Identities and Our Habits

Josh Spry

Ever feel like you’re standing in your own way—you decide to do something and then do the exact opposite? Self-sabotage is one of the most natural things humans do. But we’re sneaky about it—we like to trick ourselves. One of our favorite tricks is to adopt identities that force us to behave a certain way. We say, “I can’t stop watching TV until midnight because I’m a night owl,” or “I’m a busy person—I have to check my phone for new emails constantly.” Sound familiar? If so, read on for some advice on adopting new identities to nurture more healthy habits in your life.

Identities are strong cues for habit preservation

Identities aren’t just found by the roadside or collected like baseball cards. They are trophies that represent hard battles you have fought to find, question, solidify and integrate who you are as a person. These battles take years, and once formed, your brain puts a lot of work into defending them. But sometimes, that defense can stop us from adopting better habits. Here’s an example.

We interviewed a woman who lives in New York. We’ll change her name to Martha for this article. Martha was born in London and moved to New York City to grow her career. She spoke to us about moderating her alcohol habit. Like many of the people we talk to, she didn’t want to give up alcohol completely, but she suspected drinking less would help her feel more healthy. Mary struggled, though, saying, “You see, I’m European. We’re supposed to have a glass or two at dinner. That’s the way we relax with our friends.” Here was a woman rightfully proud of her hard-won identity as a European immigrant making it in America, but frustrated that her European identity was fighting her desire to drink a little less.

Your brain protects you from changing your identity. When you do something that reflects your identity, your brain rewards you with good feelings. If you identify as a runner, it feels good to talk about a run you just did. Or, if you see yourself as a great home cook, it can feel good to go shopping for new kitchen gadgets. At the same time, your brain makes you feel uncomfortable, when you act against your identity. If you see yourself as a video gamer, your brain may punish you with boredom if you pick up a book when you normally would be playing a video game. These bad feelings are called cognitive dissonance, and are intended to protect us from discomfort when our behaviors don’t agree with who we tell ourselves we are.

Can I Change My Identity?

So then, if we want to change our habits, is the solution to change our identity? Well . . . not exactly.

You put in years and a lot of work to form an identity! Have you ever moved to a new city? How long did it take you to feel comfortable saying I’m a Los Angelino, Utahn, Seattleite, St. Louisan, Bostonian, etc.? Probably longer than it took to change your drivers license. You had to put in the work to find the good restaurants, time your commute, and adopt the local sports teams. Similarly with our other identities, it took time to figure out how to behave. We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a parent, athlete, worker, writer, crochetier, or friend.

The Easier Way: Use Other Identities to Change Your Habits

So then what should you do? Use an already existing part of yourself that you love. What makes you a unique and fun person is the way that you’ve built and integrated multiple facets of yourself. Martha is not only a European. She also identifies with being a woman, New Yorker, immigrant, working professional, friend, and someone getting busier as life develops. Instead of rejecting her European identity in order to moderate her alcohol, she can just ask it to take a back seat and let her other elements shine.

In our interview, she told us she’s busier than ever and needs more energy to keep up. This Martha doesn’t have time for an alcohol hangover. That’s the identity Martha needs to focus on to moderate her alcohol habit. A new identity will come with time. Eventually Martha will be able to confidently say she’s the kind of person who rarely enjoys alcohol. But for now, it’s best to start with her pride in being busy and not having time for alcohol and its after effects.

But Wait—You Have To Translate Identity to Action

Now that you have an identity in mind, you have to think about what that identity will do. Don’t stop with just a vision of your ideal person: take action.

Research looked at the effectiveness of vision boards and found people were less likely to accomplish their goals if they only thought about the result or accomplishment. In one study, college students were broken into groups a few weeks before a major test. One group was asked to imagine getting a good grade on the test in addition to their normal studying. But they actually did worse than students who only studied without any visualizing. The group that did better on the test was asked to think about how they would get a better grade. They were asked to imagine going to the library, studying, and answering problem sets with ease. This group performed better because imagining what they would do actually got them to do it.

What does this mean for habit change? Once you have an identity that supports your goal, ask yourself "What would that person do?" This idea comes from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. He recommends writing down what your chosen identity would do in a particular circumstance. Martha could write “Busy Martha can’t be bothered with a hangover in the morning, so she’s going to drink a mocktail at dinner the night before when she’s out with her friends.”

Try building your own identity/action sentence. The general format is “As a _____, I will ______ when ______.” But feel free to have fun with it like the examples below from the Remadely team:

  • Melanie wants to build a better habit to get to bed on time. “Everyone knows me as the life of the party, even at 7am. But I need my sleep if I’m going to be lifting everyone up all the time. That’s why I’m going to set a timer at night and make sure I’m only watching Netflix for an hour each night.”
  • Lexi wants to be more consistent at practicing a musical instrument. “My friends always ask what crazy new thing am I learning. I’m “that” person in the friend group. And right now, I’m learning a new instrument, the handpan. So I’m going to practice for 30 minutes every morning, right after I brush my teeth and before my coffee.”
  • Nick wants to save gas money by using his car less. “I’m a tree hugger when it comes to a lot of things like recycling. I should do the same when it comes to driving. Tree huggers take the bus. So I’m going to take the bus when I go grocery shopping since the bus will only add two minutes to the errand if I time it right.

So, the next time you hear yourself using an identity to sabotage yourself, pause. You can now see that it’s a natural process, but one you can control using habit science. Think ahead of time what part of your identity supports your habit goals. Then imagine doing what that person does to reach their goal.