I don’t believe that this identity-centric model in anyway replaces the older model. I still think you can use the basics of habit formation to train in specific behaviors. But the behaviors I’d focus on would be different. Let’s look at some of my initial ideas:
Definitely the most popular idea is to redefine yourself as, say, a vegetarian. James did this – he established with everyone he knew that he didn’t eat meat. And this almost forced him, via social pressures, to keep up the behavior.
Here’s why I’m very hesitant about this approach. It’s so changeable. You change friends, breakup, move, and your social network is wiped out. You see this with high school athletes – they’re expected to go to practice by their peers, teachers, coaches, and parents. But once they go to college, their identity shifts, and it turns out they never really established that habit to begin with. Hello Freshman 15.
I don’t think we need to toss this out completely. I just think it shouldn’t be relied upon in this manner. There is a potential of forming virtual communities and identities that may have, oddly enough, more lasting forms of identity as opposed to changing social circles.
Barcelona, where I’m based now, has quite a few health and fitness communities. What I was most intrigued by were communities about getting together to go out to restaurants that served “healthy” food. In particular there was a paleo community (I can’t find it now) that was organized around potlucks and restaurants with whole food. What an amazing idea considering the huge difficulty in eating right is the social pressure. You often feel relegated to either being utterly miserable or living a monastic existence prepping everything alone at home.
As an aside I was trying to find out if there were online social sites like Facebook specifically for clean eating and found a Paleo dating site and even a Low Carb Cruise! So I guess you can take identity as far as you like nowadays.
There is something very identity-driven about having a formal designation given to you by an institution. Complete your yoga teacher training and you are a certified yoga instructor, whether or not you’d consider yourself a full master or not.
A friend of mine back in China was really into kettlebells and wanted to become a trainer. I just found out that Mark Sisson is offering a Primal Blueprint Expert Certification. I think the only danger is erring on the side of endless certifications instead of real progress, which I believe can occur.
If social identity has flaws because it relies on other people, then why not move to hammering your identity changes with your own mantras?
I experimented with affirmations several years ago before I got into habits. So my affirmations naturally only lasted a few weeks. But I did feel really good about the whole process at the time.
Nevertheless, I’m very skeptical as to if they actually work. According to a metastudy on the subject they do appear to work for changing health related behaviors. I’m STILL skeptical, and will do an entire post delving into it in the future.
All or Nothing and Pavel’s Greasing the Groove
Many of these large habits are all or nothing. James is a vegetarian all the time, not just on weekdays. So far I’ve been very consistent about keeping my habits and superhabits to the weekdays, and made what I still think is a wise decision to take the weekends off. But it may be that habits I want to be larger (megahabits? ha!), and that have identity characteristics over more changing situations need to be working all the time.
Greasing the groove might work to hurry the process up. Instead of starting once a day, do the behavior multiple times a day all the time. This obviously may or may not be easy to do depending the behavior.
Counterintuitively Small Habits
Every time I went through a large cycle of clean eating, I came away with a few small behaviors that stuck. I drink my coffee black. I ignore bread when it’s set on the table at a restaurant. I do not drink soft drinks.
These are automatic and there’s not emotional waffling about these behaviors. So maybe the best way to deal with changes is to start with a focus on the small rather than the large.
I experimented with this for a few weeks. I brainstormed a list of really small behaviors that have to do with clean eating:
-Regularly going to the grocery store
-Stocking up on clean basics.
-Planning our meals for the day/week
I selected “stocking up on clean basics” and made it even simpler – every morning as soon as I got up I went through a kitchen and pantry checklist for basics so that if things got busy I’d have options for food at home.
I have done this without the full treatment – no recording, no formal implementation intention. I had a big long break in between for travel, but the week and a half that I did this, it seemed to work really well. And the side effect was that I naturally went to the store and ate pretty well.
I just researched identity based habits and, of course, James Clear has an article on it where he also advocates making small wins and breaking down bigger behaviors in order to become “that” kind of person.
My buddy james started his move to being vegetarian by using a food tracker. The quantified self seems like a great way to prove to yourself that you have indeed changed. Things like the flash diet definitely helped me in my 30 day no bread challenge, and seemed to provide a buttressing effect similar to a social group for staying on track. Looking it over may help with the identity change as well.
Falling in Love
I know, it sounds really odd, but bear with me here. The things you love to do are things that tend to stick. I love reading, I used to love bicycling. I didn’t need to think up a methodology for how to increase habituation or push for mastery – it just happened. They don’t take up self discipline points – they give them back because you feel relaxed and rejuvenated just doing them.
Can you deliberately fall in love? The New York Times ran an interesting article on the subject of deliberate love, but this was about people. For activities I think the key rests in ritual, something that’s been coming up more and more in self-improvement circles (and one I need to do a detailed post on in the future).
I love getting into bed, opening my book and escaping to another world. Reading isn’t just a “megahabit” that sticks with me across time and circumstances, it’s something I love to do, I couldn’t do without, and it, in a large part, helps define me. And I think you find the same kind of talk when you encounter people who are enthusiastic about things.
I think there’s something important in ritualizing – you get excited about the preparatory ephemera and it not only lowers starting thresholds, it inverts them. Can you deliberately do this? I have no idea, but I’m curious to try. I’m also curious if this would be a totally different paradigm outside of identity.
I think there are other more advanced options. Buddhist thought talks about meditation as wearing away the concept of a self. The conclusion for me is that if the self is an illusion, and you know it, you might be able to don another illusion more easily. Vajrayana and Tantra deal with visualizations, hypnosis mucks around directly with the unconscious, which presumably is the seat of identity, as does NLP to a degree.
These are all way out of my league, but perhaps the smallest distillation, visualizing myself as another person who is, say, a clean eater, may have some benefit. Though, as with affirmations, I’m not clear if this has actually been proved to make a difference.