Fork in the road

Changing identity

Do you want to achieve something? Or do you want to change your identity?

The issue with achieving “something” is that it’s often short-lived, if it’s not already baked into your identity.

It’s why many of us never improve for the long-term.

I’ll give you a personal example – every year (usually after Christmas) I’ll get to the point where I want to lose weight. I’ll enter two or three mass-participation running events to act as a motivator to get out and exercise, in turn gradually shedding the pounds.

But I’ve never classed myself as a “runner”. Perhaps it’s because I’m 5″6 with stumpy legs, and not a rakishly skinny tall guy that makes each stride look like a long jump.

Yet, despite going through this cycle of train and run, train and run every year, “running” is still not part of my identity.

And that’s a problem.

Of course, it means I’ll have the motivation to train when I really need to lose weight. And the benefits feel great at the time. But when I don’t need to train, I can quickly fall back into the land of couch potato.

For the eight years I’ve been running races, my average pace hasn’t really improved at all. This isn’t the behaviour of an actual “runner”.

So what’s the way to stop this cycle of good habits and bad habits?

It’s to approach things differently; with an identity-first mindset.

This idea came from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. And it hit me hard.

He argues that most of us fail because we tend to build habits the wrong way around.

Generally, most people place most focus on the eventual outcome when trying to make a change.

For example, my current approach will be: “I need to lose weight (outcome) > so I’m going to start running and dieting (process) > and I’ll then be able to run those half marathons (identity).

Instead, with an identify first mindset, you’d say “I’m a runner that does half marathons (identity) > so I need to train regularly and eat well (process) > and maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle (outcome).

In other words, if we train ourselves to start with the mindset of who we want to be (the identity), it’s much easier to put the steps in place to get there and, more importantly, maintain it.

Chart showing identify first habits by James Clear.

This can be applied to numerous situations in life, e.g.:

  • To be great manager (identity) I need to regularly practice and read into different management techniques (process) and build effective relationships with my employees (outcome)
  • To be a calm and stress-free worker (identity) I need to learn techniques to better focus (process) and stop procrastinating (outcome)
  • To be a respected blogger (identity), I need to practice writing lots of articles in different styles (process) so I can build up a readership (outcome)

If we adopt this approach then not only can we attain the outcomes we desire, but also modify our identities in a positive way so these outcomes are the building blocks for further improvement.

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