Motivation vs Habits

Few things can have a more powerful impact on your life than improving your daily habits.  However, it often feels difficult to keep good habits going for more than a few days, even with sincere effort and the occasional burst of motivation. Habits like exercise, meditation, journaling, and cooking are reasonable for a day or two and then become a hassle.

Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: 

  1. we try to change the wrong thing 
  2. we try to change our habits in the wrong way.

The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, retiring at age 65, winning a championship. Most of the goals we set are associated with this level of change. 

The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: going to the gym, organizing your desk to improve workflow, developing a morning routine. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level. 

The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.

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.

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs. The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, “I want to lose weight (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll lose weight (process).” They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions.

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.  It’s uncomfortable. 

You may want to be a healthier weight, but if you prioritize the taste of good food over the feeling of a healthy body each morning, you will be drawn to the cookies rather than the veggies and dip.  You may want to be in better shape, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.

Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.

If you believe deep down inside that you are a healthy eater and you are proud of this fact, you aren’t going to grab handfuls of Doritos and M&Ms from the break room at work.  You aren’t going to take the kids out for ice cream every Sunday. You aren’t going to turn to food the minute life gets stressful. If you identify yourself as a healthy person (and believe it) – that behavior is going to go against what you believe – and it will make you uncomfortable.  

You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.  Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. When your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change – you are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be. 

The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it.  The biggest barrier to change for most people is identity conflict. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.  

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 behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior.

Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.” Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it.

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. 

And here’s the cool part.  We don’t have to do an entire identity transformation to make this successful.  If your goal is to be someone who saves for retirement, start saving $1 every day.  It won’t take long before you consider yourself a “saver”. In the spirit of personal competitiveness, you will likely start to think bigger and maybe save $2 per day.  Eventually, you will probably step it up to $5 per day. Because you are a “saver” and you want to be a better saver the longer you do it.  

If you want to be a healthy eater, start by having a healthy breakfast.  Become a “healthy breakfast eater”. That doesn’t mean you are magically cured of your excess weight or your prediabetes or your high blood pressure, but it won’t take long before you identify yourself as someone that always eats a healthy breakfast.  Once you define yourself as such, you won’t feel tempted to swing by the donut store on the way to work. That concept will be uncomfortably contrary to your definition of yourself.  

One of the best things I ever did was stop being a “processed food eater”.  Don’t get me wrong – I still love a good cookie or a cheeseburger from time to time.  But by becoming someone that doesn’t eat highly processed foods, it’s pretty rare that I have the opportunity to eat these things.  It doesn’t occur to me to go inside a gas station to get something to snack on when I’m driving home from work. It doesn’t occur to me to swing through a fast food joint to grab something when I’m stressed about putting dinner on the table before I have to Uber someone to practice.  My default is to run into a grocery store and grab a rotisserie chicken and a bunch of broccoli to throw dinner together.  

Because I’m not a processed food eater, when I decide I am going to eat cookies, I have to make a commitment to the process.  It’s not impulsive. It’s an ordeal. First, because I’m not someone that keeps cookie-making ingredients in my pantry, we have to run to the store (something I detest doing).  Then, we have to find at least an hour of our precious time to make the cookies. Then, we have to do all of the dishes and clean up the kitchen. Because this ordeal takes time and preparation and can’t be impulsive, it doesn’t happen that often.  

How do you define yourself?  If you define yourself as someone that wants to be healthy than unhealthy choices – over and over again – still align with who you are.  You can be someone that wants to be healthy while at the same time eating a candy bar.  Because someone that wants to be healthy or is trying to be healthy isn’t the same thing as someone who is healthy.  Just like someone who is trying to quit smoking or wants to quit smoking isn’t the same thing as a nonsmoker.  

Start changing the language you use to define yourself.  Change your identity. Put small choices into action to reinforce your identity.  If you do it over and over again, you will eventually believe it. This isn’t quite the same thing as “fake it until you make it” but it is similar.  If you do 2 minutes of exercise every morning, you will quickly call yourself an exerciser. You won’t define yourself as a bodybuilder or a marathon runner, but you will be someone that exercises.  When people ask, you will proudly say, “yes, I’m an exerciser”. Identity is powerful. Pride is powerful. Small changes in the trajectory over long periods of time can shift the course of events.

I know this one was a long post, but there’s so much great stuff to say about this topic! Thanks for sticking with it to the end 🙂 Until next week…

be strong – be healthy – be happy

Courtney Younglove, M.D.