I spent much of January thinking about resolutions. Do I want to make changes in 2019? If so, what should I change?
Honestly, not much was coming to my mind. I mean, I had some things that weren’t working but I didn’t know how to fix them. I had been trying for months already, without much progress.
But then I stumbled across a concept that really caught my attention. Quoting from a recent 538 article:
“Researchers talk about an idea called ‘intrinsic motivation’ — that is, changes you choose to make because you just plain enjoy them. If you make a resolution to do something that you like doing, not only is it more likely to make you happier over the long haul — you’re also more likely to keep the resolution.”
“Unfortunately, it’s hard to get intrinsic motivation from things like ‘stop smoking’ or ‘eat fewer frozen Zebra Cakes.’ In those cases, you’re literally abandoning a thing that feels good because you think you ought to, not because you enjoy giving it up. But there’s still a way to get the same kind of bump, Sheldon said. ‘Identified motivation’ is basically about attaching deep meaning and personal identity to a choice — this is who I am and what I do. And it’s associated with happiness, too. Don’t just give up Zebra Cakes. Turn yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t eat Zebra Cakes.”
This “identified motivation” idea feels like the Holy Grail to me. It’s not about changing what you do… it’s about changing who you are. That’s compelling. In religious terms, we might call this conversion — what King Benjamin’s people experienced when they said they felt “a mighty change in [their] hearts, that [they had] no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”
But how do you intentionally develop identified motivation? The 538 article offers no help, simply saying: “It can be hard to muster up identified motivation out of thin air.” Fortunately, I found my answer in a podcast interview of James Clear, author of Atomic Habits:
“Your habits are how you embody a particular identity. Every time you make your bed you embody the identity of someone who’s clean and organized. Every time you sit down to write a blog post you embody the identity of someone who is a writer. Every time you go to the gym you embody the identity of the fit person….”
“Once you build up enough evidence and cast enough votes for that type of identity, you have a reason to show up and do it again. It’s like hey, I’m a fit person. I want to go to the gym because that’s who I am. And that’s really the ultimate form of behavior change. True behavior change is identity change. It’s one thing to say ‘I want this’ but it’s something very different to say ‘I am this,’ you know, like I am this type of person. I’m the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. Once you believe that about yourself then going to the gym feels kind of easy. You’re not even, like, pursuing behavior change. You’re just acting in alignment with the type of person that you already believe that you are.”
It’s habits. Habits are how you develop identified motivation.
And that totally makes sense. The whole premise of habits is that if you do something long enough, then it becomes easy to keep it going. Identified motivation explains why it gets easy.
The best part is that it’s scalable. Once you developed a habit, that new behavior is on autopilot and you can move on to the next change without losing the progress you made. You’re rebuilding your identity into whatever you want it to be, one incremental step at a time.
So I’m going to work on habits in 2019. I’ll do it similar to how Nicky Case did it last year. I’ll choose one habit per month and track it daily with a streak-building tool (I’m using Habit Streak Pro).
Last month, I worked on brushing my teeth every night at 7pm (which prevents me from snacking all evening). This month, I’m saying no YouTube in the evenings. I’ll come up with the rest of the habits as the year progresses.
Maybe after twelve months of this, I’ll have a “habit-making habit” and I can ride those compounding benefits into the next decade. I guess we’ll see!