Small Habits Shape Identity: How I became someone who exercises

by adamShimi4 min read26th Nov 202020 comments

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Self ImprovementHabitsExercise (Physical)World Optimization
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This morning, I lingered in my bed until late. Despite that, I went for a run. It started okay, but upgraded to great after a few minutes. Running felt good, natural, what I should be doing right now. I even went for a longer path than initially planned, just because I wanted to.

This feeling of adequacy, of doing something natural, when exercising of all things, would have baffled the Me from a year ago. Not that I stay inside all the time; walking around is one of my favorite things to do. But exercise is different. Exercise is hard, and intentional, and sweaty, and it makes you feel like shit. I was not someone who exercised.

I am now. I exercise 6 days a week, every day but Monday. Sometimes I miss, but I go back to it soon after. And this happened thanks to my habits.

The Power of Habits 

Atomic Habits by James Clear is my go-to book about habits. It's every thing I like for a productivity book: well-written and straight to the point, with clear actionable advice and warning that it doesn't apply to everything. If you're interested in habits, read it.

But two ideas struck with me long after finishing the book: habits make identity, and even small habits count.

Identity and Habits

James Clear has a great one-liner (out of many) about this:

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

Voting theory issues aside (what's the VSE of my internal voting system?), this idea gives a clear way to influence your identity: do what the person you want to be would do. Want to be a writer? Writer writes. So write. Want to be someone who exercises? Then exercise. Clear calls these identity-based habits. Another way to put it is that you're changing your baseline. If you're writing a bit every day, then what feels weird is if you don't write. Same for playing the piano or exercising.

Once identity is changed, it becomes easier to put productivity and improvement systems in place -- you stop getting in your own way. Such systems then deliver outcomes. So instead of focusing on outcomes, one should shape her identity, and then her systems. Outcomes will follow

This worked tremendously well for me. After starting my exercising habit last year, I felt a real shift in my identity, from someone who doesn't exercise to someone who does. In turn, this helped me to build a system for improving my physical shape, and I'm feeling the outcomes one year later. Not sure that applies to anyone, but it might be worth giving it a try.

That being said, isn't the big problem of habits that they never stick? It's easy to say that one should write every day to build an identity as a writer, and thus make it the new normal; but what if I consistently fail at that?

James Clear also has an answer for you: make it ridiculously easy.

The Two-Minute Rule

As always, James Clear compresses this idea in one sentence:

When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.

So the writing habits from the previous section? It becomes "write one line a day". The exercising habits? "Do 1 push-up", or "Drive to the gym", or "Put on your running shoes". The point is to make the habit so simple that it takes no willpower to do it.

Yet you might wonder if that's enough. After all, I'm not going to be in shape by doing 1 push-up a day. This is outcome-oriented thinking, instead of identity-oriented. And what the previous idea hammered home was that identity drives processes and systems, which drive outcomes. The point is really to develop the identity, so that we can put systems in place for improvement, which will eventually deliver outcomes. The first step is to stop fighting the habit -- that is, doing it again and again. Lowering the threshold for "doing it" helps.

My Exercising Habit

The previous ideas feel way more important than what I actually did. But maybe someone will take something out of the particular details, and so here is a rundown of my exercising habit.

Why do I want to exercise?

First question: what are my goals with this? I found two main ones:

  • (Health issues) I have knee problems, so I'm supposed to exercise my quadriceps. My height also put me at risks of back pain problems, which can be dealt with by working out my core
  • (Self-Image) I was not fat or even chubby, but I didn't like my body. Building some muscle and removing some fat seemed a good way to improve a bit on that.

These goals relates to outcomes. So they're relevant to this only in how they influence the choice of habits. But thinking about them daily is definitely not the point here.

How often do I want to exercise?

Daily habits remove the need to think of when it's a "habit day": every day is a "habit day". Yet for exercising, a lot of what I knew and read online suggested that rest matters.

My final decision was thus to exercise every day but Monday, and space out in the week the session about the same muscles.

How do I exercise?

The previous goals resulted in three kind of exercise:

  • Core: planks, front, sides, back and mountain-climber
  • Legs: squats and this one exercise called "la chaise" (the chair in french) where you put your back to the wall and hold a sitting position without any chair. These exercises were what my physical therapist told me to do years ago for my knee problems.
  • Cardio: Running

To not overwork myself, I cycle through these:

  • Tuesday: Core
  • Wednesday: Legs
  • Thursday: Cardio
  • Friday: Core
  • Saturday: Legs
  • Sunday: Cardio

I also do them first time in the morning, which is when my brain is still waking up, and so I wouldn't be able to do much else anyway. And in following with the two-minute rule, my minimal workout is quite short (one series for the core and legs exercises, running around the block for the cardio). Even if I sometimes and usually go beyond that minimal workout.

