One thing you should do before changing any habit

Many of our habits are deeply rooted and hard to change. We can all think of a few of our habits we would like to change. Especially when a new year arrives, that’s when we reflect and set goals. Unfortunately, most people fail and go back to their routine from the years before. This is reflected in a recent study which showed that around 85% of people fail to keep their new year’s resolutions. So what can we do to become one of the 15% that are following through with their habit goals? Well, one of the most effective things you can do is a simple change in taking the first step. It might be an unusual one, but it is proven to be effective. 

We all like the status quo because it is comfortable. Change involves risk and uncertainty, and biologically, we rather avoid that. Staying at home watching Netflix is a lot safer than going out and doing something new. We are all human and we are programmed to be risk aversive. But we also have the power to choose differently.

Before we start with our next new habit or working towards a new goal, there is something else we should do apart from setting a clear plan to action. Something that will help us to stick to our new habit: We have to change our identity. 

We are not talking about changing your name or about becoming an actor. We are talking about the self-image that you have. To a large extent, that identity will determine your behaviour. You act according to who you are. 

For example, a person who stopped smoking can answer in two ways when offered a cigarette. He could say: ‘no thanks, I quit a while ago“. Or he could say: “no thanks, I’m a non-smoker.” Did you notice the difference? The first person still identifies as a smoker, just a smoker that has stopped. The second person does not identify himself as a smoker who stopped, he has changed his identity and is now a non-smoker.

This may look like a small change of mindset, but it makes a huge difference. We tend to behave accordingly to our identity. People who are labelled as overweight are more likely to maintain an unhealthy lifestyle because this is in line with who they think they are. Prisoners who have heard their whole life they are criminals who will do nothing else than steal are more likely to return to that behaviour when released. It’s the same system that is used when people advise: fake it till you make it. 

So how does this help us change our habits? If you can shift how you see yourself, you’ll likely notice that you’ll stop doing some of the behaviours that you used to do. Stop smoking, stop eating meat, stop playing video games, whatever someone with your identity wouldn’t do.

How do you do this? Start by writing down your desired identity instead of starting by writing down your goals. Don’t write: I want to work out more. Write: I am a fit person.

I will stop smoking I am a non-smoker.
I will read more I am a reader. 
I want to be more confident in social situations I am a social person.

Make sure to remember this. Go through it multiple times. Visualize yourself being this person. Every time that you repeat your new habit/or resist from repeating your old one is a vote for the person you want to become, a vote towards your new identity. You will notice that steadily, you will start to become this person.