Finding It Hard to Change a Habit? Maybe This Explains Why.

This weekend, I spent a huge amount of time reading — ah, my favorite thing to do. One book I read was the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. (I just read Agee’s A Death in the Family, and loved it, so wanted to more of his work.)

Because I’m writing my book about habits — Better Than Before — these days, everything I read or hear makes me think about habits, and reading this book was no different. I was struck by something that Agee wrote, in February 1951, when he was about 41 years old.

He’d had serious heart trouble, and had been hospitalized, and had been told by doctors that he needed to cut back on drinking and smoking.

Agree wrote:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

And indeed, Agee didn’t cut back on the drinking and smoking, and died of a heart attack, at age 45, in a taxi on his way to see a doctor.

In Better Than Before, I talk about the strategies we can use to change our habits, and Agree alludes to the strategy that took me longest to recognize: the Strategy of Identity.

When people find it hard to change a habit, when they keep trying and failing, often an issue of identity is involved.

Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.

Often, habits can’t change until identity changes. For instance, a person identifies as the fun one, the one who says “yes” to everything — but also wants to cut back on drinking. A person identifies as a workaholic, but then wants to work reasonable hours. The identity is incompatible with the change in habits.

James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character says, “One regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”

Over and over, I’ve seen, that to change a habit, sometimes people have to grapple with a fundamental shift in their identity.  A while back, a commenter here summed this up perfectly:  “Food and eating used to play a big part in my identity, until I realized that my baking and being a ‘baker’ was resulting in being overweight. So I had to let that identity go.”

It can be exciting, but also painful or sad, to relinquish an identity. Sometimes it’s necessary, to allow important changes to occur. The more aware we are of a clash between the identity we have and the habits we seek, the more we can shape our actions to reflect our true values.

Have you ever had to re-think an aspect of your identity, in order to make an important change? It’s a lot more subtle and challenging than it sounds, at least in my experience.

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  • gradyj

    This resonated so much with me. I have always identified with and actively fought for the underdog, and I think being organized and strong and self-nurturing has always on some level felt like a betrayal of who I am. But the better I take care of myself and the more organized I become, the better I can work for what I believe in, right? I also think a lot if us, certainly me anyway, cling to bad habits because it’s the way our families have seen us and again, it feels like betrayal to break away.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    This is a powerful one. About 25 years ago, I was in a 12 step program, and finally decided to test some of the things that I considered ‘happy talk’ by actually testing some of the personality characteristics that I had repeatedly observed were “Just the way I am” . . .
    -Bad at math and thus money management
    -Bad at bureaucratic tasks
    -Disinclined to exercise
    -Inclined to take a sad and tragic view of life
    -Inclined to intensity and emotional extremes
    -Inclined to be messy and disorderly
    Hummmmm. I found out that my ‘just the way I am’ hard-wired ‘essential personality characteristics’ were indeed ‘PREFERENCES’ but that living as a single Mom with no other responsible adult to make life easy for me, or ‘make me happy’ was really not an excuse for just doing the things I did not prefer to do, but which, when done, in fact made my life immeasurably better.
    I continue to struggle with these issues of things that don’t come easily to me. But I no longer can excuse myself by saying ‘that’s just the way I am (am not).” I can choose to do things that are a little difficult for me, if doing them makes my life much better and easier.

    • Anna

      This is such a powerful insight! I have often used the “it’s just my personality” excuse — while I appreciate the importance of knowing oneself, there are sneaky little ways I have used that knowledge as a crutch. I’ve been on a path of tackling those things and reframing some of my “personality” traits and I appreciate your story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anna

    This was fascinating. I love “A Death in the Family” too; it captures so many vivid memories of moments, and it seems so true to the psychology of a young child. I only wish he had written more.

  • Cherrie

    I agree, I recently got myself to start going to the gym after work again because I decided that years from now, I wanted to know that I was a person that went to the gym every day. I don’t even care about being intense when working out or worrying about losing weight. I just want to go regularly and I’m sure the rest all work out.
    I was honored today when I swiped my ID and my picture didn’t come up and the attendant at the desk said he knows I come regularly.

    I am also trying to change my mindset toward dating and being single. I’ve gotten used to being single, but I am trying to think of myself as someone who can be in a relationship. This was a great post…thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s funny how energizing these small affirmations of good habits can be! I love that example.

