Identity drives behavior… not the other way around.

Most people see lean or strong people as different to themselves. Others want to look lean or to be strong but they don’t want to put in the sort of  effort they see the other guys doing. The idea of heading to the gym 3 or 4 times a week, recording what they lift, what they eat, how they feel. It all seems overly complicated and a lot of effort. Often they can’t get their heads around how these people do this week after week. They want what they see but they don’t believe they can put in that sort of effort. Sometimes they try. They go to the gym for a while but they get frustrated by their results and the time they are giving up. So they stop and things return to normal.

Now lets flip the coin for a moment. Lets say we have a gym guy. He is strong and lean, he looks good and eats healthy all the time. His business accounts however are a complete mess. He wants to manage his business better. He wants to be able to balance his accounts each month so he doesn’t have late bills piling up on his doormat. He sees other guys, in suites and ties, coming and going from their offices. They seem to know what they are doing. He wants what they have but he just does not know how how they do it. How they give so much of their time to getting things right. It all just seems way over complicated and a lot of effort. Sometimes he puts in some effort. Things seem to go right for a few weeks or months, but then other thinks get in the way. It’s inconvenient and things start to slip. He stops and things return to normal.

Now I know i have used a couple of stereotypes here and i hope that you can forgive me that but they do help me to label a point.  How we live is far more dependent on who we see ourselves as rather than the other way round. Change is what we talking about here and change starts with our identity more than our behaviors.

For some reason we have gotten into the habit of seeing the behavior first, which we then believe leads to the change. But that is not how it works. If you decide for example you want to lose weight and you go on a low carb diet but the whole time you are on the diet you are just waiting to reach some weight or size goal so you can eat more cabs again, then you have already set yourself up for failure, before you even start. You have not changed who you see yourself as, only some of you your behaviors, behaviors that don’t fit with your self image.  What normally happens in this situation is that you invariable have a bit of a melt down a few weeks in, binge; start again but with a little less resolve, binge again even sooner than the first time, decided the whole thing isn’t for you and quite.

This happens because you are using the logic that the behavior of the diet will get you what you want, even when it goes against who you see your self as… someone who wants to lots of carbs.

If you compare that to someone who say, lost a of weight a few years ago and kept if of by staying low carb, what you’ll find is that the successful person had a profound change in how they saw themselves. They stopped seeing them selves as someone on a diet to lose wight. They no longer saw not eating a lot of carbs as some sort of endurance event. They just became someone who doesn’t eat a lot of carbs. And if you were to ask them was it hard, they would probably look at you as if they didn’t quite understand the question. It would be like asking them, if they found it hard breathing or open and closing their eyes. 

All of us, myself included, have a tendency to live through the lens of who we see ourselves as. We are the clever person, or the fit one, or the hardworking one, or even as the poor hard done by, or the rich entitled one. And then we engage with the world from that perspective. But, with just the smallest of looks we can see that we are in fact many different things. We might be the clever, hardworking, good parent one. So why not the lean one too?

The point i am making is that if you want to add, “the lean healthy one,” to your list of aspect that go to making up you, then you need to become that person. And that starts in your mind, not in your habits. If you decide to start going to the gym, that is a mental decision, not a physical one. And if you want to stay going to the gym, that is also a mental decision. A part of you needs to become “the gym person.” It just does not work if you see yourself as the “sitting in the doughnut shop person,” who is just grinding out a few gym sessions each week in the hopes of looking good for their holidays. The gym person would just never think like that. It would never even occur to them to do so. So, to become the person you want to become you need to make the metal shift to seeing the world through those eyes.

If you want to add some new aspects to you life then you need to give something of yourself to them. They will always give back more than you give and yes for the first few weeks or moths it might feel a bit awkward but if in your mind you decide to be something rather that just do something, then it will happen just as sure as night follows day.

The reality of identity.

Smokers are a great example. Most of them don’t feel like themselves when they are not smoking. The habit has become so ingrained that it has become a part of who they see themselves as.  This can make quitting very hard because as well as the chemical addiction to deal with you also have the even stronger pull of identity. I mean, how do you stop being yourself? However it has been shown that quitters who let go of their identity with cigarettes rather that just dropping the habit have far more success in staying off them. And the difference can be shown with one simple question. New quitters when asked if they want a cigarette and who reply, “No, i don’t smoke,” are far more likely to stay off them then than smokers who reply, “No thanks, if’m off them.”

If you are off them, then you can also be on them, so you have acknowledged a binary state of being. What you are effectively saying to the person offering you a cigarette and to yourself is that you are a smoker who is currently suffer in an attempt to stop. However if you answer, “No, i don’t smoke,” then you are acknowledging a single state. That you don’t smoke. This signals a very definite state both to the person offering the cigarette and more importantly to your self. This might seem like a very simple thing but simple things can be very powerful drivers of change.

Most ex-smokers, when they look back, are often puzzled by how and why they felt that smoking was such an integral part of who they were. Years after quitting they are still exactly the same person as they were before, they just don’t happen to smoke.


No one is saying change is easy; it’s not, it takes effort and consistency. It also takes behavior change but don’t fall into the trap of believing that just by changing behavior you will change the self.  The behaviors you adopt might well be the tools to help you change but they are not the driving force behind change. That force is you and the identity you choose to inhabit. Change happens when there is a mix of desire, behavior and habit. You first need the desire to change, then you need the behaviors that are part of that change. If you can begin to inhabit that identity time will make the new behaviors habits. This will enforce the identity and make the new behaviors your new normal.

If you like the idea of adapting a Yoga lifestyle then become a yoga person, don’t just force yourself along to a few classes.

If you like the idea of being a good business person then start to live like one, don’t just keep a few crumpled up receipts at the end of an old envelop that you have to sort through each month.

If you want to become a lean and healthy person then don’t just do a diet; learn to live a lean and healthy lifestyle.

And always remember to go easy on yourself; no one gets to the best destinations without taking a few wrongs turns along the way. The trick is to enjoy the journey.