I recently wrote about the challenges with building and sustaining new habits back on December 12th. In that post which you can read here (https://theexaminedlifecounseling.com/why-starting-new-habits-is-hard-and-what-to-do-about-it/) I discussed how our habits are tied into our larger identity and to that end, the story we tell ourselves. I recommended James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, in which he describes a person’s internal view, the stories they tell themselves and how we often live out of those stories. If someone is trying to change a behavior then at some level we must shift our identity. Clear notes two points that I think are particularly helpful and relevant for us. The first is to invert our normal process of setting goals and establishing behaviors. Most of us think of an outcome we’d like, to lose “x” amount of lbs. to make “x” of $ or whatever. From there we work backwards to think about what processes and habits we’d need in order to achieve the goal. Then when we reach the goal, we assume that by losing that weight or making that salary we will be the kind of person we want to be. Clear notes that this is backwards however, we need to start at the end, we need to start with the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?” and then work back from there to what kinds of things that person does, and then the outcomes: healthier lifestyle, more successful in business, better family member will naturally flow. We start with who we want to be because in the end that’s really what we want. Creating goals for ourselves are just ways to create markers along the way that we hope indicate we are becoming that type of person. If I lose “x” amount of fat then that should mean I’m a healthier kind of person. But we should get clear on who we want to be first before we identify what we want.
The second point Clear notes is the conundrum with building new habits and the fact that doing the new act once does not equate to a newly formed habit. If it were that simple then going to the gym once would be enough to start that habit and we’d be fit for life. Instead this identity shift often comes at a much slower place but more rooted as well. He says this, “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.”
Now, what’s beautiful about this approach is that isn’t some glitzy new fad, in fact it isn’t really new at all. Aristotle writing in the 4th Century B.C. noticed this same phenomena when describing building habits to become a person of virtue. For Aristotle he recognized that “one swallow does not a Summer make” but that over time, as you continue to do the right action in the right way, to the right extent, for the right reason you shift from a person who has acted courageously in the past, to a person who is courageous. And as that habit becomes instilled, now you act freely from that internal place, you go about living your life and when called upon, you act courageously because that’s who you are. But until you view yourself as courageous, or as a person who goes to the gym or whatever, consider each decision you make as a vote for “I’m this type of person”. As you cast more votes for the self you want to be, the actions and outcome will begin to feel and become much more natural because these will no longer be external or alien to you, but you will become that kind of person. Conforming to things outside of ourselves or wants will only last so long, but we have a finite amount of willpower and energy to do so. Once we begin to believe new things about who we are, as we tell ourselves new stories about how our past shapes our present then these new actions feel a lot more like swimming with the current than against it.
While transforming habits and identity is taking place, you may find yourself stuck or confused about what to do. How am I supposed to act like a (fill in the quality) person if I’m not already one? Great question and challenged posed to Aristotle’s virtue ethic but not without a helpful response. Act like a person who is that kind of person. Think of a person you know who has modeled courage, generosity, self-discipline or whatever the habit is you are looking for and follow their modeling. We are all influenced by role models, not just when we are children. As social creatures we take cues from others, so be intentional about who your models are and act as they would. Along with that, know that you won’t get it perfect and that’s okay. Transformation is a process, it takes time to undergo all the needed changes for a new self to emerge, but it is more likely that this new self will be a much more consistent rooted self than a quick fad or 12-weeks to a new you can offer.