Your Habits = Your Identity
I achieved a lot of "firsts" in 2021: I completed my first trail race, finally attained my goal weight (something I've tried for 10+ years), quit my job with no new job lined up (a glorious feeling!) and traveled around the US in a van . . . It was a big year with big accomplishments. Yet one "first" from last year sticks out to me in particular, and it happened at a place you might not expect: the dentist.
You know when you're sitting in the dentist chair about to get your teeth cleaned, and the dental assistant asks that loathsome question, "So how often do you floss?" Well, for the first time ever I was able to respond emphatically, "I floss every night!" She could clearly tell this was a new development for me based on my tone of voice. She asked, very curiously, "So what changed?" I told her that I had simply decided it's time to "be an adult," and adults floss, so I started flossing. She laughed, thinking I was joking. I wasn't! It was half-amusing, half-epiphanic for me. When I think back on it now, I'm still amazed. Not because flossing is inherently that difficult, but that I had gone from almost never flossing to a daily flossing habit in a matter of days. How did I do that?
What I now realize is that I had subconsciously tied the creation of a habit to my identity. I thought, "I'm 34 now, well into adulthood. It's time to act like an adult! Adults floss. Therefore, I'm going to start flossing, damnit!" Done. That was it. There was no internal back and forth. It was the simple act (or art) of relating an action to my identity that was the impetus for creating a habit virtually overnight. If you've read Atomic Habits by James Clear, you'll recognize this as the formation of an "Identity-Based Habit," one of the many tools he discusses to either make or break a habit.
In discussing breaking a bad habit, he uses the following example: Say you're trying to quit smoking and someone offers you a cigarette. Instead of saying, "No thanks, I'm trying to quit." You instead say, "No thanks, I'm not a smoker." Or in my case, "No thanks, mature adults like me don't drink more than 3 glasses of wine on a weeknight :)" You can hear just how powerful that phrasing is, right? This is not to say that quitting smoking or any other vice is easy, but this is one tool that can definitely help.
Make the Decision
Another important factor in creating habits and sticking to resolutions is simply (or maybe not so) making the decision. Just like I had decided that it's time to start acting like an adult in order for me to start flossing, a decision has to be made in order for action to be taken. I heard a recent podcast where Tim Ferriss was interviewing Jessica Lahey, author of the Gift of Failure and currently a recovery coach who quit drinking in 2013. When discussing the day she decided to "quit for good" she stated that the conversation with her dad was the moment she made the decision; it was her "piece 100." On deciding to quit and seek help, Jessica states:
"There’s a metaphor I use, both having to do with prevention, and people figuring out when it’s time that they need help, and that’s this — I think of getting there is like this hundred piece puzzle. . . You have to have pieces one through 99 in place before piece 100 drops."
For impactful decisions, it takes a whole lot of events, conversations, interventions and quite frankly, time before you finally make the decision. Before this you're still just thinking about it, mulling the idea around in your head, trying it on. "Am I someone who abstains from alcohol, forever?" But you haven't actually resolved to do that thing. Until finally, you do. That doesn't mean you don't backtrack at some point during your journey, but in order for you to change, quit or create a habit, you have to make the decision i.e. "I am going to stop smoking. I am not a smoker." Or for me, "I am going to quit my job by X date. I will be free." Mel Robbins discusses this very powerfully in a video found on social media. The gist? If you don't like what you got, make the decision to do something about it. But you first have to make the decision.
Before last year, I tended to make a very long list of resolutions. What I realized was that I never really resolved to obtain those things, it was more of a "Oh that would be nice if I did that, but I'm not really going to sweat it if I don't!" In actuality, they weren't resolutions, they were "nice to have" items in my life. I hadn't actually resolved to do them. I would write down my so-called resolutions and then promptly forget about them, essentially letting myself off the hook. That is until next year when I'd then revisit the dreaded list and then realize I hadn't accomplished much of anything. So I'd hit copy, paste, and repeat the cycle.
So last year, I took a different approach and achieved vastly different results. First off, I only identified 9 goals, as opposed to my usual 20. And I accomplished 8 out of my 9 goals(!), narrowly missing my "run 300 miles goal." This is coming from someone who would consistently accomplish very few of her resolutions from years past. So what did I do differently?
Firstly, I related my goals to my identity. I selected 3 characteristics that I wanted to use to describe myself. I resolved to be happy, healthy and free, and in fact I used the mantra "I am happy. I am healthy. I am free." as part of my morning routine. Then, I wrote down 3 goals under each of the 3 characteristics.
I then translated these goals into an action plan. Under each of the 9 goals, I wrote mini goals or actions that I needed to accomplish in order to achieve my big goals/resolutions. If finishing the Happiness Course (to be happy) was a goal, I made it my mini goal or action to devote 1-2 hours a week on the course. If running 300 miles (to be healthy) was the goal, I needed to run once a week for an average of 5.8 miles. If quitting my job (to be free) was the goal, I needed to perform a financial analysis to determine how much money I needed to save before quitting. It's one thing to have goals, it's another thing to actually know and understand how to achieve them, or as Mel Robbins puts it, you need to "create a vision for yourself . . . make it your mission to make that vision a reality." Below is an idea of what my 2021 resolutions looked like. I included my mini goals/actions under "I am Healthy." So if getting down to 135 lbs was my resolution, my action to get there was to work through the Noom app by using it every day.
I am Happy
- Finish Happiness Course
- Meditate daily
I am Healthy
- Complete 1 race: walk every week-day; research trail races and register for race
- Run 300 miles: one long run every sunday
- Attain 135 lbs: Work thru Noom app daily i.e. log meals, weigh yourself, etc.
I am Free
- Quit job
In summary, the keys for making my 2021 resolutions effective were:
- Identity-Based: Tie your resolutions to your identity. This will help you remember them and also stay motivated.
- Make the Decision: Resolve to actually do the things you say you want to do. Really make the decision. Ask yourself: "Am I willing to put in the effort to accomplish this?"
- Action Plan: Turn those resolutions into an action plan with mini actionable goals or habits. (You can go one step further and create a separate document of actionable items with timelines.)
- Revisit your Action Plan monthly, at a minimum. (I keep my Action Plan in Evernote with the title "<Year> Action Plan." I like to use this title instead of "Resolutions" for obvious reasons.)
Additionally, try to keep it simple. I didn't allow myself to go crazy with the number of resolutions. For me, less than 10 is probably where I need to be. Anymore and it becomes overwhelming. I also picked goals that were quite achievable. I like the optimism that a new year brings, but sometimes you need to be honest with yourself on what's doable in one year. Because of my past resolutions not working out, some of the goals I chose were ones I knew I could achieve within the first 6 months. Confidence booster! (Another trick from Atomic Habits.)
Now that you've written your Action Plan, there are several tools that helped me with the "How." Stay tuned for Part 2!