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.

4 thoughts on “Identity Statements and Small Wins

  1. It’s fine to consider life hacks once in a while, but I think you’re chasing the wrong thing if they’re constantly on your mind. I’d challenge you to consider the behavior of great entrepreneurs/scientists/leaders and whether or not their life was dictated by simple perspective tweaks like the one described here.

    I enjoy reading your blog, but if the ideas you’re discussing can be fully covered in a short blog post, then you’re not thinking big enough! Try not to get caught up with any one thing, and you’ll do just fine 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree that life hacks shouldn’t be the goal of one’s life (otherwise, what’s the purpose of life hacking?). I do think, however, that adjustments to our habits and how we think can significantly change how much we can do. I see adjustments in my thinking – which might be considered small wins in the present – as investment that lead to long-term returns that expand my capacity to accomplish.

      I think an example “life hack” from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People provides a good example of the small win “investment” I have in mind (in this case, a change of thought to be more reflective leading to a lifelong learning habit):

      “For years I have kept an engagement book showing all the appointments I had during the day. My family never made any plans for me on Saturday night, for the family knew that I devoted a part of each Saturday evening to the illuminating process of self- examination and review and appraisal. After dinner I went off by myself, opened my engagement book, and thought over all the interviews, discussions and meetings that had taken place during the week. I asked myself:
      ‘What mistakes did I make that time?’ ‘What did I do that was right- and in what way could I have improved my performance?’ ‘What lessons can I learn from that experience?’
      “I often found that this weekly review made me very unhappy. I was frequently astonished at my own blunders. Of course, as the years passed, these blunders became less frequent. Sometimes I was inclined to pat myself on the back a little after one of these sessions.
      This system of self-analysis, self-education, continued year after year, did more for me than any other one thing I have ever attempted.
      “It helped me improve my ability to make decisions – and it aided me enormously in all my contacts with people. I cannot recommend it too highly.”

      I am curious as to what you have learned about great entrepreneurs/scientists/leaders. Are there any great insights/books you have taken to heart from studying their lives?

      1. Nice response. I agree with you that life hacks can be useful in moderation. It’s kind of amazing how a small change in perspective can lead people to do great things.

        Carnegie’s book is one I’ve never read, but would like to one day. I know it’s spoken of highly on sites like HN 🙂

        The reason I commented in the first place is that I wanted to advise against going too far with life hacks. I could write an entire blog post about it here, but some concerns I have with hacks are that 1) they distract one from the big picture, 2) are often hard to maintain, and 3) often induce a cargo-cult mentality. Just my opinion, though. Take it with a grain of salt.

        As for great entrepreneurs/scientists/leaders, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and listen to some of them speak. I haven’t studied their lives, per se. I’ve noticed, however, that their so-called “hacks” (if they have any) are huge in scale and would be intimidating to many. Things like throwing away a perfectly good career to tackle a passion, coming to grip with the fact that failure is the most likely outcome, ignoring the advice and precedent of the establishment.

      2. I’d agree that those last three traits you mentioned (pursuing passion, accepting failure but deriving pleasure but the work inherently, and being confident in personal direction over peer pressure) characterize many greats. I think the reason most people are intimidated by those things (including myself at many points in my life) is that they have never felt the reward of working on something larger than self, without caring for a successful outcome. So they don’t realize that there is inherent joy in working on something important and fulfilling.

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