How Your Beliefs Can Sabotage Your Behavior (And What You Can Do About It)

There are many reasons why it can be hard to stick to good habits or develop new skills. But more often than not, the biggest challenge is sitting between your two ears.

Your mind is a powerful thing. The stories you tell yourself and the things you believe about yourself can either prevent change from happening or allow new skills to blossom.

Recently, I’ve been learning more about the link between our beliefs and our behaviors. If you’re interested in actually sticking to your goals, building better habits, and reaching a higher level of achievement, then you’ll love the research and ideas in this post.

Let’s get to it…

How Your Beliefs Can Help You or Hurt You

Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University.

Dweck is well–known for her work on “the fixed mindset vs. the growth mindset.” Here’s how Dweck describes the difference between these two mindsets and how they impact your performance…

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
—Carol Dweck, Stanford University

The benefits of a growth mindset might seem obvious, but most of us are guilty of having a fixed mindset in certain situations. That can be dangerous because a fixed mindset can often prevent important skill development and growth, which could sabotage your health and happiness down the line.

For example, if you say, “I’m not a math person” then that belief acts as an easy excuse to avoid practicing math. The fixed mindset prevents you from failing in the short–run, but in the long–run it hinders your ability to learn, grow, and develop new skills.

Meanwhile, someone with a growth mindset would be willing to try math problems even if they failed at first. They see failure and setbacks as an indication that they should continue developing their skills rather than a signal that indicates, “This is something I’m not good at.”

As a result, people who have a growth mindset are more likely maximize their potential. They tend to learn from criticism rather than ignoring it, to overcome challenges rather than avoiding them, and to find inspiration in the success of others rather than feeling threatened.

Are Your Beliefs Holding You Back?

Dweck’s research raises an important question about the connection between what you believe and what you do.

If you believe things about yourself like…

  • “It’s hard for me to lose weight.”
  • “I’m not good with numbers.”
  • “I’m not a natural athlete.”
  • “I’m not creative.”
  • “I’m a procrastinator.”

It’s pretty clear that those fixed mindsets will cause you to avoid experiences where you might feel like a failure. As a result, you don’t learn as much and it’s hard to get better.

What can you do about this? How can you change the things you believe about yourself, eliminate your fixed mindset, and actually achieve your goals?

How Your Actions Change Your Beliefs

In my experience, the only way I know to change the type of person that you believe that you are — to build a new and better identity for yourself — is to do so with small, repeated actions.

Here’s an example…

Leah Culver started running one year ago. This is how she describes the process…

I started running a year ago. I didn’t entirely start from scratch. In the past I had jogged every once in a while, maybe once a month.

My first run was just two miles at 12 minutes per mile. That’s pretty slow. However, for a non-athlete I felt fairly good about it. I jogged a couple more times that week. After a couple weeks of regular jogging, I set a goal for myself.

I knew I would never be fast enough to impress anybody so it didn’t make sense to make speed my goal. I could have picked a race to train for, a 5k or half miler, but I knew how those ended. Everyone seems to quit running right after their big race. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to not quit.

My goal involved not going too long between runs. If I skipped more than a couple days, wouldn’t that be quitting? So I started running four and five days a week. The longest I went between runs was three days when I was in Hawaii for vacation.

My goal made all the difference. I was still slow, but I could at least feel good that I was running a lot. I’d have good days where I would run fast and feel great but I also had lots of bad days where I was tired and just didn’t feel like running. In retrospect those days were almost better than the good days because they reinforced my goal — I didn’t quit.

I ran my first 5k on Halloween, nearly five months after I had taken up running as a hobby. I wore a costume — fairy wings — and tried to keep up with a random guy with an owl on his head. I finished in 28 minutes and was super happy. I learned that racing wasn’t always about being the fastest, but doing my personal best.

I signed up to run a full marathon in December, hired a running coach, and set a regular running schedule.

I’ve started to think of myself as a runner.

