Focus on Identity
To put it simply, when you’re trying to change your behaviour, forget about the goal you’re trying to achieve, the external outcome, and instead focus on the change in identity you want to happen. This is a concept that I first read about in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits which I highly recommend by the way. And there’s a passage near the beginning of the book that really encapsulates it well:
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’s trying to be something else. They are hoping that their behaviour 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 the statements signal a shift in identity. Smoking was a part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.
So, the general idea here is that once you’ve embraced a change in your identity, you’re going to find yourself acting in alignment with that change. And if you’re wondering why exactly this happens, the third chapter of Robert Cialdini’s book Influence — The Psychology Of Persuasion, has a great explanation for it. Essentially, humans feel this natural compulsion to act consistently with their past decisions. As he writes in the book:
“Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify that justify our earlier decision”
Shifting my mindset in this way has been incredibly helpful in the past couple of months. And the first way that I implemented, it was by starting to think of myself as a writer. Now, I’ve always been a pretty curious person to write. But I have never thought myself as a writer. There were some imposter syndrome reasons for this. But, after reading that passage in the book, I decided to take the leap and start thinking myself as a writer, not just as somebody who writes proses. That shift in mindset has done wonders for my levels of self-discipline in many different areas from reading more consistently to writing harder, to even improving my diet, which has been a lot better than it used to be over the past couple of months. So, seriously, if you take nothing else from this article, I’m putting this first for a reason, start thinking about behaviour change in terms of the identity that you want to embody rather than the goals that you want to achieve.
Frequently remind yourself of why you’re being disciplined in the first place. At the end of the day, you have to have a strong why for actions if you want to do them consistently. And every time I think about this concept, I’m reminded of a story about the actor, Jim Carrey, and it goes like this,
After he arrived in Hollywood and he was still kind of an impoverished actor, one day he took out a napkin and he drew himself a check made out to himself for $10 million, and postdates for 5 years in the future. And then put that check in his wallet. So that every time he’d bring out his wallet, he could see it and remind himself of why he was working so hard, what he was working towards.
This is something that you might find very helpful to do as well. Try writing down your goal or the identity you want to assume and put it may be on a sticky note next to your desk or by your computer so you can see it every single day and know that this is why I’m building my self-discipline, this is the reason for all the work I’m putting in.