  • PolarSamovar

    Whoa, big idea. I have no examples of using this Strategy to change a habit. But I recognize, now, what a powerful force it is on my existing habits. I had no idea. Will be thinking about this hard over the next few days.

    It’s especially compelling, because I now recognize that I use the Strategy of Identity all the time, in one specific way. When I have to make a difficult decision, the best question I know to ask is, “what kind of person do I want to be? And what would that kind of person do in this situation?” For some reason the question cuts through my tendency toward indecisiveness like nothing else.

    Which makes me think Identity could be a powerful tool for me in creating habits, as well.

  • Natalie

    Another blogger I read talks about behaving like a beautiful person, as a way to influence her eating and exercising. Beautiful people eat like this, so that is what I am going to do.

    • gretchenrubin

      Good example how our actions help define our identity, but we can use our identity to help shape our actions.

  • Joanna

    Excellent post, Gretchen. I’m working on some rather big changes that are needed to improve my health and can relate so much to what Agee said. I also just realized reading this post that identity is the reason I was successful breastfeeding. I had a lot of trouble at first with my daughter, but was ultimately able to breastfeed to 17 months, when she self weaned, and I think it was largely due to the fact that I view myself as the type of person who exclusively breastfeeds.

    So, to some extent, identity can help us reach our goals by making us more determined and willing to sacrifice. But it can also be a hindrance. So we need the wisdom to know when hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, so to speak.

    I also think there’s something to taking on a new identity rather than shedding an old one that can be quite challenging as well. Motherhood comes to mind here.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

    • gretchenrubin

      SO true. Identity can help us, but also hobble us. It’s important not to let identity get in the way of change or having a broader view of our own possibilities…defining our identity should be something to help us grow, not stop us.

      So true about parenthood. It’s such a big change. One of the biggest.

  • Kasey Coff

    An absolute gem of an essay…

  • Maggie

    I can see this making perfect sense. Have you come across the concept of ‘ego permeability’? It is a measure of how open to change you are in relation to your sense of identity. I came across it in my studies in linguistics, as high levels of ego permeability are a predictor of success in foreign language learning – in short, if you learn a foreign language as a child, you will usually end up sounding just like a native speaker. But if you learn it after puberty, it’s very hard to lose your own accent and blend in like a native speaker – because after puberty our sense of our own identity is more set, and it is linked with our nationality/native country. We don’t usually want to leave that behind and sound French, or German, or whatever. There are exceptions to that rule, and they are people with a high level of ego permeability. I bet they would also find it easy to change their habits!! :)

    • Stefan Denk

      Learning my third foreign language now, I can say we for sure do have a lighter approach to the concept of ‘ego’.

      It’s something I noticed years back when I started working for international companies. It no longer was “which language do you speak” but “which languages (notice the plural) do you speak”?

      I have found that the more languages a person speaks, the easier it is to evolve new concepts with them. Their mind is not tied to one cast-in-stone identity and they know they can live in different worlds. I actually think in English now, which is not my native language. That alone changes how I think about things and thus the world how I see it….

      And the beauty behind: I can switch the language I think in from one thought to the next. This is how flexible our minds are once we let go of the belief that “this is how I am”. It’s not. It’s how you chose to be right now and you can literally chose any potential form – you just don’t. And once you change the cause (how you see yourself) it’s so easy to change the symptoms (how you behave, aka your habits).

  • NJ Darling

    Thank you Gretchen. This is HUGE and I will ponder it for days. I think this is your next book. In fact, please have it be your next book.
    Age is also a factor here too. Most of us, when we begin to get in our 60’s and 70’s assume certain cultural and traditional roles including our appearance, clothing, activities, and so forth. Deepak Chopra has written about this and I am working on a blog about this. I’m using your Happiness Project as a model for The Younger Project however since my current identity is being a procrastinator I’m not applying myself very well.
    This post has given me hope about changing some unfortunate habits!

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent! Good luck –

  • Mimi Gregor

    I have read a LOT of books on metaphysics lately, particularly on the subject of how we shape our reality by what we think. If we think of ourselves as a “heavy drinker” or a “smoker”, we will never change. We must begin to think of ourselves as the person we want to be, identify this person as “us” in our minds, and act as if it were already so.

