If you've ever tried to implement a new habit — be it exercising regularly, meditating more often, eating healthier, or something else that will improve your life somehow — you know it's no easy feat. One powerful behavior-changing tool that can help make it easier is focusing on the type of person we wish to become (aka your future self-identity) and behaving as they would.
"Imagining what this future version of yourself might do can help you to become it," says Stephanie Harrison, a happiness and behavior change expert and founder of The New Happy. Case in point: Katerina Schneider, founder and CEO of Ritual, who, after giving birth to her third daughter, was eager to get back to working out as it is an important part of her self-care routine. To make it easier to stick to her new routine, she says: "I thought of myself as an athlete,” which provided the motivation she needed to exercise daily.
This simple mindset shift can make a big impact. Here's why: "An athlete would engage in very different behaviors, like waking up early to exercise, eating nutritious and rejuvenating foods, and prioritizing rest and recovery," Harrison explains. "This future self can be a source of motivation to help kickstart change, point you towards new behaviors, and keep you focused on the journey." So, she adds, when you see the performance of a new habit (in this case, exercise) as proof of your new identity, it provides a boost of satisfaction and fulfillment that makes it easier to repeat the habit.
Furthermore, "research supports that self-identity plays a major role in habit change formation," says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear. "When we change one habit, we are wiring the brain to focus on maintaining a singular habit. When we focus on creating a healthy identity, we are wiring the brain to see the entire self in more positive ways. As a result, there is an unconscious desire to care for the self globally rather than in piecemeal ways that may not be sustainable."
Ahead, some tips on how to shift your self-identity and implement new habits successfully.
Decide What You Want To Change
To do this, Harrison recommends listing elements of your current self-identity that you would like to be, such as aspects you'd like to improve, transform, or change. For instance, she shares, the habit of "I'm always late" may become "I'm a punctual person." Or, Dr. Manly gives another example: "a stressed people-pleasing person" may strive for an identity of "an individual with strong boundaries."
Identify The New Behaviors
Next, Harrison instructs to clarify what new behaviors are required to embody this new self-identity. A punctual person, for instance, would likely set their alarm 10 minutes before they need to leave and check the traffic beforehand to ensure they arrive at their destination on time. Whatever the change is, Harrison's advice is to start small to set yourself up for success. For example, if you desire to see yourself as an athlete, running a 10k is not in the cards for tomorrow, but you can start with one small shift, like nourishing your body with a healthy breakfast, as an athlete would. "Once this has become more of a default behavior, turn your attention to another part of your day, like your exercise routine," she says. In other words, start with one small habit and build from there.
Track Your Progress
For Schneider, tracking her progress was a big motivation in helping her adopt the new self-identity and stay consistent with her habits. "Whether it's counting steps (I aim for 10,000 a day) or improving your mile time, there is something addictive about knowing that you are continually getting better and better," she says. Pairing the new habit with another habit she enjoys also helped. In her case, it was a post-workout protein shake. "I started looking forward to my workouts because I couldn't wait for my delicious plant-based treat."
Surround Yourself With Role Models
Another effective technique to help you embody your desired self-identity is surrounding yourself with people who already do. This key step helped Schneider adopt an "I'm an athlete" identity. "Surround yourself with other people that inspire you to push harder," she says. "I love doing a HIIT/ Crossfit type class twice a week because the people that surround me in those classes are so passionate about pushing themselves to the limit."
Harrison refers to this as a "copy-paste" strategy, which one study found to be very successful in helping people stick with new habits. "Researchers asked participants to think about a behavior that they wanted to start practicing and then to look at their family members and friends to see who embodied that identity," she says. "Then, the participants were told to copy those behaviors. Those who did so spent nearly an hour longer exercising every week than those who just kept up with their normal strategies."
When you’re implementing new habits, setbacks are inevitable. The important thing, Harrison says, is to treat yourself with kindness and plan how you'll do things differently next time. She says you can "activate the new identity" whenever you need to by asking yourself something like: "What would a disciplined person do in this moment?" And if you need support during this process, Dr. Manly encourages reaching out as needed, whether through psychotherapy, friends, self-help books, or mentors. And lastly, remember that this identity shifting work is a work in progress, Dr. Manly says, "It takes patience, practice, and perseverance."