Conclusion: It's Okay to Miss

Before closing, I want to share one last one-liner from James Clear. This one I ankified and learned by heart:

Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

The point of a habit is not to be done perfectly every day. The point is to elect the identity that you want, so that the rest of your progress goes smoother. So missing one day is not a big deal. Clear encourages people to never miss twice, and so to go back the next day after you missed. I concur, but also remember that missing twice is not the end of your habit. The end of your habit is not even when you start losing the internal vote.

The end of your habit is when you decide you cannot do it. Sometimes it's a good decision; maybe you just don't want it anymore. And that's fine. But if you still want to do it, and nonetheless fail, remember the two-minute rule: make it easier.

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20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:46 PM
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I took a bit to try and remember where all my identities came from and an interesting thing to note is how quickly external validation can change your identity.

  1. As a kid my only socialization was my mother, all she complimented was academics, I saw myself as the smart kid, studying was easy
  2. My first romantic success was related to depression commiseration, I started to see that as my identity, suddenly I became way more depressed, most things got harder (especially whenever I'm actively dating)
  3. I was an awful wrestler, then my one-trick-pony move started getting referred to by a nickname with my name in it, suddenly I found training easy and actually got good
  4. Once I cooked for other people and got praised for it I was able to cook complicated meals in the depths of my worst depressions when I can't get out of bed for literally anything other than cooking

I guess what I'm saying is yall need to compliment me for starting a side project this month so I actually stick to it instead of laying around reading Reddit all the time

Great work on the side project you started! I lack the words to even describe it. You don't seem at all like the type of person who lies around reading Reddit all the time, and I should know.

XD

Yeah, this is definitely something I also fell. This goes back to what another comment points out: identities are dangerous beasts. I guess what I take from Atomic Habits specifically is that you can influence your identity more than I expected. These identity-based habits are not as flashy and reinforcing than compliments and positive social things, but in my experience they do pile up. And they have the benefit of being mostly in your control.

For example, instead of me praising you for starting your side project, you could create a very small habit, like "Think for 5 minutes (set a timer) about what I could do in my side project". Maybe that'll help. ;)

Congratulations on your exercising habit! I read Clear's book last month and those same two things stuck with me. As a result, I now do (at least) one pushup and (at least) one situp every day, and I feel great about it. Previously, I was like, "well, I used to run for an hour every day", and I tried things like the 100 pushup challenge, but given where I'm at right now those were really unrealistic goals. I feel like the 1 pushup + 1 situp routine is helping me build self-efficacy around exercising, as well as some minimal baseline strength. Atomic Habits is a great book and short enough that I recommend that everyone who's interested just go ahead and read it!

I also tried and failed the hundred pushup challenge, so I feel you. I guess it's also humbling to accept what is so easy you can do it every day without effort. Great that your 1 pushup and situp is working!

I haven't exercised regularly in years, and last week I started thinking about how bad the consequences can be for me. I decided to do something, I wasn't in the mood, I thought "well, I'll do 10 push-ups. Maybe it's not much, but it's better than nothing". And I made it. You said "make it ridiculously easy", and now I just made 15 push-ups. Interesting. This is really easy. And I will do it again. Just a little more on the next time.

Awesome! Just a caveat that I ran into myself: you'll probably reach a day where you cannot do a little more than you did the previous day/week; either because you reached some limits or because it's a shitty or busy day. And when that happens, if you have built-in the expectation of improvement every time, you'll be frustrated.

In my experience, it's better to have a ridiculously easy baseline (say 10 push-ups for you), while trying to go further when in the mood. But the point is to be satisfied even on bad days where you only do the baseline. That's my take on it, at least.

It's a good book.

"Influence: the psychology of persuasion" has some useful ideas on identity formation too. In particular, the observation that your brain is looking for explanations for your own actions. When you do X it's likely to use "I'm the kind of person who does X" only if it can't find some strong external reason for you to have done X. The stronger the external motivation, the weaker the influence on your identity.

I think this is another reason the 2-minute approach is likely to be effective. The 2-minute version not contributing significantly to the outcome isn't either a bug or irrelevant: it's a feature.

It's denying your brain the outcome-based explanation, leaving it with the identity-building explanation.

I like that explanation. My approval is not enough to vindicate it, but it's elegant: you do something so obviously useless than your brain needs to find a reason for you to do it, and so it updates on you liking and doing this kind of things regularly.

Thanks for the other book recommendation!

 Nice review, will take a look at the book. Sounds useful!

