John is curled up under the blanket. The hum of the nearby fan cools the room and sings him into a deeper slumber. The soft cotton sheets snuggle him in place, keeping him dreaming. Outside, the sun rises ever so slowly. Inching closer and closer, the same as the alarm clock. The clock, with each passing second, nears 6 am and when the time finally comes, the clock strikes 6, the alarm goes off. Without a moment of hesitation, John’s hand slams the snooze button and he drifts back to his dream world. After a few more punches to the clock, John finally stirs awake. He stretches his arms overhead and yawns deeply. Blinking away the sleep, he looks at the clock.
He rushes out of bed to get ready for work. Telling himself that he’ll get up at 6 tomorrow instead. And as he frantically brushes his teeth, he tries to reschedule his evening so he can work out, which was planned for the morning the night before.
Len Wallace invented the snooze button in 1847. I don’t know if I should thank him or curse his name. Too many times has that button eaten away at my promises to wake up earlier. Promises to start the day off exercising or meditating or reading. No matter how often I told myself that I wanted to start the habit of waking up early, my hand automatically went to hitting the snooze button. Over and over.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habit, would instantly point out the mistake in my approach. I was too focused on achieving a habit rather than identifying with it.
Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe. When it comes to building habits that last—when it comes to building a system of 1 percent improvements—the problem is not that one level is “better” or “worse” than another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is the direction of change. Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.
What Clear is speaking about is a shift in your worldview. Instead of trying to achieve a habit and telling yourself you’ll wake up early tomorrow and start the day off right, you should rather identify as an individual who wakes up early. It’s this mindset shift that alters the way you perceive yourself that brings about the change you’re attempting to enact.
When the alarm clock goes off and your first thought is “Good” then you know you’re on the right path.
Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity consumes rather than creates, you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.
How you perceive yourself is key and it works both ways. We’ve all either heard someone say or said it ourselves that “I’m not a morning person,” “I suck at math” or “I just don’t like to work out.” These are identity-creating statements, so when those moments occur in life, you resort to the identity you have chosen. When the alarm clock goes off, you hit snooze because that’s what someone who isn’t a morning person would do. When you have a math problem you panic rather than focusing on figuring out the solution because that’s what someone who sucks at math would do. When it’s time to work out, you’ll either skip it or do it without much effort or intensity because that’s what someone who hates to exercise will do.
When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.”
True behaviour change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but you’ll only stick with one because it becomes part of your identity.
This is who I am and this is what I do now. That’s why small steps are extremely important. We often look at the big picture. The big goal we are trying to achieve but in order to actually achieve that goal, we have to take several thousand small steps.
It’s important to break down the habit you’re trying to implement into small steps as well. Something as simple as doing one push-up adds to your identity as someone who exercises. Or heading to bed at 10 pm instead of 10:30 pm can be a checkmark for someone who wakes up early. And over time, when you have deposited enough tokens toward the person you are aiming to be, you will find that your identity has completely evolved as well.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. 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.
So, pick the habits you believe your future self needs in order to be successful and begin identifying with them right now. That way, with time, dedication, and consistency, that future self will become the present you.