Habits: Systems & Self-Identity
Why you should implement systems over goals & how to leverage the power of self-identity to drive outcomes.
Implement & Out
How can you modify your habits to carve your dream life? Learn to leverage systems and self-identity:
Outcomes aren’t achieved through setting better goals. They’re achieved through better systems.
A better system means consistently repeating the required behaviours to achieve an outcome. Adhere to your system by immediately adopting the necessary identity. This identity must be one of the person you aim to become. Your new identity informs your daily habits which allows you to achieve your desired outcome naturally.
Goals aren’t achieved overnight. Cope with this harsh reality by reframing: 1) Finding your passion will cultivate perseverance and discipline within, 2) Focus on the journey, not the result, and 3) Find pleasure in the feeling of progress (compared to yourself, not others).
If you want to sharpen these skills, read on.
How Habits Shape Your Life
“If you're going to be building habits anyway, you might as well understand what they are and how they work and how to shape them so that you can be the architect of your habits and not the victim of them.” — James Clear, Author of Atomic Habits
The results you’re experiencing in one area of your life right now are a direct reflection of the habits you’ve developed in that area. Since you’re going to pay for the habits you develop one way or another, it’s worth taking the time to develop them wisely and deliberately.
Each behaviour we engage in will produce multiple outcomes across time. Every action has an immediate outcome and an ultimate outcome.
Analyzing our choices through the likely outcomes in both of these time frames will determine whether a habit is good or bad.
From an evolutionary lens, we should only engage in habits that ultimately benefit us. However, the prevalence of habits that are immediately pleasurable but extremely harmful five, ten, or twenty years downline is rampant. There are two reasons for this.
Humans suffer from hyperbolic discounting and shorter feedback loops make for easier connections between behaviour and outcome.
“In a sense, the cost of your good habits is in the present, the cost of your bad habits is in the future.” – James Clear
If given a choice between a reward now or a reward later, even if the future reward would be substantially larger, most people would choose the route of immediate gratification. We have a tendency to discount the value of the future reward (hyperbolic discounting). The further out it is, the more we discount its value.
Take exercise or saving for retirement. If we engage in these things now, it will benefit us tremendously in the months and years to come. But since we won’t have anything to show tomorrow if we start today, many choose the path of least resistance: inaction.
Shorter feedback loops compound with hyperbolic discounting to stack the odds of adopting good habits against us (although this is no excuse). Since bad habits often provide immediate feedback and good habits tend to provide delayed feedback, our natural predisposition is to choose destructive habits. Even if we don’t realize it.
In addition, the likelihood we adapt a behaviour increases if it's followed by a reward or decreases if followed by a punishment. How quickly we adapt these behaviours depends on the speed and intensity of the feedback.
Drinking alcohol, smoking, eating junk food, and watching TV reward us instantly but are horribly destructive over time. Conversely, exercise and saving for retirement are seen as punishments (muscle soreness, less spending money) in the present moment but reward us in the future.
This insight helps us understand how our habits, good or bad, may have formed.
Now you can apply time-tested systems and strategies to rewire your habits for achieving success in any area of your life.
Why Systems Work Better Than Goals
“Almost by definition, your current habits are perfectly designed for your current results.” – James Clear
Our society has a strange fascination with goal setting (don’t get me started on New Year’s resolutions). News flash: goals don’t work. At least not alone.
Setting intelligent and well-defined goals is critically important to getting where you want to go, but it’s not enough. Don’t believe me? Here’s food for thought.
We all, more or less, have the same goals. We want to be fit, make good money, find a loving partner, live an exciting and joyful day-to-day life, control how we spend our time, and so on.
However, you don’t have to look very far to find someone who’s overweight, bankrupt for time or living paycheck-to-paycheck.
So, what’s the difference between people who turn their goals into reality and those who read about them in magazines? It’s the collection of daily habits they follow. Their SYSTEM.
Individuals who successfully achieve their desired outcome put recurring habits into place that nudge them a bit closer to their goals every day.
If there’s a gap between one’s goals and their daily habits, habits win every time. Assuming you’ve set SMART goals, the solution isn’t to set better goals. It’s to find a way to put the habits into place that will help you achieve those goals.
Fix the habits (the input) and the results (the output) will fix itself.
Coping with Long-term Change
In a world of instant gratification, accepting the reality that worthwhile goals can’t be achieved overnight and that the best things for us may be initially unpleasurable are tough pills to swallow. Framed differently, these traits are fantastic news.
Passion Cultivates Perseverance & Discipline
When you find your passion(s) in life, you discover perseverance and discipline within yourself you didn’t know existed.
