Now is the time of year many people set goals and develop new habits.
Did you know, though, that there are wildly different schools of thought on the best way to approach habit change?
We all love a good success story, complete with dramatic before and after photos and a story that reads something like:
“I trained for and completed my first marathon even though I haven’t run a single step for twenty-some-odd years. If I can do it, so can you.”
Stories of huge transformations are so fun to learn about that we’re often seduced into changing too-much-too-soon in a way that doesn’t serve us.
As James Clear describes in his practical new book, Atomic Habits, habit change is really about identity change.
Once we decide that we’re a different kind of person, it’s easier to take the kind of actions a person like that would take.
- If you see yourself as a runner, it’s easier to get yourself to go out for a jog because that’s what people like you do.
- When you see yourself as a reader, finishing sixty books each year doesn’t feel like work because that’s what readers do.
Whenever we have trouble sticking with a habit, it usually comes down to identity conflict. We’re trying to behave in a way that is inconsistent with how we see ourselves.
That’s why I’m a big fan of starting with small habits that can be repeated more often. Why? Because it helps to shift our identity even faster.
- If I’m trying to become a runner but don’t yet believe that’s who I am, do you think it’s better to run once a week for 35 minutes or every day for 5 minutes?
- If I’m trying to become a reader, do you think it’s better to read one book cover-to-cover on a random rainy Saturday, or to build the habit of reading for ten minutes every night before bed?
At the end of the day, there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to go about habit change. Like many things in life, it comes down to whatever works FOR YOU.
Personally, I’d rather set the bar low and feel successful than set the bar too high and feel like I’m constantly falling short.
The interesting thing is that after I overcome the inertia of getting started (which my small habit took care of), I often carry on to do much more (e.g. a 20-min jog instead of a 5-min jog, 20-mins of reading instead of 10-mins).
I’d love to hear from you. Are you drawn to big or small habits when going after a new goal? How come? Leave a comment below.