Updated: Nov 17, 2022
The basic idea is that the beliefs you have about yourself can drive your long-term behaviour. Maybe you can trick yourself into going to the gym or eating healthy once or twice, but if you don't shift your underlying identity, then it's hard to stick with long-term changes.
There are three layers of change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity.
Most people start by focusing on outcome-based goals like “I want to lose 10 kilos” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”
But these are surface level changes.
The root of behavioural change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So, if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.
This brings us to an important question: 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?
How to Change Your Beliefs
Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with pre-set beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience.
More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person.
The more you repeat a behaviour, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behaviour. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and, identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”
Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. If you go to church every Sunday for twenty years, you have evidence that you are religious. If you study biology for one hour every night, you have evidence that you are studious. If you go to the gym even when it’s snowing, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it.
In fact, one of my recent clients shocked herself by discovering, after taking up a hobby and practising for a while … she’s a talented artist! Not only that, but that she can be assertive and self-confident, much to the surprise and support of her family and friends.
Of course, your habits are not the only actions that influence your identity, but by virtue of their frequency they are usually the most important ones. Each experience in life modifies your self-image, but it’s unlikely you would consider yourself a soccer player because you kicked a ball once or an artist because you scribbled a picture.
Repetition, the Key to Success
As you repeat these actions, however, the evidence accumulates and your self-image begins to change. The effect of one-off experiences tends to fade away while effect of habits gets reinforced with time, which means your habits contribute most of the evidence that shapes your identity.
In this way, the process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.
This is a gradual evolution. We do not change by snapping our fingers and deciding to be someone entirely new. We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. If you finish a book, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you are the type of person who likes exercise.
If you practice playing the guitar, perhaps you are the type of person who likes music. Each habit is like a suggestion: “Hey, maybe this is who I am.”
No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change.
Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity. And if a change is meaningful, it actually is big.
That’s the paradox of making small improvements.
Putting this all together, you can see that habits are the path to changing your identity. The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.
· Each time you write a page, you are a writer.
· Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician.
· Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.
· Each time you encourage your employees, you are a leader.
· Each habit not only gets results but also teaches you something far more important: to trust yourself.
Experience the Change
You start to believe you can actually accomplish these things. When the votes mount up and the evidence begins to change, the story you tell yourself begins to change as well.
Of course, it works the opposite way, too. Every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that identity. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect. In any election, there are going to be votes for both sides.
You don’t need a unanimous vote to win an election; you just need a majority. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for a bad behaviour or an unproductive habit. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time.
This is why I recommend starting with incredibly small actions (small votes still count!) and building consistency. Each action becomes a small vote that tells your mind, “Hey, I believe this about myself.” And at some point, you actually will believe it.
New identities require new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always had.
As Henry Ford famously quoted “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got”.