    Another point all these books make is that most people identify with their Ego. But our Ego is NOT who we really are! Our Ego is a series of habits, beliefs, and working theories that help us to negotiate this reality. The only time we have been close to being “who we really are” is when we were babies. Everything since then has been learned — and some of our teachers have not been the best. Maybe we learned prejudice from our parents. Or not to question “authority” from our school system. Or to smoke from our peers. Then we believe that “this is who I am”. But it isn’t. It’s just how we get along with others while we are here on Earth.

    I used to have the habit of drinking, and it was a tough one to change. Part of that may have been because I think of myself as a creative person, and that creative people drink. I had to see myself in a different way — as someone who is into staying healthy by eating real, organic food, exercising, and meditating — before I was able to change. Then, with my new identity in mind, I found the change MUCH easier to make. It didn’t happen overnight, and I had to learn to be patient with myself. And I am still creative — but I am something else as well.

    • Cod

      How do you actually go about replacing the old identity with the new. What/how do you do it?

  • http://lawniss.wordpress.com/ youonlylawonce

    Our identity is always dependent on the circumstances and the people around us. Explains why some people are huge social drinkers but won’t have a lick of alcohol when they’re by yourself. I’ve started making certain things more available (having 3 bottles of water at my workspace instead of 1 tiny one) to change my apparent habit of not hydrating enough. It helps.

  • hoink_hoink

    I am at day 277 of sobriety. When my fiance and I first discussed the possibility of my quitting drinking, it seemed the most impossible thing to me. It was part of who I was just like my job is part of who I am. Unfortunately that part of me could completely black out after 3 beers, get violent and angry for no reason, and wake up in the morning feeling nothing but self-loathing and confusion. With alcoholism a huge issue genetically for me and the realization that I was heading that direction, I made the decision to quit my bad habit.

    277 days later and I still go to all the parties. I still go to book club (aka wine club) and all the other events that alcohol is so engrained in. It was really hard at first, but now I don’t even notice everyone else drinking. I realized that I am still the exact same person without alcohol. Well actually, I’m a better version of myself. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to achieve?

    PS – Gretchen, your Happiness Project book was a huge source of help for me in this life transition. So thanks :)

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Congratulations! These kinds of major changes (my relationship to food is the one that entangles me the most) are difficult but so life-transforming. “It works if you work it”!!!! (-:

    • Guest

      wow – your story has struck a chord. are you sharing your tips and suggestions for others who would like to do the same?

    • gretchenrubin

      Congratulations. This is huge.

      I’m thrilled to hear that my work was useful to you in making an important change.

  • Kathy

    Timely piece for me, Gretchen. I’m rethinking some of my ideas about myself right now, related to strength and fears, and trying to change how I think–it’s not easy! But at least I want to do it, unlike Mr. Agee.

  • Nichole Black

    Yes! I lost 130 pounds, and have kept it off for 4 years. Identifying as a fit person has been the biggest reason I’ve been able to keep it off. I hate the term “lifestyle change,” because I honestly feel like a different person. A fit person chooses healthy food and makes time to work out. I had to fake it for a while, and ask myself, “What would a lean person do?” But it eventually became automatic, because my identity changed.

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, that’s a big habit change. A great example of how identity can make this possible.

      Sidenote: I’ve noticed that this strategy is particularly useful for Rebels. Many strategies often don’t work for Rebels (e.g., scheduling), but Identity is a key for them.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        That finding about Rebels could be such a blessing to people who ‘stand in their own way’!!! Great insight, Gretchen.

    • Connie Fletcher

      Something similar happened to me, Nichole, and I’ve kept the weight off for almost 10 years. When I read Gretchen’s post, I remembered that I decided to start acting like the slender person who was inside me–eating healthy, being more active. The slender person became my new identity. Now if I can just get adopt a new identity about a few other things! :)

      • John Lang

        I’ve lost 55 pounds in 2013, and I still find it surprising when strangers refer to me as “slender”. I constantly have to remind myself: “Oh yeah – I’m not the big guy any more.” My fat gave me the false self perception that I am big man, stroking my ego. But yes, I’ve also learned to think of myself as a healthy, fit person.

        • gretchenrubin

          What a great example.

    • http://mdsuburbanhomes.com Ken Montville

      Congratulations and I hope to be able to follow in your footsteps.That’s about the amount of weight I need to lose (I’m down 37 but on a plateau I can’t get off of). I, too, hate the term “lifestyle change”. What a crock.

      Thanks for the input.

