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make your habits part of your identity

A simple technique for making your healthy goals and habits part of your identity

The other day I was talking to a friend about building healthy habits and he was asking me how I’ve managed to stick to my routine of going to gym and eating well for so many years now.

You see, we went to school together and he knew me from “before”… Back when I was really overweight and repulsed by just about all forms of exercise or anything that looked remotely like a vegetable.

Eric Chowles

Me in 2010 [top row] versus 2014/2015 [bottom row]

Every Wednesday at school we would have Physical Education that required us to do something like run around the field, play soccer, or be active in some way. Every Wednesday I happened to “forget” my P.E. clothes at home, and rather chose to suffer break-time detention.

The funny thing was growing up, I was actually still active in certain ways – I just didn’t see it as “exercise”. For example, I played Ice-Hockey for Western Province with a huge passion for many years, I was a regular hiker, and I loved fly-fishing. For some reason I didn’t hate physical activity when it came to those three things. I was fascinated by the unique sport of Ice-Hockey, and my dad had brought me up hiking and fishing all my life. It was just sort of who I was and I didn’t think twice about it.

And yet doing other things like going to the gym, playing soccer, jogging, and otherwise getting all sweaty was just absolute hell.

In late 2010 I went through a bit of a paradigm shift which is a story for another time, but in short I became really determined to turn my deteriorating life around.

While starting out on my new journey to health, I realized that dragging myself to gym 4-5 times a week and forcing down tasteless broccoli and chicken was not sustainable.

Motivation doesn’t last forever and I knew I had very limited willpower to push on once that ran out, so I decided to simply make going to the gym regularly and eating healthily part of who I was.

It became part of my identity.

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I stopped thinking to myself “I NEED to workout so that I can be that fit, healthy person I dream of being” and “I MUST NOT cheat on my diet otherwise I won’t lose those 10kgs”.

Instead, I developed identity-based habits, where I said to myself things like:

  • I AM the type of person that goes to gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
  • I AM the type of person that eats healthily.”
  • “I AM the type of person that gets at least 7 hours of sleep every night.”

Going to gym and getting enough sleep just became “what I do”. Likewise I simply didn’t consider things like pizza, muffins, chocolates, and sweets to be food fit for my consumption anymore. I created a “new normal” for myself. It just became a fact of life for me, as real as the facts that:

  • “I AM the type of person that must take a shower every day before going to work.”
  • “I AM the type of person that brushes their teeth twice a day.”
  • “I AM the type of person that needs to use the toilet.”

I don’t always want to shower in the morning, or brush my teeth before crawling into bed, or get up in the middle of my favourite movie to use the toilet. Very occasionally I might skip or delay these things – but 99.99% of the time I shower, brush my teeth, and use the toilet without giving it a second thought.

When I wake up in the morning, I take a shower so I can be clean.
When Wednesday comes, I go to gym so I can be fit.

When it’s bedtime, I go brush my teeth even if I don’t really want to.
When it’s lunch time, I have a healthy meal even if I don’t really want to (bonus: I actually do want to now!).

When I need to decide what time to go to sleep, I make sure it’s early enough that I get a full 7 hours or more of sleep a night.
When I need the toilet I try go immediately rather than delaying or putting it off (did you know that’s incredible unhealthy?!).

So what’s the difference?

I sometimes DO miss a workout, I sometimes DO enjoy a pizza, I sometimes DO stay up all night with friends. But it’s not normal. It rarely happens and the frequency is insignificant enough that it doesn’t affect my health goals.

I AM that healthy person now and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. This is what I told my friend that I mentioned in the beginning when he asked me how I so effortlessly stuck to my healthy habits after having spent my entire life knowing nothing else other than being hugely overweight and nonathletic (up until about 19 years old I honestly did not think it would be at all possible for me to be thin and healthy).

My advice is stop looking at steps you need to take to become the person you want to become. Just start BEING that person today. Do you really think that guy with awesome abs, or the chick with the perfect legs, or the family that seems to literally glow with health sit on their butt, all day wishing, hoping, planning, and coming up with excuses? No! They get up and do what they need to do, day in and day out – and they absolutely love it because it’s part of who they are.

You don’t need the perfect plan / perfect time / perfect condition. What you need is immediate action and then consistency, because no amount of good intentions is going to achieve your goal for you.

Have a healthy weekend Sleeks!

P.S. If you want to find out more about identity-based habits then check out James Clear’s work. I wish I had his resources available when I started out rather than relying on trial and error.

– Eric Chowles.

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