If you would have told me a year ago that I would be working out almost every day and running 100 miles a month I would never have believed you. Running really snuck up on me. I had modest aspirations and didn’t really care if I was great at running.

I just wanted to stick to my one goal: don’t quit.

Did Leah start by thinking about how much weight she wanted to lose? No. Did she start by thinking about how fast she wanted to run? No. Did she start by thinking about the marathon she wanted to complete? No.

She didn’t start by thinking about the results.

She simply focused on the process. She focused on showing up. She focused on sticking to the schedule. She focused on “not quitting.”

Eventually, the results and the self–confidence came anyway. Her actions shifted the way that she saw herself. “I’ve started to think of myself as a runner.”

The best musicians practice every day. The best athletes practice every day. The best writers practice every day. These are people who have a high average speed.

Yes, their results are fantastic and they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor … but it’s not the results that set them apart, it’s the dedication to daily practice. It’s the fact that their identity is centered on being the type of person who does their craft each day.

This is the process of identity-based habits that I’ve written about before. People with a growth mindset focus on the process of building a better identity rather than the product.

Identity-Based Habits vs. Rapid Transformations

So often, we overestimate the importance of a single event (like a marathon) and underestimate the importance of making better choices on a daily basis (like running 5 days per week).

We think that getting “that job” or being featured in “that media outlet” or losing “those 30 pounds” will transform us into the person we want to become. We fall victim to a fixed mindset and think that we are defined by the result.

The graphic below shows the layers of behavior change. Sustainable and long–lasting change starts with building a better identity, not by focusing on results like your performance or your appearance.

Identity-based habits and the layers of behavior change by James Clear
Graphic by James Clear.

Here’s the truth: it’s your daily actions that will change what you believe about yourself and the person you become. It’s about setting a schedule, showing up, and sticking to it. It’s about focusing on building the right identity rather than worrying about getting the right result.

In my experience, identity-based habits tie in directly with the research from Dweck and her contemporaries. When you let the results define you — your talent, your test scores, your weight, your job, your performance, your appearance — you become the victim of a fixed mindset. But when you dedicate yourself to showing up each day and focusing on the habits that form a better identity, that’s when you learn and develop. That’s what a growth mindset looks like in the real world.

What You Should Do Now

In case I haven’t made it clear enough already: skill is something you can cultivate, not merely something you’re born with.

You can become more creative, more intelligent, more athletic, more artistic, and more successful by focusing on the process, not the outcome.

Instead of worrying about winning the championship, commit to the process of training like a champion. Instead of worrying about writing a bestselling book, commit to the process of publishing your ideas on a consistent basis. Instead of worrying about getting six pack abs, commit to the process of eating healthy each day.

It’s not about the result, it’s about building the identity of the type of person who gets to enjoy those results.

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23 Comments

  1. Nice post James. I’ve read about the fixed vs growth mindset before and as a personal experience I managed to stick to new habits focusing on the process (like going to the gym three times a week) rather than on results.

    It is also important to measure your progress in order to check you are improving right?

  2. Hiya James,

    I just wanted to thank you for this post, as well as for this blog in general. What you write has already made a difference in my life: I write a steady amount of words every day, go to the gym… Challenge myself, basically, but then don’t run away anymore.
    Thank you again; I hope that the knowledge of your impact *in real life* can bring a bit of joy to you in return, however little… :)