  • KEGGER

    I studied foreign language acquisition in college. I remember a concept floating around about how identity prevented adults from becoming completely bilingual. Even adults that have lived in a foreign country, and are extremely fluent, will maintain an accent. The idea was that deep down, adults have a part of them that says “I am NOT ______”, and keeping that accent (or other affectation) results from this. This is also used to explain why children learn languages so easily–there is no ego/identity issues to stop them.

  • Abby

    This article really resonated with me, thank you Gretchen!

    I struggled with kleptomania for years, ever since I was a young child, it was a very hard habit/temptation to break, but I finally overcame it by realizing that this was not my true identity. I knew that the person I was inside had integrity and was generous, wasn’t greedy and grasping, so I started tithing (giving away a tenth of any money I made), then “somehow,” I was able to pay off all my credit card debt, and “somehow” the desire and impulse to steal disappeared when I realized I had become the more caring and compassionate person I knew was in there “somehow.” This was as much a spiritual transformation as it was a psychological one, thanks be to God!

  • Agnes

    There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about how some women won’t leave an abusive relationship because they don’t want to be somebody who raises children in a broken home. Or gets divorced. They didn’t want to be “one of those people”. Same idea.

  • Lora Vatalaro

    Upon reading today’s post, I’ve had my 243rd Amazing Gretchen Moment, but today’s is one of the best. I don’t think I would ever have identified this obstacle to accomplishment that is clearly influencing me. All I ever want to do is think and write, but my identity is actually, “You are a person who thinks about writing, but never does it,” and I didn’t know that until reading this post. I’m excited to see what happens as I work on this.
    And, I have to say, Gretchen, how much I love how your mind works (!!) and how much I value everything you’ve written, said, and shared. I can’t wait for the Habits book to hit the presses.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work strikes a chord with you – thanks so much for the kind words.

  • Joyce Bielen

    This really resonates. I spent a great deal of my early and middle adulthood as a parent; it’s so ingrained that I’m finding that making the adjustment to the new reality of figuring out my role now that the boys are self-sufficient, well-educated, and married to wonderful young women to be somewhat challenging. My husband has made the same adjustment almost seamlessly. I can see that my success will entail making changes to how I view my identity. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

  • Molly

    I can definitely identify with this blog post, and think it is one of your most interesting and thought provoking in recent months! I want to get my career in full force again after working part time and taking care of my son over the past 6 years, but I realize that doing so will require something of a change in my identity as a mother, from (pretty much) stay at home mom to working mom who scoots in for the game but isn’t around for all the little moments. And I’m not sure I want to make the shift. On the other hand, this blog also helps me realize that I’m not just being lazy b/c I procrastinate over looking for full time work. It is precisely b/c I realize the changes it will require, including an identity change, that I resist making the shift. What I need to do now is take this into full account, and make a choice, rather than drifting along not choosing which is going to be my bigger “project.”

    • Gillian

      That is quite a dilemma. As with so much in life, it is a question of what is the cost and what is the benefit? It is also a case of what you really want as opposed to what you think others expect of you. You have to do what is right for you and your family. Do you want that change in identity; do you want it now?

      • Molly

        Thanks Gillian. And as I wrote my comment, I realized, it also isn’t necessarily an either/or situation. I can keep doing what I am doing, which is working parttime and being around a lot for my son, so I’m not EITHER a career person OR a mother, but somehow manage both and slide more-or-less between the 2 identities at different times. For example, now that my son is in school full days, I have taken on a bigger load at work. In the summer, I am mostly with him since my job does not require me to work in the summer. Even so, if I want to make a bigger leap in my career, I do have to give up a lot of the time I spend with my son, and yes, I’m not sure I want to do that now. I still think I could do more, but procrastinate for some of Gretchen’s other reasons (loopholes), but the identity issue definitely plays a role here. (My mother worked a lot when I was growing up and wasn’t around for the little things, and it is important to me to be around for the little moments (ex. getting upset and wanting to talk to someone when a friend hurts his feelings or they aren’t playing well together) as well as the bigger ones (ex. little league baseball games.)

  • Gillian

    What an insightful and fascinating concept! I’m sure this phenomenon plays a large role in my life. I need to think seriously about it.

