Changing behavior by changing identity

When you picture yourself five years from now, who will you be? Most of us assume that we will be basically the same as today. We’ll have the same friends, we’ll do the same activities, we’ll make similar decisions as we make today, etc.

Now compare yourself to who you were five years ago. Do you make the same decisions now as you do then? I’m going to guess that the answer is no – your priorities have likely shifted. For example, five years ago, I was single and hadn’t heard of coaching, and now my priorities are family and coaching.

So we know that we change over the course of years, but when we project forward, we assume we will stop changing. Isn’t that interesting? You can read more about the research supporting this tendency in Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, where he explains that our brains project that we will feel in the future the same way we are feeling now, which makes it hard to change our lives to become happier.

So if you want to change how you behave, you have to do it without the expectation that your brain will cooperate with the change. Your brain’s “forecast” of the future is decidedly flawed in that it assumes you will stay the same going forward, regardless of how much you’ve changed in the past. Therefore the brain thinks that change will likely only make things worse, and it’s better to hold onto what you have today.

This brain tendency can get in the way of moving forward if you are considering a change that seems risky. Your brain may shut down your system with anxiety and fear whenever the change is considered. Even if you go through a number of steps to make the change less risky, and can logically explain to yourself and others how it isn’t as risky as it looked at first, your brain may still be triggered into a state of panic by the “risky” change. I experienced this myself in that it took me years to take the steps necessary to calm my brain down about the possibility of leaving Google.

The key for me was to keep taking steps towards my eventual goal of building a coaching business. Despite my brain panicking about leaving the comfort and stability of Google, I chose to take actions that expressed my future identity as a coach. By taking small steps, I was able to fool my brain into not panicking about this slow movement towards a new identity. But once I accumulated enough of those small steps, I had a new perspective on who I “was”, and had shifted myself away from a Google-first identity towards a coaching-first identity, making it easier to take the final step to leave Google.

Another way I’ve heard it expressed is “coming from” a future identity, rather than “going towards” a goal. These feel very different in that working towards a future goal has the potential implication that your current state is not okay. Rather than deal with that cognitive dissonance, our brain can go into panic mode and shut down rather than deal with any change. If we “come from” a future identity, we can trick our brain into framing it as expressing an aspect of our current self in the present.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear calls this building identity-based habits. His advice is to first decide the type of person you want to be, and then prove that you are that type of person with small wins (or as BJ Fogg calls them, tiny habits). Each small win reinforces the desired identity, and makes it easier to start on the next action, because you have shown that the new identity is who you are.

I’ve also illustrated the difference between identity-based change and willpower change to a couple clients by using parenting. When people become parents, their life goes through immense change and is constantly disrupted by unexpected challenges like the child getting sick. And yet most parents don’t say “I don’t have time for this” – they chose the identity of a parent, and so they make the time to care for the child regardless of what it takes. When a client says “I don’t have time to work towards this” (where this could be their development as a leader, or their startup idea, or whatever brought them to coaching), they are effectively saying “my current identity does not include this as a priority”. So if they can start coming at it from a future identity e.g. “I am a person who invests in myself” or “I am an entrepreneur”, it starts to shift their priorities and they make the time, much like I was able to leave Google once I shifted my identity to “I am a coach”.

When you have made changes to your behavior in the past, did you also shift your identity? And if you want to make changes in your behavior now, what is a possible identity that will reinforce the desired change? Can you start with making small changes in your behavior to prove you “are” the future identity?

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