The following is a letter I sent to my sister, after she’d asked how I heard about James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits. In it I described my epiphany around healthy food choices. And when I say “epiphany”, I mean “figuring out that thing right in front of my face.”
Atomic Habits is by James Clear, whose work on habits is mentioned frequently by Shane Parrish, the fellow who runs Farnum Street. I saw mentions of the book in my Twitter feed leading up to its release, and habits come up often in blog posts I’ve read this year. I actually wasn’t going to buy it just yet, but after reading the first third of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), which has a big chapter on cognitive dissonance, I had an idea that I was pretty sure Atomic Habits would confirm. It did.
Basically, I confirmed the answer to this problem: I’ve spent the last decade trying to figure out how to apply the same willpower that has kept me sober for 16 years, to my poor eating choices.
Turns out I needed to make it an identity-based decision. I abstain from alcohol not because I can’t drink it (I shouldn’t), or because I can’t control myself when I do (which is definitely true), but because “I am a person who doesn’t drink.” My extended sobriety is just an effect of the identity.
I can be around alcohol and it doesn’t matter. I can sit at a bar, where there’s alcohol, across from a person drinking alcohol, and it doesn’t matter. It would matter to someone who is “a person who wants alcohol but can’t have it.” I’m not that. “I am a person who doesn’t drink.” I don’t want alcohol. It would cause too much cognitive dissonance with my “doesn’t drink” identity.
So to lose weight and become stronger, I need to not focus on that goal at all. After Halloween, there was candy in the office all over the place. That week was what’s best described as caloric mayhem. That weekend, I read Atomic Habits and Mistakes Were Made. The following week, the candy was in the same place. I was there, standing in the same spot as the previous week. What’s different is my mindset.
The week of Halloween, I was “a person with impulse control problems.” But now, “I am a health-conscious person who makes healthy decisions and enjoys challenging physical activity.” Eating well and getting stronger at the gym are side-effects of the decisions I make to support that identity. I didn’t touch the candy all week and went to the gym three times. It ate really healthy food, and when I was hungry and there was only crap available, I went without. Eating poorly would cause too much cognitive dissonance pain, so deciding to go without was really easy. I didn’t even want it. That was the breakthrough. I don’t want sweets in the exact same way that I don’t want alcohol. They both conflict with dominant identities. I found the answer. It truly was a “light-bulb moment.”
Consciously-built habits help reinforce that identity. We are what we repeatedly do, so I can’t just say “I am X” without acting like it. Taking a cue from Clear, I put my gym bag near the front door. It’s right there when I get home (not in a closet and out of sight). I write “gym” on the calendar on my fridge, so every time I see it, I know when I’m hitting the weights (I love lifting weights). I only go to the gym to row for 15 minutes, but one activity rolls into the next, and before I know it, I’ve been there for an hour. Clear calls it “habit stacking.” When I shop for groceries, “I am not a person who eats that” runs through my head when I’m walking past the bakery section. I do have one “cheat/treat meal” once per week. It provides a vent for the pancake and empty carb cravings I get. It’s one meal, not a whole day.
When presented with decisions, we choose whichever one supports our dominant identities. Adding a “I am a health-conscious person” identity provides a set of heuristics (which will become habitual decisions) when confronted with choices.
Why it works
“I want to be thin” is less effective than “I am a person who makes healthy choices.” The former focuses on an effect, which is variable. It changes — and “thin” is usually not a reflection of reality. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a goal, right? If I were thin already, I wouldn’t be trying to make a change. So I’m constantly focusing on a state I’m not in yet. Comparing my current self to my future self is maddening when the effect I’m looking for is the result of many small decisions over a long period of time.
Instead, I focus on what’s not going to change. An identity, once locked in, is harder to change (this is why we should be deliberate about choosing our identities). An identity reflects reality right away. When I chose to be a “health-conscious person”, the change was immediate.
This is not to say that there are no challenges. Like I said in my letter to my sister (and I forget who I was quoting), “we are what we repeatedly do.” I have to reinforce the identity through my actions. Through my decisions.
Those decisions just get easier when there’s an identity backing them up. Habits help. Decisions become actions, actions reinforce the identity, which make decisions easier. It’s a positive feedback loop.