    However, there is a conflict between this concept and one of Gretchen’s other rules (a secret of adulthood I think?) – “I can choose what I do but I can’t choose what I like to do.” This has become one of my mantras – perhaps one of my excuses? The question is: “where is that line between what I can change and what is indeed an inborn part of my identity, as opposed to a learned or assumed part of it?”. When should I accept myself for who I am and when should I try to change? Some cases
    are obvious – if change will lead to a healthier life (losing weight, quitting smoking or drinking, etc.), then change is necessary and changing our perceived identity can make it happen. I am currently fighting with the identity that “I am not a physical person” to try to bring more physical movement into my life. But in so many areas the answer is less clear:

    Identity – “I am not a domestic person” – so I spend as little time as possible on housework and other domestic chores. If I change my identity to “I am a wonderful home-maker”, my home setting will improve but what do I have to give up to make that happen? Perhaps the cost would be too high.

    Identity – “I am an introvert and not a social person” – so I avoid activities that involve a lot of people. When I change that identity and become more social – how much will I benefit? Would I ever really be comfortable with such a change and would it really improve my life? I don’t really want to be a social person. The best I can do is to overcome this instinct in specific cases where the reward will be greater than the cost.

    I guess it comes down to what kind of person do I want to be and what do I want to experience and how does that differ from what I am now? What false perceptions do I harbour that make me think I can’t be different? And what are my priorities in terms of how I spend my time and other resources.

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you Gretchen! And thank you to all the other contributors
    for your insightful and thought-provoking comments!

    • Molly

      I like what you say about being an introvert…”The best I can do is overcome this instinct in specific cases where the reward will be greater than the cost.” This is an interesting point about the idea of generating reasons for action (ex. I will go to the party tonight). In philosophy, Aristotle makes a distinction between types of actions and specific actions. For example, there is a difference between social-type actions and the specific action of going to (say) John’s party on Aug 10 at 8:00 pm. Types of actions are too broad to make specific decisions, and identity preserving types of actions (being the sort of person who doesn’t perform going-to-big-parties type actions) can be damaging to our lives and happiness. We can become constricted individuals, sanctimonious (“I would never [be the type of person who] get a divorce”), stuck, etc. Therefore, in rational choice theory, there may be good reasons not to pay too much attention to our general preferences in specific circumstances. (Ex. While going to parties isn’t my general preference, Sam is coming to town tonight and will be at John’s party. I really enjoy Sam’s company and I know a few other people who will be there. Therefore, I will go to John’s party. Here: the general preference is irrelevant. What gives me reasons to go to the party are much more specific/concrete, and can contribute to my happiness much more than if I bring in the extra premise about my general preference, and decide not to go since I am not a party type person.)

      • Gillian

        Interesting distinction between the general & specific and great explanation. Thank you.

      • Molly

        I just want to make a couple more comments about this post (not specifically towards Gillian).

        1. My comment above suggests that identity preserving actions are generally bad reasons for acting, but this isn’t always the case. For example, someone who wants (say) to change careers, but continues in a dead end job, may finally come to a point where she says: if I keep working in this factory, then I am a factory worker, and if I don’t start taking steps in my writing career, I’ll never be what I most want to be…a writer. Here, having that ideal lurking in the background may finally help the person take more mundane every day steps to get where he/she wants to be.

        2. Even if they don’t help us make good choices, it is amazing how powerful AND weak ideals can be in influencing behavior. I read in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books about how most hard core smokers seem to have a role model they emulated when they became a smoker, for example, the cool chick down the street who defied the good two shoes ideal the rest of us try to live up to. It’s hard to believe there isn’t this image lurking in the background of failed attempts. Also, I remember reading an article from Peter Jennings’s son who, while lamenting his father’s death from lung cancer, has vivid memories of how “cool” smoking looked on his father: the swanky lighter he had, the sound of the lighter hitting the cigarette, and the glamorous way in which Jennings looked when smoking those first few drags. Perhaps this was true for Peter Jennings, too, I don’t know.

        3. Finally, their weakness: even when people really really want to become something that conflicts with their current actions, it can be almost powerless. This can be true for people with OCD. They may very very much not want to be the sort of person who keeps washing his/her hands x times per day. But in practice, it can feel nearly impossible not to give in to the temptation, and just easier to do it and get it over with. Even for would-be writers, moguls, etc., it can be hard to give up the every day for the better. This isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, but sometimes, a sad fact of human life and human frailties (ex. personality disorders, etc.)

