be implementing new routines, like lighting candles or setting aside a specific meditation time, to help you accomplish your goal. Your identity could be to become a grounded individual.
An identity can be anything. You’re a mom, a runner, a writer, a person who takes baths, an athlete, an accountant, etc. Whatever your identity is, it will be the key to adopting lasting behavior changes.
Identity and Motivation
We’ve talked before about intrinsic motivation. This is the motivation that comes from within and forms the “why” behind your behavior change. The most effective intrinsic motivation is motivation that is tied to your identity.
What do we mean by that? Let’s consider someone who is trying to reduce the number of sodas they drink. When offered a soda, they could say, “No, I’m trying to cut back.” Or they could respond with, “No, I’m not a soda drinker.”
There is a subtle difference between these responses. The first response focuses on the action of not drinking soda, while the second response focuses on the identity of the individual. The statement declares that the individual’s identity has changed and that they no longer view themselves as someone who drinks soda. And that’s powerful.
When your motivation comes from your identity, the more likely you are to continue habits associated with it. When you identify as someone who doesn’t drink soda, you will have more motivation to avoid soda. But getting to a place where your behaviors and identity match can be difficult.
What happens when your identity and your habits don’t match? Well, your identity will win out in the end. Let’s say that you want to workout, but your identity prioritizes comfort. You will probably be drawn to doing something relaxing instead of going to the gym. Until your identity shifts, you won’t be able to mesh it with the long-term behaviors you are trying to achieve.
Changing who you are at your core can occur in different ways. Your behavior change might start with performing tasks until they become ingrained in your sense of identity. On the other hand, you might experience a change in your identity and then be motivated to make behavior changes. It can be different for each individual and their unique circumstances.
It can be hard to let aspects of your identity go, though. For years, you may have identified as someone who was always late, overweight, unattractive, lazy, etc. And that view of yourself won’t change overnight. But you can change. Here’s our recommendation:
1. Imagine the future self that you want to become. This will require some reflection, but once you decide on exactly the person you want to become, you can start making the changes necessary to get there.
2. Make decisions that your desired future self would make. When trying to make decisions that your future self would make, remember to focus on small wins. You won’t wake up one day and be a completely new person. But you will change your identity by making small decisions every day that will get you closer to your goal.
Let’s say that you want to be the kind of person who goes to the gym on a regular basis. Then, you can ask yourself how that person would behave. Would that person take the stairs or the elevator? Would that person skip workouts when they don’t feel motivated? Would that person workout at home or at a gym? What would that person eat to have enough energy for a workout?
As you consider your future identity and make adjustments to your behaviors accordingly, you will build habits that are consistent with the identity you want to achieve. Then, before you know it, you are that person.
ASK YOURSELF THIS:
What is your identity right now? What beliefs do you have about yourself? What cultural beliefs impact your identity? Are there aspects of your identity that you want to change? Why?