I am a person who works out regularly. Here are some other facts about me: I haven’t set foot in a gym in months; I haven’t done any heavy weightlifting in over a year and a half; The last time I did serious cardio was about two months ago. So what supports the idea that “I am a person who works out regularly?” I’m so glad you asked, and the answer is simple: identity.
Earlier in life, I built a habit of exercising daily. I learned to enjoy pushing past my limits. With time, I started to believe that I was a “person who works out regularly.”
But in the past few years, I’ve hit one fitness obstacle after another: dumb injuries, less-dumb-but-equally-debilitating injuries, tall guy problems, gyms closing, you get the idea.
Suffice it to say, I have had a wealth of great excuses to stop working out. But I haven’t stopped. Each time an obstacle has blocked my way, I’ve adapted and kept going. When I couldn’t lift, I did body-weight exercises; When I couldn’t get to the gym, I swam; And when the pool closed, I ran.
Am I writing this to show off my extraordinary self-control and great willpower? Well, I was planning to fast today, and I’m currently typing this paragraph with one hand because the other one is covered in Cheeto dust, so you do the math.
The real motivator here is the identity I have built up around exercise. I don’t try to work out regularly; I am someone who does. And nothing can take that away.
Identity-Based Habits are Sturdy Habits
I am currently at a point where walking is my primary form of exercise. My dumb knees won’t even let me run right now. That’s difficult for me to admit. I’m hugely frustrated (that’ll be important later) and, frankly, a little embarrassed about it. But walking is what I can do right now. So that’s what I’m going to do.
And if it comes to it, I will go outside and crawl on the freaking pavement if that’s what I have to do to work out.
But why? What is it about identity that makes a habit so resilient?
It’s because identity flips the habit-building equation on its head.
What Makes Habit Forming so Hard?
Habit-building is a process of automating behaviors that make your life better and build you up. The problem is that most healthy, productive behaviors have an associated cost, some minor pain. Flossing and meditating take time, and exercise makes you sore and smelly. Otherwise, these things would become sturdy habits on their own. So we’re fighting uphill from the get-go.
By alloying a habit with your identity, you can change that. When a particular behavior becomes significant enough to you that you consider it part of who you are, it makes not keeping up the habit the more painful option.
At the start of my week, I know I will work out at least a few times that week. I don’t think; I don’t hope; I’m not going to try – I know I will because it is part of who I am. I’ve made it part of who I am.
When something gets in the way of that habit, I feel hugely uncomfortable because letting go of the behavior conflicts with the identity I have spent so long building. Remember the frustration I mentioned earlier? This is what causes it.
Not keeping up a habit is far more uncomfortable than just doing it when identity is present.
As efficient creatures, we lean toward what’s easiest. Not-flossing is easier than flossing, so without identity, not-flossing usually wins. On the other hand, flossing is easier than violating your identity as someone who takes excellent care of your teeth. Identity makes maintaining the habit the path of least resistance.
How to Build Sturdy Habits Around Identity
Often on this blog, I like to break down a big idea to see what it really means and how we can use it on our various personal growth journeys. Fortunately for us all, though, this one is quite simple.
Building identity-backed habits takes only two steps, consistently applied:
- Tell yourself the story you want to be true about yourself in the PRESENT TENSE.
- Don’t make yourself a liar.
Good Things Take Time
It doesn’t work overnight. You can’t simply state, “I eat salad for every meal,” and will that into reality. Just ask my neon orange dust-covered fingers. You’ll need to use strategies to build up new habits in the early stages. By all means, use every tool at your disposal.
The good news is the time to build up the habit is also where the strength originates. Sturdy habits have a history. They derive from a story you have proven to be true, a story about who you are, and you’re not going to give up on who you are.
As you build new positive habits, make identity part of the process. Tell yourself your story in real-time — “I AM this,” “I DO this,” and then prove it. With time, cognitive dissonance shows up to help, and maintaining your story will become the only motivation you need.
I’ve been someone who has worked on my physical fitness for something like 15 years. This habit is built on so much of my history that I believe nothing can break it. The only variable is the hand life deals to me. And I will play that hand to its fullest, even when I wish I had drawn better cards. The same option is there for you, too.