        • Molly

          Yikes, I mean “cool chic” not “cool chick.” :)

          • Molly

            Okay, no, it isn’t chic, but chick, I think. How about…”cool girl” :)

  • Dani (Positively Present)

    Great post, Gretchen! It’s getting me excited to read the book about habits! This was definitely one of the reasons why I struggled to change a lot of my bad habits, and in particular, it was one of the reasons I really had a hard time letting go of drinking. When something is part of your identity, it can be incredibly difficult to let go of it. If anyone else is struggling with letting go of drinking, you might want to check out the lessons I’ve learned from my four years of sobriety: http://www.positivelypresent.com/2014/07/4-years-sober.html

  • HEHink

    Wow, so much food for thought, in the post as well as in the comments! It’s got me thinking about how roles, identity, and self-awareness are all tied together. For instance, I struggled for a long time with my identity as a teacher, wondering if it was the right career for me. Then I took a year off due to an impending move, and not having the job of “teacher” to go to every day was quite unsettling. I realized I wanted to teach, but I was having trouble figuring out my own unique identity within that role. Over the past couple of years, as my awareness of myself as an introvert has become clearer, I have been able to develop a stronger sense of who I am as a teacher. That has led to my creating classroom routines and habits that work better for me, such as starting our day with quiet reading, or scheduling the reward of lunch in the classroom only on days when I know I will have some quiet prep time shortly afterward. With that foundation, I can expand or tweak what we do to accommodate the needs of different students (like giving the more extroverted ones opportunities to share books with friends on the rug, as long as they are not too loud).
    I guess my “Aha!” is that to change habits, we may not have to completely let go of an identity, but rather be willing to change one or more aspects of that identity. We can say “I am a creative person who keeps her work area organized,” or “I am a writer who drinks iced tea (instead of, say, scotch),” or “I support music education by simply donating cash instead of buying baked goods.” We can stay true to our natures, while finding ways to improve upon our natures.

  • http://www.barranquillaorbust.com/ Courtenay Strickland

    For me, the transition to motherhood was the biggest identity crisis / habit changing moment I have faced. Even pregnancy was difficult for me that way — more difficult than even the lifestyle changes I had to make after the baby was born. I absolutely wanted my baby and to be a mom, but being pregnant challenged my very ingrained habits of salsa dancing four or five nights a week, running (the docs told me not to since I was already 38 when I became pregnant), copious coffee drinking, a glass of wine after dinner most nights. Those four things alone were, to my mind, ingrained parts of my personality. It was sooooo hard to suddenly lose them, particularly the running. I felt very much “not myself” in ways that I didn’t like. Once the baby came, sleep deprivation and all, it was much better (at least I got my running back!) — though I still had to reconcile my new lifestyle with the fitness-oriented, late night dancing, super stylish single girl I had been for many years. I wouldn’t change my momhood status for anything in the world — but for me it through into relief how much our habits define who we are, and how having to change those habits suddenly (even if the change is desired) can result in an identity crisis of sorts.

  • WAX171

    LOVING the cocktail named the Happiness Project. I have a t-shirt bought years ago that reads “Happiness is a strong cocktail” and I still can’t decide if it means that having a strong cocktail = happiness or that happiness has the same effect as a strong cocktail. Maybe both. Since I’ve declared the LAST thing I want to be memorialized by when I die is a meeting room (having spent far too much of my life inside one) I think I’d like to suggest a cocktail in my name, if anyone feels it absolutely necessary to name anything after me :-)

  • Andrea

    Gretchen, what you said in response to one of the comments below really resonated with me: “It’s important not to let identity get in the way of change or having a broader view of our own possibilities”. I am a scientist, and have been my entire adult life. I always wanted to be a scientist when I was growing up and it made me proud when I made that come true as an adult. And yet, I have been really unhappy in my career for a couple of years now. I haven’t tried to change jobs or career paths, because being a scientist is such a huge part of my identity — it’s not that I am not willing to change, but I have had a hard time seeing what else I can be. I told my brother this recently, and he said “you’re smart enough and good at enough other things you’ll figure it out”. When he said it, my first thought was “I’m good at other things? Really?” I think I need to develop “a broader view of my own possibilities”.

    • gretchenrubin

      It can be very tough to re-think an identity – but freeing, too.

