Build the good habits you want and actually make them stick
Edited by: Emilie W.
A key requirement for success is consistency – as the famous saying goes, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Understanding what actions, you need to reach a goal is just half the work – the discipline to keep up the changes is what decides how far you get. But how do you build consistency? Well, James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, behavioural science expert and speaker, gives us the two key components to consistently set yourself up for success. The first is starting small. Unfortunately, humans can be quite resistant to change, as it can be stressful, uncertain and feel like a threat. So instead of trying to upend our routine and adapt to a whole new way of doing things, we can start small to increase our chances of maintaining new habits. The second key ingredient is one most people are not aware of. Changing how we see ourselves. The way we view ourselves (i.e., our identity) will influence the things we do – if you think you’re smart, you’ll be more likely to partake in intellectual activities and vice-versa if you see yourself as dull. As Clear puts it, our routine behaviours are just a reflection of our identity – changing this identity will change our routine. This can mean characterising yourself as someone who enjoys learning and inspiring by listening to your favourite podcast each morning (check out our top podcasts for entrepreneurs.) In this blog, we will elaborate on the idea of identity-based habits and how to create good habits that stick.
Why identity helps create good habits
James Clear posits that the key to building good habits is to first focus on how we see ourselves. What that means is that you must envision the kind of person that does the things that you want to eventually do. For instance, if you want to go to the gym more – how would you change your identity to match that? Well, envision yourself as a typical example of going to the gym, whether that may be an athlete, bodybuilder or fitness guru. Alternatively, you can simply state “I’m the friend that’s always at the gym”. Either method are ways of incorporating the desired habit into your sense of self. Actively living out this added paradigm of identity, through your actions, will reinforce the belief and create the good habits you want.
This might sound implausible or odd, but you do this daily without realizing it. One of the ways we process social groups and decide how to interact with people is by labelling them. Namely, we characterise others based on the group they belong to, and we’ll predict their behaviour accordingly. For example, in high school, you could attach identities such as ‘nerds’ or ‘mean girls’ based on the group they belonged to – importantly, you would then be able to guess what kind of activity the person engages in based on the identity you’ve given them. Nerds were probably studying a lot, and mean girls were probably, well… being mean girls. So you see, identity labels as ways of deciding how someone should act is actually a common tactic for our brain to understand the world around us. Indeed, maybe we’ve been labelled by others and have unconsciously incorporated that into our own daily lives. Becoming aware of this fact and harnessing its power will unlock the ability to build good habits, and most importantly, keep them up. When you genuinely believe that you are the type of person that carries out the good habits you want, only then, will you effectively be able to maintain those habits. Thankfully, labels are not binary, and you can craft the ideal formulation from nerd to popular wherever you want to fit in!
The strategy for building good habits
The strategy for building good habits involves two main steps: decide the type of person you want to be, then prove it to yourself with small wins. So firstly, how do you decide which identity will characterize those good habits you want?
Obviously, the way we view ourselves changes over time as we go through different experiences and life paths – but there is a common core which determines what is important to you. What are your core principles and values? And accordingly, what would your ideal person's routine look like? You need to think “what would a person who is [x desired trait] do during their day?” Breaking it down into specific, concrete steps will really help materialize the immediate, small-scale habits you need to implement. For example, let’s say you want a six-pack. The identity of a person who has a six-pack could be someone who understands human physiology very well. In that case, they redefine the goal as “strengthening their rectus abdominus”. They are the type of person who gyms regularly, does cardio, and has a very low body fat percentage. They are the type of person that avoids eating unhealthy meals because they need to maintain a caloric deficit for a while. Once you’ve characterized the habits of someone with a six-pack, you can now incorporate them into your own routine. The next step is building good habits through small wins.
Using small wins to cement good habits
James Clear mentions the use of small wins as a method to prove to yourself that you are the kind of person you want to be. The kind of person with these good habits.
If you don't care about abs, but instead want to become a better writer. Tell yourself you want to be the type of person that writes 1000 words a week. That task on its own might make you quit because it is daunting. That’s where the small wins come in. For as long as you need, begin just one percent of that goal every day. Write just 10 words a day until you get to a paragraph. As you slowly adopt the identity, those 10 words become 100, then whole paragraphs a day. By that point, you may already be a best-selling author (let us know!)
Use small wins to begin the journey of building the identity and proving to yourself that you are fit to embody that identity. This is the only real method that will actually get you long-term sustained success when it comes to setting good habits and maintaining them.
Good habits for entrepreneurs
Chances are if you’re on this page, you’re curious how using this method of identity-based habits can help you in your entrepreneurial pursuits. Well, even the most technical of technicals will tell you that a very strong predictor of success in this world is your perspective and attitude towards challenges. Indeed, when the times get tough being able to consistently uphold those good habits will develop your character. But what are some daily habits of entrepreneurs? Let’s deconstruct a profile. Although no two entrepreneurs are the same, there are some common characteristics you can adopt to your sense of self. To be methodical, this study gives us a list of top characteristics measured by psychologists. Briefly, entrepreneurs who are successful tend to be less risk-averse, show tolerance of ambiguity and show optimism. If we can picture a person like this, whether imaginary or based on someone we know, we can then deconstruct what type of habits they would have. To kick off the brainstorming I’ll give a couple of ideas from this article from Forbes. They mention focusing on the highest-value tasks, something which people who are not afraid of risk can do. But how do identify the highest-value task? Well, by keeping your eye out on current events. So, a good habit could be subscribing to newsletters or magazines that keep you updated (for example, our KES one telling you about important upcoming events). Following this thread, how many good habits do you think you could come up with based on the article and the characteristics provided? Have a go!
Reflections on building good habits
We all grow up thinking that we need to force ourselves to do things, and that is the only way to carry out tasks which feel boring or tiring or that we want to avoid. The problem with this mindset is it can overload our ability to maintain discipline, leading to burnout and poor self-esteem. Indeed, it just isn’t sustainable over the long term. Identities however are hard to fight. Athletes train harder, run faster, sweat more, bleed more, than the average person, and are happy to do it for as long as it takes because it is their identity. In sum, the next time you want to change the trajectory of your life by building new habits, don’t build the habits, build the identity. Good habits will form themselves. Another important point: there is no such thing as an ideal person. The person you are today reading this is deserving of as much love and appreciation as an impossible ‘ideal’ we hold in our heads – this blog is not arguing for deriving worth by striving for an ideal, but rather, that we always have the power to grow.
If you want to learn more about the entrepreneur mindset and inspire yourself on good habits you can use check out this post – otherwise subscribe to our newsletter to get information on our events, job board and more delivered to your inbox once a month.