The idea of identity-based habits comes from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. In essence, it’s the idea that to change your life, you need to focus on changing your identity, instead of just focusing on changing your outcomes (outcome-based habits).
For example, if you dream of being a writer, and have outcome-based habits, your goal would be to “publish a book”. But if you go from the perspective of gaining identity-based habits instead, your goal would be to just “to be a writer”.
According to James, identity-based habits are the ones that are easier to perform and the ones that will be maintained even after the goal has been achieved. Because when you stop thinking that you want to do or be something, but instead that you are something, then you are just acting in accordance with your identity – which is easy.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a 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.Atomic Habit by James Clear
You can buy the book here >> (This is an affiliate link for Amazon, but all opinions are my own).
Does Identiy-Based Habits Work?
The perhaps most important question on this topic is whether this way of building habits works? And the answer is yes. At least in my experience. Changing the way you think about your identity and who you are is the foundation of a long-term habit.
My example with self-image
For example, when I was younger I was overweight and even got bullied for it. After that period, I gained an identity of being a chubby and unathletic person. This self-identity followed me for years, resulting in many yo-yo diets and bouts of intense exercise, followed by long periods of relapses where I gained back the weight.
But then I started being very kind to myself. Instead of having short-term intense goals such as “lose 10 kg” and “run 10 km every day”, I began incorporating easy daily habits such as “Walk for 30 minutes every day”, and doing intermittent fasting. These are much kinder and easier habits to perform, and over the years they have become a part of who I am. Today, I see myself as a healthy and active person, because that’s what I am. I exercise and do intermittent fasting every day, without effort. Because that’s just what I do.
It’s important to remind ourselves that our self-image is not always accurate. They are just mental constructs, how our minds subjectively see the world and ourselves. And they can be changed. That’s why they say “fake it until you make it” because that does the same thing.
How to change your identity
Changing how you see your own identity can be done through many different methods. The method that works best for me personally, is by just changing my habits until there’s no denying that I am my new actions. But there are other methods as well. Here’s a few of them.
Change your habits
One way is through changing your habits. Because every time you perform an action or habit, it reinforces that mental image of what you do. If you write every day, you are someone who writes; a writer. If you play music every day, then you are a musician. If you draw every day, then you are an artist. Every time you order something healthy instead of something unhealthy, you are someone who eats healthy.
Visualization & Meditation
I have also tried methods of visualization dream versions of myself when meditating. And it works, by the same principle. If you visualize yourself acting in a certain way enough times, then your brain will start associating that with you, and it will become your new identity. You can for example practice visualizing yourself with a confident and proud posture, or with positive energy, or being confident in your body. Anything really. And you’ll slowly be teaching your body and mind a new pattern of being and feeling.
Words of Affirmation
You can also practice using words of affirmation. Word of affirmation are statements you make about yourself as facts. Similar to visualization, it’s a way of teaching your body and mind a new pattern of thinking. One example can be the statement “I am confident”, or “I am grateful for my life”, or “I am creative”. The important thing while practicing words of affirmation is to feel what you are stating as truth, and to do it often.
But should we identify ourselves with our actions?
I usually write and advocate about the idea that we are not our egos and identities. We are not our careers, physical bodies, titles, or status symbols, but we just are. We just exist, and we could exist as ourselves and our consciousness even without those physical and social things. And this idea of building identity-based habits may seem like a contradiction to the non-identity philosophy I often advocate for.
However, even if my personal goal is to let go of self-identity as much as possible, I know it’s not fully possible. At least not if you want to live and participate in society, and still want the lifestyle of an integrated social “agent”. We exist in society in terms of our relation to the world around us and other people. And I am aware of that.
So, in relation to this topic, I’d say that we can both try to maintain a healthy mental distance between ourselves and our egos/social identities, as well as utilize the concept of identity-based habits. Because as long as we still live “ordinary” lives (and don’t leave to dedicate our lives to be monks and nuns), then we will go around and carry identities. And those identities form our habits and our outcomes.
Thanks for reading!