Every January, there are a slew of articles about how to commit to New Year’s resolutions. But many of these stories simply scratch the surface when it comes to habit formation, focusing on performance, appearance, and external motivation. In her latest book, Better Than Before, author and happiness guru Gretchen Rubin explains that the secret to developing successful habits cuts deeper, beginning with acute self-awareness and a willingness to let go of one’s identity.
“If you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions,” Rubin writes.
She opens her chapter about self-knowledge with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “One regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”
The way we think about ourselves is essential to how we behave.
Rubin cites research from Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck on voting. Dweck and her co-authors discovered that those who had to consider whether they were “voters” (which connected the action of voting to identity) rather than if they’d be voting, turned out in higher numbers to the polls in the 2008 presidential and 2009 NJ gubernatorial elections.
According to Rubin, most people are characterized by one of four temperaments when it comes habits:
- Upholders: respond well to inner and outer expectations
- Obligers: respond well to outer expectations
- Questioners: will question all expectations
- Rebels: resist all expectations. For Rebels, who mostly resist habits, connecting habits to the identity that they want to embrace is the key to change.
“Think very hard about what you want for yourself,” Rubin tells Quartz. “When people try and fail, they’re not [pursuing change] in a way that’s right for them. Consider, ’What kind of person am I and is this right for me?’ and not ‘This is what Steve Jobs did,’ or ‘Everybody should get up early and run.’”
Pursuing change through sheer willpower is for amateurs; examine yourself, and real change will follow.