James Clear, in his fantastic book Atomic Habits (Amazon link,
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.James Clear, Atomic Habits, pg 42-43
As with many other authors focused on the change process, he implores us to build identity-based habits; “Behavior that is incongruent with the self does not last.”
Yet we still start with desired outcomes and changing our processes to map to the outcomes. Then we wonder why change fails.
I think we do this because:
- Most people would rather electrocute themselves than spend time alone with their thoughts. Reflection is required when considering questions of identity.
- We are frequently unclear about what this “new identity” looks like. We prefer the known over the unknown. This is especially true when we are uncertain about the probability of success.
- Our culture, education, and media focus on trying to change and control things outside of yourself. Educators, Project Managers, Marketers, MBAs, Systems Designers – the foundation of their training is based on controlling/”influencing”/”motivating” others and “intervening in the system.” The focus on self is still fringe in business – seemingly limited to the more “spiritual” leaders and the occasional admonishment in church.
- It’s easier to design rapid feedback mechanisms and metrics for measurable items (outcomes and processes) than it is to design a feedback mechanism and metrics for the self. Most identity-based activities require time, continuous practice over that time, and moment-to-moment decision-making before seeing desired outcomes. Think dieting, weight loss, meditation, etc.
I have also found that identity-based habits tend to occur organically.
My attempts at forcing identity-based change (“I will be a PEACEFUL PERSON, DAMMIT!”) tend not to go so well.
Also, at least in my experience, identity-based change also has a layer of self-loathing attached. The feeling that there is something “wrong with me” that I need to “fix” so that “I can be a better person.”
Less neurotic people probably don’t have that nagging sense of self-hatred when they embark on major identity-based change initiatives.
Still, I suspect enough people grapple with the feeling that there is “something wrong with them” that I think we ignore it at our own peril.
I think there may be a way to approach this without the exhortations to “BE THE CHANGE!”
I don’t think we really don’t know what that means until we are in the thick of trying.
Furthermore, there’s a lot we can leverage in our external, outcomes-focused paradigm.
I’m going to talk about this in the next few posts.