For all the goals and strategic plans I’ve put together in my lifetime, I don’t believe it all led to a massive leap forward in fitness levels, or weight, or quota attainment, or some other goal I’ve had along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in goals and working plans. But identity trumps all. And over time, what you identify yourself as is much more critical to who you are in the end.
“No, that’s not me.” – Arya Stark, Game of Thrones
“The identity itself becomes the enforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
Identity changes over time of course, hammered into shape by life experiences, hardships and setback, lucky breaks, being born in the right place at the right time, and the people you surround yourself with. I grew up thinking of myself as a son, grandson, brother, cousin, nephew, friend. Later I evolved into a student, athlete, hiker, rower, mountain biker, sailor, salesperson, manager, husband, father. And along the way I’ve dropped a few things while adding others. I don’t mountain bike anymore, but I still had my mountain bike from when I was 24 until I was 48. I kept telling myself I’d get back to it eventually until I told myself eventually wasn’t happening.
I’ve seen friends go from couch potatoes to avid, frequent hikers and change their bodies and outlook on life in the process. I’ve experienced and watched others deal with depression, loss of family members and job loss, divorce, health scares and relocation to faraway places. Ultimately it all impacts your identity – who you believe you are – and changes it. But identity works the other way too – when you identify yourself as a resilient, disciplined athlete you’re much less likely to react to setbacks with destructive behavior.
Time and bad habits erode the best of foundations, so reinforcing identity with positive habits is the best way I know maintain a solid base. I’ve watched my wife run consistently for the entire time that I’ve known her, and it’s a core part of her identity. We have more 5K t-shirts in this house than I can count, and everywhere I look there’s another road race medal hanging off of something or other. But it’s an identity that makes her healthier and more resilient than a lot of other people in the same age bracket. Her consistency of effort is admirable and a source of inspiration for me as I fight year in and year out to build a similar level of consistency in my workouts.
I’ve been doing the same routine all month, and honestly I’m not making a ton of progress from a weight loss standpoint, but I am getting stronger, I am reading and writing more, I am feeling better about myself and I am reinforcing a new identity as an disciplined person who works out every morning, is an avid reader and consistent writer. That reading and writing part of my identity has led me to seek out new places on the map, and to chase down long forgotten ghosts and dance with them across history.
James Clear’s Atomic Habits was a timely read for me, and I’ve referenced it here and in many other blog posts since I read it. Perhaps the one phrase of his resonates more than any other, and that is in building habits slowly, at a point that feels like it’s not work, we are casting votes for your new identity. Such a simple phrase, and yet it instantly highlights exactly what daily routines, habits and systems are doing; working in your favor or against you.
New Years Eve, birthdays, new quarters or months; all offer an opportunity to reflect on the past, determine what went right, what needs to be improved upon, and what changes to your routines and system need to change. Of course, every moment offers the same opportunity. What I was five minutes ago impacts who I am now (so don’t eat that donut), and what I do now – this moment – casts a vote for what my identity will be now and in the future. Simple right?