Identity Statements and Small Wins

Kanjun shared with me a very intriguing (and simple!) piece about habits yesterday. The idea is to visualize and say things about the person you want to be – the identity you want to have – rather than the actions you want to do. I’m not sure how true it is that actions do actually derive from identity in the post’s identity-spawns-action-spawns-appearance model (I don’t know any scientific basis for this), but as with many things in life hacking and psychology, we can still change ourselves by changing how we think (e.g. the language and emotions we think in) even if we don’t understand the scientific mechanism by which that changes our actions.

James Clear (the post’s author) suggests leading off with statements like “I’m the kind of person who never misses a free write” or “I’m the kind of person who reads for half an hour each day” or “I’m the kind of person who turns all of his notes into compact learnings so that he understands better what he has learned.” I personally hold all of these desires for identity, with additional desires like “I’m the kind of person who never misses a workout” or “I’m the kind of person who never misses a call with a friend” or “I’m the kind of person who follows through on project ideas.” The point of such identity statements is to use the powerful and usually inhibitive inertia that such static statements impose on our actions (e.g. “I’m not going to talk to her because I’m just the shy kind of person who can’t talk to girls”) to keep us in our new habits when we do switch from old habits to new ones! (Imagine not being able to not socialize because you’re just the kind of person who talks to everyone – there’s no use in trying to fix that problem or change your ways of being outgoing because that’s just who you are.) The concept of using inertia to change is as simple and exciting as using a virus’s ability to inject DNA into cells in order to inject genes that can cure diseases – gene therapy!

Identity-based habits hypothesize that thinking in the language of actions is less compelling than thinking in the language of identity. Ironically, we often tend to describe our (desired) identities in terms of the actions we do because actions paint amazing pictures of the identities that spawn from. For example, the identity “I’m the kind of person who never misses a workout” immediately brings to mind the picture of a student who wakes up at 7:30am each morning, puts on his running shoes and breathable waterproof shirt and short shorts, jogs for 3 miles in the cold alongside the Charles River, comes back to his dorm at Eliot House to eat a protein-rich breakfast with some carbs for recovery, and at the end of the day sleeps promptly at 12am so that he can do it all over again the next day. The most vivid descriptors of this student’s identity in my mind are actions he takes that spawn from an identity of a “healthy and ritualistic person,” yet had I just used adjectives like “healthy” and “ritualistic” to describe him, I would not have nearly as accurate a depiction of his identity. So we need actions and visualizations in general to depict identities, yet making habits out of those actions themselves (e.g. “I will wake up at 7:30am each morning”) is not compelling without tying the actions to the larger picture of the identity they spawn from, according to identity-based habits. That’s why adding the phrase “kind of person” into our thinking about habits (e.g. “I am the kind of person who wakes up at 7:30am each morning”) makes such a difference.

So identity-based habits might work better than action-based habits for reasons of inertia and visualization. The key step to adopting these identity-based habits, then, is to prove that you are “the kind of person who wakes up at 7:30am each morning.” The way to do that is very simple – wake up at 7:30am each morning! In general, proving to yourself that you are who you say you are that means small wins, which is Clear’s term for taking small steps to achieve your identity (called “baby steps” or “incremental habits” by others). I like this term because “wins” builds confidence and “small” reminds me to keep my wins small and not obsess about achieving a lot at once, because even seemingly small actions are changing and proving my identity. I don’t have to bench press 300 pounds right now in order to be “the kind of person who bench presses 300 pounds”; I can start with 50 push-ups each day and still be that “kind of person”!

The distinction between changing identity and changing actions is an important one. C.S. Lewis describes the distinction well in the context of just identity and just actions in his Mere Christianity (what he says here has general application beyond Christianity):

There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is the man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. They have a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician’s mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of “virtue.”

With this is mind, I’ve decided to start this week with a few identity habits and small wins of my own. See Open Habits to keep posted on my experiment.

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