Over dinner at a tech conference, a woman once told me that for many years, she couldn’t get herself to exercise regularly. Even though she was a successful marketer and yoga studio owner who valued her health, she wasn’t able to stick to a regular exercise schedule because she didn’t see herself as “the kind of person who exercises.”
We often see habit formation as a way to make small improvements for our overall well-being, whether that’s healthy eating, exercise, or meditation. But, in fact, habits are more than just a form of self-care. They can shape our identities and help us achieve major career goals. This is an idea behavior-change expert James Clear covers in his recent book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.
“When we talk about habits, we often focus on the results it can get you: earn money, lose weight, reduce stress,” Clear told me. “Yes, habits can do that. But there’s a deeper reason to care. Habits inform your identity.”
When we want to make a major career move—whether it’s getting a promotion, changing industries, or starting a business—we’re not just taking actions to achieve a goal, we are becoming a new person. We are going from individual contributor to team lead, from a management consultant to a data scientist, or from working at a widely admired firm to being a no-name entrepreneur.
“A lot of times you hear people say ‘Fake it till you make it.’ That asks people to believe things without evidence,” says Clear. “There’s a name for things without evidence: delusion.”
These identity shifts are a big deal. If we haven’t properly reforged our identities, we can sabotage our own efforts and fail to make the leap. Author Gretchen Rubin writes about the idea of a “strategy of identity” and uses a letter sent by writer James Agee an example. Agee, who had been told he needed to cut back on smoking and drinking, wrote that his health depended “on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.” Sadly, Agee wasn’t able to make a change and died of a heart attack at age 45.
Agee may have felt that his identity was unchangeable, but Clear argues that these shifts can happen with the right nudges. We’re more likely to accept our new identity if we feel our habits and actions justify a belief in that identity. It’s better to think of every action you take as “a vote for a certain type of person.” Tally up the votes, and we determine who we are.
Over the course of dinner, my companion said that she was ultimately able to shift her mindset and adopt an “exerciser identity,” though I never got to hear how she made that switch. If I had to guess, she probably employed at least one of the following strategies Clear recommends for persuading our skeptical brains:
Choose small habits
Make your habits easy to do and ideally something you can accomplish every day, because habits that are completed successfully and frequently influence us more readily. For instance, writing 20 minutes every day is more powerful than writing for a whole weekend once a month.
Make it visible
When you make your habit visible, through an analog system like marking an X on a calendar, or through a digital tracking tool like coach.me, it feels more real. And because you’ve picked a small habit that you do every day, you’ll start to see a long, unbroken streak of success, making it easier to believe in your new identity.
Join a tribe
When you surround yourself with people who act a certain way, you’re more likely to act that way, too. Author Seth Godin refers to this concept as “People like us do stuff like this.” If you join a Toastmasters group or a CrossFit studio, you’ll find the activities of public speaking or challenging workouts more attractive and rewarding, and your identity will naturally align more with the other members of the group.
Make the wrong behavior difficult
When writing Atomic Habits, Clear wanted to avoid distractions, so he had his assistant change the passwords to all his social media accounts during the workweek and only give them back to him on the weekend, so he could still catch up on messages and updates before starting the cycle all over again. Sometimes, removing a negative behavior can do more for your identity than adding a positive habit.