Have you ever struggled with a behavior for so long that it seemed like it was part of your genetic makeup? Have you ever thought or said “this is just the way that I am?”
If you have struggled with a habit for a long time, you might assume that your genetics are to blame. In reality, the problem might be the way that you see yourself. In this article, you will learn about something that I refer to as the Identity Habits Cycle. Your identity and habits influence each other- for better or for worse.
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A Personal Example
Getting up on time was a huge struggle for me earlier in my life. In high school, my father practically had to rip me out of bed each morning to get to school on time.
When I went away to college and no longer had someone to get me up, my morning struggles continued, and I started snoozing every day. That habit also continued after college when my professional career began. Each day, I would abuse the snooze button on my alarm clock and sleep too late. Then, I would scramble like a lunatic to try to get to work on time.
Some point along the way, I started telling myself and other people that I was “not a morning person.” It was a simple and obvious diagnosis. There were years of evidence to back up this belief about myself.
Each day that I snoozed and struggled to get out of bed, it reinforced my identity of not being a “morning person.” Each time that I told myself or someone else that I was “not a morning person,” it reinforced my habit of snoozing and sleeping late. I did not realize it at the time, but I was stuck in an Identity Habits cycle that was getting stronger each day.
What is an Identity Habits Cycle?
An Identity Habits Cycle is my term for the connection between how you see yourself (your identity) and how you behave (your habits). To say it another way, your identity influences your habits, and your habits influence your identity.
Each time that you behave a certain way, you reinforce an identity consistent with that behavior. And, each time that you think about or describe yourself in a certain way, you increase the chances that your future behavior will be consistent with that identity.
An Identity Habits Cycle can work against you or for you. Let’s look at a few examples of negative Identity Habits cycles first.
Examples of Negative Identity Habits Cycles
If you see yourself as someone who is “not a morning person,” then you will behave like someone who is not a morning person. You will snooze and sleep late more often.
If you see yourself as someone who has “no self-control with candy,” then you will behave like someone who has no self-control. You will eat more candy.
If you see yourself as someone who is a “cannot stop procrastinating,” then you will behave like someone who cannot stop procrastinating. You will keep pushing things off.
Examples of Positive Identity Habits Cycles
The good news is that your identity can also work in your favor. Let’s look at a few examples of positive Identity Habits cycles:
If you see yourself as an “athlete,” then you will behave like someone who is an athlete. You will work out more.
If you see yourself as a “great student,” then you will behave like someone who is a great student. You will prepare well for exams.
If you see yourself as a “wonderful parent,” then you will behave like someone who is a wonderful parent. You will be loving with your children.
Your identity influences your habits, and your habits influence your identity. For better or for worse, your cycles get stronger and stronger over time.
Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
The concept of an Identity Habits Cycle is consistent with research conducted by Stanford University psychologist, Dr. Carol S. Dweck. For decades, she has studied the relationship between mindset and success. The central theme of her work is that you can have one of two mindsets. If you have a “fixed mindset,” you believe your abilities cannot be improved. If you have a “growth mindset,” you believe your abilities can be improved.
People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges (to avoid a potential failure). They view setbacks as evidence that they cannot succeed. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset pursue challenges (even though they might fail). They use setbacks as evidence that they should try a new approach or work harder to improve their results in the future.
As Dr. Dweck writes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “My research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Changing Your Mindset, Identity, and Habits
Most people have a growth mindset in certain areas and a fixed mindset in other areas. For example, you could have a growth mindset in regard to your leadership ability, while having a fixed mindset in regard to your ability to get up early.
In my early thirties, I changed my Identity Habits Cycle around snoozing and not seeing myself as a “morning person.” Now, I always get up on time and start the day strong. I have not snoozed in years, and my identity has also changed for the better.
Here are three steps that helped me break that cycle. No matter what you might want to change in your life, these steps can help you too:
(1) Replace a fixed mindset with a growth mindset.
If there is a habit that you have struggled with for a while, you probably also have a fixed/false belief about yourself that reinforces your struggles. That could include what you think you are or are not (i.e. “I’m not a morning person”), what you think you have or don’t have (i.e. “I have no self-control”), and what you think you cannot do (i.e. “I cannot stop procrastinating”).
What have you told yourself is permanent? Identify where you have a fixed mindset. Then, adopt a growth mindset instead, and believe that change is possible.
(2) Identify the real cause(s) of your behavior.
Don’t take the easy way out and blame your genetics for your behavior. Identify the real cause(s) of your habits. Why do you really act the way that you do?
For example, if you think that you are “not a morning person,” you might have years of evidence that support your belief, like I once did. However, there are probably other (non-genetic) factors at work. In my case, my problems in the morning were because my sleep environment was not ideal and my bedtime habits were not either. Once I made some changes in each of those areas, getting up on time became much easier.
Note: If you are unsure what is really causing your behavior, check out this article on “What Causes Bad Habits?”
(3) Create evidence that change is possible.
Believing that you can change is a good start, but it is not enough. You also have to prove it to yourself with your actions. Start small and easy by proving it to yourself one time.
Do not let yourself get overwhelmed by looking too far ahead. Behave your new way once. If you can do it one time, then you can do it again. Each time that you do, it will reinforce the new identity that you want to develop, which will make it easier to follow-through on the new behavior, and on and on.
Eventually, your new identity and new habits will replace the old ones. Your new Identity Habits Cycle will get stronger and stronger over time.
Summary and Final Thoughts
If you have struggled with a habit for a long time, you might assume that your genetics are to blame. In reality, your identity could be the problem. Follow these three steps and you can change your identity and habits for the better:
- Replace a fixed mindset with a growth mindset.
- Identify the real cause(s) of your behavior.
- Create evidence that change is possible.
Change is not easy, especially at first. However, it’s worth it, and it gets easier over time. Each time that you change an Identity Habits Cycle for the better, your confidence increases. You create more evidence for yourself that you can improve your behavior. That makes it easier to adopt a growth mindset about other changes and goals. Eventually you start to see yourself as “someone who can change or accomplish anything.”
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and executive recruiter, and his work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. His latest book is titled Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work.