True behavior change requires identity change and is the key to better habits. Once you start to look at yourself in a new way, once you have a new story that describes who you are, that’s when you’re not even trying to change your behavior anymore – you’re just acting in alignment with the type of person you believe yourself to be.
Yet, that first step toward a new you is always the hardest. So, how should you begin on your path to better habits and a better future? How can you start making the right choices and letting go of your old ways of doing things? How do you begin on your journey toward the you that you want to become?
One Small Step For Gym Clothes, One Giant Leap For Better Habits
Habits are actions we begin to do automatically. Whether it’s brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, or biting your nails, habits are mindless movements that are made simply because your subconscious tells you to make them. This can make the process of creating new habits and breaking old ones more labor-intensive.
Also keep in mind that writing four times a week or exercising at the gym aren’t actions that will ever be fully mindless the way that brushing your teeth or tying your shoes are. Many of the things that matter most to us require concentration, and we need to find ways of building up good habits without losing that thoughtful intention.
The best way to do this is to create a decisive moment.
Find the lead domino that will trigger your desired practice. Focus on that first action and work towards making this action mindless and easy. Once that first decision becomes automatic, how you spend the next chunk of time will become the logical next step.
For example, if every night you make the decision to put on your workout clothes as if you’re going to the gym, that choice to slide into your workout clothes becomes the leading factor in whether you go to the gym or not. It becomes a jumping-off point from which finding the motivation to exercise is easy, as all the hard lifting has already been done in the process of putting on the gym clothes. An initial moment of motivation is all you need to be successful at achieving your goals.
The Heaviest Weight in the Gym is the Front Door
Reading 30 books in a year can be challenging. Running a marathon for the first time can be terrifying. Doing yoga four days a week can take quite a bit of time and energy. All of these goals are big and brave and brilliant, but people often forget that very few of us go from 0 to 60.
So, instead of launching yourself into the deep end of a pool, use the two-minute rule. Scale down your goals into actions that take two minutes or less to do. Read one page a day, jog in place in your living room, take out your yoga mat. Doing these small tasks will help you towards the bigger goal you have in mind.
Master the art of showing up.
Better habits must be established before they can be improved. If you haven’t made an action the standard in your life, there’s nothing to optimize—it’s just a theory. The two minute rule helps you overcome the tendency for perfectionism and to think about larger goals as an all-or-nothing endeavor. It teaches you how to doggy-paddle so you don’t drown.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
According to James Clear, there are four rules that make the process of building new habits easier and more enjoyable to accomplish:
- Make your habit obvious – The easier it is for you to see something that reminds you to perform a habit (e.g. leaving out your workout clothes somewhere you can spot them), the easier it will be to keep up the habit.
- Make your habit attractive – The more appealing or desirable a habit is, the more likely you are to feel motivated to do it.
- Make your habit easy – If you make carrying out a new habit a convenient, frictionless, and simple process, chances are you’re going to keep doing it.
- Make your habit satisfying – The more accomplished you feel after performing a habit, the more likely you’re going to stick to it in the long run.
On the flip side, James Clear also laid out the ways in which one can go about breaking a habit. Quite simply, reverse the above four laws like so:
- Make your habit invisible – If you leave out a plate of cookies, it’s going to be harder to break the habit of eating them. This is because you’re constantly reminding yourself that the cookies are there. Instead, try to keep cues out of sight and out of mind.
- Make your habit unattractive – Create a negative association with your bad habit until you no longer want to keep doing it.
- Make your habit difficult – Set up an environment that makes avoiding your bad habits the path of least resistance.
- Make your habit unsatisfying – Turn your bad habits into actions that give you no sense of relief or pleasure.
These tricks make creating and breaking habits a whole lot easier, but keeping up with your good and desired habits is frequently where many people struggle or stop entirely. So, here are some thoughts to keep in mind for how to make your newly-formed habits stick.
Keeping Your Good Habits Going
When you are trying to continually reinforce a new habit, it is essential to create an atmosphere of encouragement for your success. Remember that even for famous sports athletes and huge business tycoons, it’s not about the outcome—it’s about all the steps they take along the way. Whenever you take a step forward, whether it takes two minutes or two hours, it means you’ve gone a little further down the path to better habits and a better life.
Imagine: A stone-cutter bangs on a rock a hundred times, and on the hundredth time it splits open like a cracked egg. It’s not about that final, breaking blow. It’s not about the outcome. It’s about each of the hundred blows that lead up to that point. It’s about the effort.
Most importantly, it’s about continuing to promote progress above perfection. It can be easy to get stuck in the research phase of writing a book or preparing for a gym visit, all the while thinking that you’re moving forward when in reality you are just spinning in circles. While a little research and a little prep are always a good thing, it’s essential to keep acting on your goals rather than getting stuck on the specifics. Planning in place can oftentimes become its own form of procrastination.
It’s also easy to be under the impression that you are moving along in reaching your goals when in reality you are as stuck as a car stuck in a muddy ditch. At that point, you need to get out of the car and push. Let go of the fear of failure and just spur yourself into action. Write the book. Go to the gym. Be the best you that you can be by making mistakes and moving forward.
The Best Version of Yourself Was Inside of You All Along
At the end of the day, the real goal is not to run a marathon but to become a runner. It’s not to read, it’s to become a reader. It’s not to meditate, it’s to become a meditator. These identities (runner, reader, meditator) are the way to change your behavior in the long run.
Habits are the repeated evidence for the type of person you are, and every action you take is a step towards the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the instances build up so does the evidence of your new identity. At some point you get enough instances piled up that you start to think, “Yeah, this is part of who I am.”
That’s the real reason why habits are so meaningful. They shape the way you see yourself.