  • JenL

    I often think about my habits in terms of identity by
    asking myself one question. While listening to a podcast recently, I think the
    topic was on Alzheimer’s, someone mentioned something that stuck with me. They
    said something like “What if you just forgot that you were a (insert habit
    here)?” In the story, the person was a smoker, and had always identified as
    being a smoker, but one day he woke up and forgot he was a smoker, because of
    his Alzheimer’s, and didn’t reach for his cigarettes.

    So, when I’m struggling with a habit, I will often ask
    myself “What if I forgot that I cracked my knuckles?” which could always be
    modified to something like “What if I forgot that I identified as someone that
    cracked my knuckles?” While I still struggle from time to time with habits I’d
    like to break, this simple question helps me re-frame them.

  • http://www.jandunlap.com/ Jan Dunlap

    I love this whole discussion of how identity influences habit. A few years before my last child left the nest, I realized I needed to re-imagine my identity as a full-time, at-home mom, so I took a volunteer job that turned into a part-time job a few years later. I returned to college and got a graduate degree (two actually!), so our standing joke between my husband and me was that he was sleeping with a grad student! I spent a few years teaching online for colleges, and now I’m a full-time author. I still have 5 great (adult) kids, but my identity has continued to develop as I’ve found new pathways into my future. Viva change!

  • http://www.livlight.blogspot.com/ Liv Light

    I really love this post. I never really thought of identity playing a role in changing habits – but after reading this article I actually feel enlightened knowing that fact! It’s just SO true! It’s definitely something I struggle with now that I think about it. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • ChrisD

    This is a great discussion, it is really something that is standing in the way of my getting enough sleep.
    In my head, children go to bed early, ‘grown-ups’ stay up late, ‘older people’ (e.g. my mum) go to bed early. And I still remember the thrill of moving to uni, having my very own room and being able to stay up till midnight every night (I only had to get up at 8am as it was a five minute walk to lectures so no lost sleep there).
    Does anyone have tips on how to move on from this and get to sleep earlier?

    • Ashley Meredith

      Well, depending on how your bedtime/getting up time relate, what if you switched it around? If you go to bed late and then have to get up earlier than you naturally would: “Successful people make sure they get enough sleep so they can be at their best all day.” Or if you get your full sleep, but get up late because of going to bed late, add in a bit about successful people getting up early. (Inc Magazine is always running articles about that fact.)

  • SarahWoo2

    Thanks Gretchen. You are so right about identity habits, and they are the hardest to shift!
    This year I have been trying to change my behaviours around exercise and food – when I start to enagage in a less healthy behaviour I have asked myself “is this really aligned with who you wan to be?” I have found relating a behaviour back to my new values (and new identity) has really helped me change.

  • Kirk Apolo

    Most of us, when we begin to get in our 60’s and 70’s assume certain
    cultural and traditional roles including our appearance, clothing,
    activities, and so forth. Deepak Chopra has written about this and I am
    working on a blog about this.

    Please visit my blog: new games

  • Melissa

    Great article!

  • Cod

    I have just realised in reading this that I need to read your new book first! I love Tge Happiness Project but dont feel like I can apply it to my life authentically at thiz moment. Im putting it in my pending pile for a time when I can.

  • http://www.heartspoken.com/ Elizabeth H. Cottrell

    What a fascinating perspective. I was about to try taking melatonin, but I’m going to try this first!

  • Xenia

    Franklin Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, also has a well respected daily planner. It also incorporates much broader goal planning- for projects or lifetime goals.

    He starts with:
    value/mission/goal – and state it with an “I statement”- an IDENTITY STATEMENT!

    I AM CREATIVE.

    NEXT IS THE GOAL:
    Six months from today I will submit an article to Writers Magazine.

    And then comes the steps:

    Write several drafts
    Have an editor review the final draft
    Mail article.

    But what is interesting is all this starts with the IDENTITY: I AM CREATIVE!

    What other identities could we use?

    I am organized.

  • A. Nony Mouse

    The other thing I find very interesting is that one can rebel against one’s profession if one does not identify with the characteristics of that profession. Doesn’t make you very happy nor very successful, of course.