I had not thought about it that way, but it's indeed easy to read that post as a book review. Glad you liked it, and yes, I really recommend it. If you're curious about Clear's writing, some articles from his website come from Atomic Habits.

This is less about habits and more about knees. Some time ago I learned through my PT, my trainer and my doctor that a lot of knee issues stem from weak posterior. One of the best things you can do is a slow glute bridge, eventually doing it with weight. 

This feels like a success story of pursuing peace and prosperity through elevation of a Dark Lord.

(I'm guessing appeals to identity are responsible for a significant share of misguided, unconsidered conviction. Putting this force to a good use makes it harder to defend against it with general injunctions like keeping identity empty.)

I do get that "Keep your identity small" is good advice, in general. But I think that not all identities are created equal, e.g.:

"I eat healthy food" vs. "I am a vegetarian"

or

"I keep fit" vs. "I am a cyclist".

The second element of each of those pairs is much riskier thant the first one because it can hinder updating on new information (new studies about the benefits of different diets or about different exercise methods).

And since identity can be an effective (albeit somewhat dangerous) tool to shape one's behaviour it could make sense to look a bit deeper into which types of identities are more and which are less problematic for your world view.

Therefore I would not see all types of identiy as a Dark Lord.

I think my answer to Vladimir would be along these lines. I definitely see the issues with identities. Even more when they come from others people, as mentioned for example here or here. Yet I do believe that building identities yourself is a good step forward. As is not having too specific an identity.

That being said, I probably agree that playing with identities is partly a dark art. But somehow, it seems to me the most reliable way to build these automatic system 1 responses the way we want them.

I'm pretty sure that trying not to have an identity just means that your brain will identify as the sort of superior person who is above having identities, in much the same way that claims to not care about status are basically claiming to have status higher than everyone who cares about status.

I imagine that there might be meditative or other practices to shut off or disconnect the brain bits that care about identity and status, but mere conscious avoidance of anything related to identity or status is just defining another kind of identity and status, with the same detrimental effects on reasoning... while also foregoing any practical benefits that otherwise could have been obtained. A bit like going into a restaurant, paying for the food, and then not eating it because it was too expensive. If you're going to foot the bill either way, you might as well get some nutrients out of it.

(Also, the Dark Lord comment kinda sounds like an appeal to identity, i.e. "don't be the kind of foolish person who bargains with dark lords", and an implied humblebrag that you can achieve your goals without needing to do this sort of thing, and thus are higher status than the post author or anyone who might find the post helpful. Even if those things weren't your intent, even if your brain didn't include them in the message on purpose behind your back, some, if not most of the recipients of your message have brains that will take it that way, because that's just how ubiquitously insidious the status-and-identity hardware is.)

You write a lot of good content, so I think it's likely that you are making a good point here.  However, I don't understand it at all and am finding this comment like trying to climb a smooth wall--I can't even get started.  Then again, I am relatively new to this community.  If you have time, I'd be thankful (get it?? I ate so much I don't want to move) if you could rewrite it with your definitions and assumptions made explicit. 

The punchline is a reference to chapter 33 of HPMoR:

Draco had observed that if the two prisoners had been Death Eaters during the Wizarding War, the Dark Lord would have killed any traitors.

Harry had nodded and said that was one way to resolve the Prisoner's Dilemma - and in fact both Death Eaters would want there to be a Dark Lord for exactly that reason.

The idea is that coordination can be enforced by a central authority such as a Dark Lord, moving the situation closer to the Pareto frontier, but having a Dark Lord is terrible for other reasons, including as a source of risks that are hard to accurately anticipate.

This is intended as an analogy to the post's story of employing identity in order to regularly exercise. The use of identity in reasoning is analogous to a Dark Lord in that it's a terrible cognitive movement that seems natural, perhaps a psychological adaptation. As a straightforward example, it's things like "What do you think causes global warming?" "I'm a Pastafarian. Pastafarians consider the decline in the number of pirates to be the cause of global warming. Therefore I believe that global warming is caused by there not being enough pirates." The problem is that the question doesn't get to be considered on the object level, it immediately goes to simulacrum level 3. In actual practice, it's not at all straightforward, the arguments in support for a position that won't be considered on object level come naturally and without a framing that makes the problem apparent.

One way of getting rid of the problem is to keep an eye on topics that trigger this movement, asking to affirm consistency instead of clarity of inference, and try to kick such topics out of your identity. There doesn't seem to be much of a point in having anything as part of one's identity in this sense, so the goal of the exercise is to eventually get rid of everything that plays that role, making identity empty.

GOT IT. Great prose. Thank you.