73 - Habit-Building 1: If you want to build a lasting habit, ask yourself: ‘Who am I voting to power?’



I had good grades through school. Freshman year and they started falling. ‘I’m smart,’ I reassured myself. I waited for things to change.

Nothing did. I was middle of the pack and showed no signs of moving up. My friends were the brightest young minds in the country. I was no longer smarter. But because I identified as smart, I did what I had always done: I took it easy. I worked only when I had to. For short bursts, I pushed myself but in the face of sketchy results, I lost motivation.

What happened?

I had tried to change my habits (study more regularly) without changing my identity (not smart but hard-working).

Our identities are powerful forces. At the very basic, they are labels. At their core, they carry a force that can hold us back or propel us forward.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, suggests approaching habit change by building your desired identity first. See yourself as an athlete and you’ll run, good day or bad.

He compares building a habit to voting to power the person you want to become. Today, the present you is in power. For the new you to win, she has to collect more votes.

Votes are actions. Persist with good actions and the votes for the new you stack up. So does your confidence. You’re on track to topple the incumbent.

Now imagine the campaign without your future self. There’s only one candidate–the current you. You don’t like her but in the absence of an alternative, the status quo prevails. That is what had happened to the freshman me.

Tip 1: Identities work for building habits because they establish rules that free up your decision-making. If you see yourself as a writer, you wake up every morning and write. No hitting snooze and telling yourself that you’ve been good all week.

Tip 2: The voting system has a secondary benefit. It allows you to be kind to yourself. You don’t have to win all the votes, just more. So if you do hit snooze, you quickly learn to forgive yourself and get your campaign back on track.

The identity-first system aligns closely with what has worked for other successful figures.

Affirmation - Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, repeatedly wrote down I, Scott Adams, will become a successful cartoonist! on a piece of paper every day. It helped him internalize his future self. When his motivation dropped, he would ask: What would a successful cartoonist do?

Public self-identification - In his early twenties, investor-philosopher Naval Ravikant wanted to start his own company. Finding himself dawdling, he announced to his co-workers that he was going to found a start-up. Once word spread, he could not back out for his own reputation.

What are some ways that have helped you change yourself that could help others? Share your experiences in the comments!

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