You Want To Change Your Behavior? Change Your Identity.
Updated: Jul 28
I’ve been working out consistently for 17 years. I picked up my first dumbbell at 15 years old for the same reason most teenage boys work out—because they’re insecure and want to get girls. Determined to build a somewhat impressive physique, my teenage self cultivated the habit of training at least 5 days per week. Pretty soon, I had the reputation of being the guy who works out, plays sports, and lives an active lifestyle.
Not surprisingly, I ended up becoming a personal trainer. Having the title of “personal trainer” is almost all the motivation one needs to work out. After all, nobody’s going to take you seriously if your muffin top is popping out of your dry-fit shirt. If you call yourself a personal trainer, you better look the part. Do I have days when I feel lazy and lack the motivation to train? Absolutely. However, I’ve cultivated the habit of exercising for so long that it’s non-negotiable at this point. Working out is part of my identity.
We humans behave in ways that are consistent with the personal narrative we’ve identified with. If you’ve identified with the trait of being outgoing and extroverted, you’re going to engage in activities that fall in line with that trait, such as going to social events and being surrounded by people. Similarly, if you see yourself as someone who doesn’t work out and loves ordering take-out, your lifestyle will reflect that. Even though you might be aware that you should make a change, you believe that exercise is hard and eating healthy is boring. You might have even come to the conclusion that a healthy lifestyle is just “not for me.”
"Ogres are like onions, Donkey"
In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear makes an interesting point about making sustainable habits. He argues that we are much more likely to stick to a new habit when we tie that habit to our identity. Clear states that there are different layers to behavior change. The most superficial layer is changing your outcomes. Setting goals such as “ I want to lose 20 lbs” would fall under this category. The deepest layer is changing your identity and beliefs. The reason most people fail to stick to new habits is because they stay within the superficial layer.
According to this logic, we may be able to change our behavior by either upgrading our identity or adopting a new one altogether. Instead of telling yourself: “it’s just so hard to find time to exercise every day,” you can say “I’m the kind of person who values their health, so I’m going to continue these healthy habits, regardless of what happens in my life.” Your behavior follows what you ultimately believe about yourself, not the other way around.
You don’t need to be a personal trainer or a dietitian to make healthy habits part of your identity. However, it will take a ton of repetition and perseverance to change your fundamental beliefs. Instead of forcing yourself to develop tedious habits, dive deep to the root of the problem and upgrade your self-narrative.