I don’t make a dime from this newsletter (in fact I’ve spent hundreds of dollars producing it) but I spend hours each week researching and writing. I love it. Even when it’s difficult, I find a way to push through.
Focus on the Journey
If you enjoy the process rather than focus on the destination, the habits you’re trying to adopt will instantly become more pleasurable.
Don’t wish away time anticipating the moment you achieve something. There’s no quicker path to regret.
The Pleasure of Progress
The feeling of progress is the most motivating, intrinsically pleasurable, and joyful experience. It may be hard to get started, but once you get a taste of progress you’ll become hooked on the daily habits that helped you achieve it.
Avoid falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others. Compare your current self to your old self and stop there.
Using Self-Identity to Drive Habit Change
“In a sense, every time that you perform a habit, you are embodying a particular identity.” – James Clear
How we think of ourselves, our self-identity, is an extremely powerful tool that can be leveraged to increase the adoption of habits.
On the surface, habits allow us to achieve certain outcomes. If we have the habit of exercising each day, we become fit.
However, habits run much deeper than this. The behaviours we engage in signal to ourselves who we are and what we care about. Someone who’s been exercising for years doesn’t just work out to become more fit.
They exercise because they're deeply hardwired as a person who see themselves as fit. And what do fit people do every day? They exercise.
Their self-identity informs their daily habits which achieve the outcome naturally.
Let me reiterate.
They don’t exercise to become fit, they do it because they believe they are a fit person, and fit people don’t skip workouts. Someone who has developed a self-identity around a habit uses that identity to inform their process (daily behaviours) which eventually drives their desired outcome.
Why does this matter? You can use this strategy to drive the necessary behaviour change to become the person you want to be. Even if the habit isn’t hardwired into your identity yet.
Instead of viewing the person you want to become as some distant object that must be worked towards over long periods of time (a mentally scary hurdle), start by asking yourself “what kind of habits does that person have?”
You can then associate with the identity of that person who possesses the habits that can achieve the outcome you desire.
Take for example someone who is 40 lbs overweight. If they view themselves as an overweight person that is trying to get in shape, their day will consist of battling the habits of an overweight person (overeating, skipping workouts…).
If instead, they start to ask themselves “what would a healthy person do?”, they’re no longer battling the identity of an overweight person but are adopting the identity of a healthy person.
Here’s the difference in thought process:
Overweight identity: I’m an unhealthy person → I want to get in better shape → I have to get myself to the gym → I have to limit my eating.
Healthy identity: I’m a healthy person → healthy people go to the gym and don’t overeat → ergo, this is what I do.
Technically, they both did the same thing. However, the person holding onto the overweight identity is trying to be something they’re not. The person who adopted a healthy identity, even though they aren’t quite there yet, has signalled a shift in identity change.
This is a massively important distinction. They aren’t trying to be someone else but are simply acting in alignment with the person they see themselves as.
The likelihood they succeed in actually becoming that healthy person is much higher than the person who is trying to force themselves to be something else.
After consistently sustaining a habit for a long enough period of time, you cross a threshold where it becomes part of your deeply ingrained self-identity. You don’t need to tell yourself that you are something, you just be it.
How To: The Self-Identity Switch
“If you don’t have that shift in internal story yet, it’s hard for the behavior to follow suit.” – James Clear
This strategy can be applied to achieve any outcome one is striving towards. Here’s the five-step process:
Define your desired outcome(s) (make SMART goals).
Ask yourself what small, daily actions (processes) will nudge you towards that outcome.
Find someone who has achieved that outcome before, and determine what type of identity allowed them to do so. How do they see themselves? What identity drives them to take certain actions every day? The answer is not willpower.
Adopt that identity by asking yourself throughout the day and when feeling unmotivated “What would a _________ (healthy/wealthy/intelligent/courageous/etc.) person do?”
Once you’ve enabled yourself to take action by asking this question, perform the small daily behaviours, identified in step two, that will push you a little bit closer to your goal each day.
In short: Identity informs process, process determines what you do, and what you do determines your outcomes.
James Clear has a great article on identity-based habits if you’re looking for another perspective on this process.
Master Your Life
Mastering the skill of knowing how to achieve an outcome, regardless of its nature, is the most impactful ability one can possess. Prioritizing systems over goals and leveraging the power of self-identity are learned skills that anyone can develop.
Combining these two strategies with the four laws of behaviour change that will be introduced next week provides you with the skills you need to make or break any habit. Habits determine your daily actions which in turn dictates the quality of your life.
Master your habits, and you can sculpt your life.
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