  • kim

    Thank you for this interesting take. I often think about how difficult it is to change habits, and putting it into perspective as an identity issue, I had this thought: the hardest part of changing a habit that is part of one’s identity (for me) is when that identity is a part of a relationship’s identity. For example, if I am in a relationship with my husband, and one of things we enjoy doing together is having a few glasses of wine at night, then it is much harder for me to say I will no longer drink. It would change the dynamic, the status quo, of our relationship. Not only is it hard to change the habit for myself, but it is hard to let someone else down that you feel depends on you to have that habit (i.e., changing the nature or identity of the relationship).
    To use terms that you’ve used here before, I feel it is particularly hard to change an identifying habit in a relationship when one person is an abstainer, and one can continue the habit in moderation. The abstainer would have to have a will of steel to change their habit when their partner continues to engage in the habit the abstainer is seeking to change. (I’d assume the one caveat to this “rule” is when the habit is so detrimental to the relationship that both partners are invested in the change of habit. If my drinking were having a negative impact on the relationship, regardless of whether or not my husband could drink in moderation, he would probably be willing to become an abstainer to make it easier for me to change my habit because in the end the change is beneficial to both of us.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Great points.

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  • tracey t

    Anyone interested in the role of Identity when considering Change would no doubt find the work of Robert Dilts (and others) interesting. The ‘Logical Levels of Change’ model offers an excellent framework for considering at what Level we need to make changes. please excuse the poor drawing :)

  • phoenix1920

    I LOVE THIS!! I think this is the one of strongest methods that a rebel can use to adopt a habit. IMO, I think rebels try to be very authentic to themselves and respond very negatively to others telling them how they are supposed to live or act.
    I recently applied this to my life. My boss dislikes a cluttered desk and thinks of people with cluttered desks are disorganized. I, however, have always been a visual organizer–I can tell how much work I have to do based on how many stacks are on my desk, with each stack representing a different task/case. So I always disregarded her thoughts as to my “messy” desk because I knew it actually kept me more organized. Part of me was rubbed wrong by the concept of her judging me unfairly simply because I organize differently than she. However, I recently realized that a number of others also shared her view and that having what others considered as a messy office projected an unintended image of me that could affect my career. I was finally able to change my habit of having a cluttered desk by shifting how I see clutter. I have always detested uncleanliness and think of myself as keeping a clean but cluttered office/house. By using my identity as a person who likes things to be clean, I was able to expand my definition of clean as also incorporating clutter. In other words, since I am clean and clutter is not “clean”, my office can’t be cluttered anymore. The flip side of this, however, is that this thought now applies to me at home and I don’t feel true to myself and living my values when my house is cluttered. So I am currently working on how to get the family involved so our house also remains uncluttered.

  • http://mdsuburbanhomes.com Ken Montville

    This is an interesting take on habits, especially bad habits, and something I grapple with myself. Many times I think that it would be nice to “reinvent myself” (the 21st Century buzzword for letting go of an identity) from being the “serious” one to someone more fun loving and light hearted. I can never seem to do it.

    I envy people who go through life, seemingly, with not a worry in the world and take each day and each situation as it comes and never seem to let anything bother them. People who can let things go almost instantaneously.

    I can’t seem to “let go” of the old identity, though, and the habits that go with it.

  • William Lever

    Nothing on forced changes. I had a lifestyle change foisted upon me that was so severe that I had a traumatic loss of identity. It took me almost 3 years of intensive talk therapy to get from near-suicidal to a reasonable (& reasoned) adjustment. I’ve not felt any need for talk therapy for 12 years now, although my situation persists and even worsens. The human “spirit”, if you will, can adjust to almost anything eventually.

  • AliB

    Wow, just found this post and I love it – I’ve been struggling with the whole habit idea (I think due to rebel tendencies) and this totally makes sense but sadly on first reading didn’t provide a solution – like Agee, I don’t think I could turn myself into the kind of person I detest – certainly couldn’t get any motivation to try.

    So thank you to the commenters who have suggested we don’t have to go that far – just make a few smaller changes to our identity or view it in a different way – lots to think about – thank you

  • Eyong

    i agree, the meaning we make and the identity we take on is one key.

  • Sara Jacobovici

    Thank you Gretchen for another important article. (Seems like you have gotten into the habit of writing important articles.)You touch upon 2 points that are very important in understanding the challenges of the therapeutic process or any process in which an individual is engaged in change; loss and conflict. The reason the “C” word or “Change” is so scary is because it involves loss; loss of an aspect or aspects of one’s identity, and that loss is something we try very hard to avoid. The incompatibility between identity and habits you refer to is called cognitive dissonance: “a psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes (as a fondness for smoking and a belief that it is harmful).” Awareness of this human characteristic and the need to grieve the loss in the process of change, I believe, can lead to a more successful outcome.