  3. Hi James, I totally agree with everything that you have written, I would love to share something of my life, because I believe that telling it can encourage others: I was born in 1943, the only surviving baby of my parents. Due to complications in my mother’s pregnancy, she eventually gave birth to a sickly baby. Her doctors diagnosed me as being physically and mentally challenged, they said that I would never talk, walk or learn anything, they advised my parents to put me in an orphanage, forget about me and try again. My parents were devastated as you can imagine. I was sick as a child and the situation re-evaluated, the doctors still believed that I was retarded and advised my parents not to bother sending me to school as I was not capable of retaining any knowledge. My parents did the best they could for me, however they were ashamed of me and what people would think of them (having a child that wasn’t perfect.) I had limited schooling. At the age of forty, I found out that there was nothing actually wrong with me,(although I’m a little slow and have a bit of weakness in my legs,) and I made a decision to turn my life around, I was always musical and had piano and singing lessons. I married at twenty one and had four children, got my drivers license, etc. Now at the age of seventy, I have almost finished a university degree, have written several songs and books of poetry,accompany, conduct and direct a thirty strong choir,still sing and play the piano, I enjoy public speaking and writing and performing comedy I jog everyday for half an hour, and best of all I’m doing the 18:6. We can all change our circumstances, I utilize what I can do. I am finding the 18:6 so easy to follow, questions I have is: I feel euphoric all the time and am brimming with energy since doing the 18:6 is this normal? (feels really great, as I used to wake up sluggish most mornings.) Secondly, what do I do if I’m going to a party of a night? I’m not a party person however I’m curious about that?

    Thank you, Heather-mae Celins

  4. Thank you James, this piece of excellent advice has come at the right time, I am having to reinvent myself to find a job. I had a weekend with my brother and came away realising the power of ones mind set, now it is time to heed your advice and put this into practice.

  5. Excellent article. I love the examples between a fixed and growth mindset.

    So many of us are focused on change instead of true transformation. Change can be short or long term, but frequently can end. (Like the example above of the runner that quits running after they run the marathon.) Full transformation is an internal shift. Your internal belief systems and external change together.

    A visual example: Change is like the caterpillar getting bigger through eating more. Transformation is the cactapillar metamorphasizing to a butterfly.

    Focusing on the habits and internal goals allows us to become who we want to be. Thanks for the post. I’ll be sharing.

  6. Awesome post, thank you! Thrilled that this message is getting out that we need to have better control over our own mind, beliefs, identities, (plural intentionally) etc., so we can change what we want in our lives. Also this will help others around us as well, and the whole world benefits. Change, one person at a time – and it start with ourselves.
    Very much mirrors what the ‘Avatar Course’ has helped me and countless others with around the world who want to take control of their minds and lives, be happier, stop telling ourselves the same old story, and make a personal strategy to get better at whatever we want in our lives. Everyone has a unique blueprint, and this growth mindset can work for all individuals it seems. But I guess to make it ‘stick’ you need to do some serious self study.. know your own patterns of behavior… the good and the not so good.(for you.)

    There are many ‘Roads to Rome’ as they say and happy, James, that you are sharing one possible road right here.

  7. Hi James,

    I have recently joined your forum and I found the content in the articles very practical and inspiring. Wish I had joined long time back.

    Thanks very much for spending so much of your time and helping all of us.

  8. Hi James, So be it. Age is not an impediment unless we see it as that. We are in every moment re-inventing, renewing, transforming and becoming our truest most beautiful selves. And what’s so wonderful, we have others who appreciate where and how we are because we appreciate them.

    You are a gift to your fellow creatures, and I am grateful to be a part of this community that is allowing for so much good.

  9. Interesting interplay between beliefs and innate ability. In a purely physical sense, the body can achieve amazing things if we are in the right state of mind.

  10. Great article again, bro.

    I have been doing a lot of things differently because I’m changing the way I see myself. I’m adopting the identity I want, and acting accordingly.

    Cheers.

  11. Carol Dweck’s work on Self Theories is one of the most important ideas for any kind of personal development. I highly recommend her lesser known and more difficult work entitled Self Theories.

    A growth mindset is definitely not brought about by thinking of one’s habits as identity however. If it was, then person praise would lead to greater performance in the face of obstacles, whereas Dweck’s research shows the opposite.

    In other words, if you praise a strength athlete after a successful PR performance by saying, “You are a really strong person” this is likely to lead to the athlete *avoiding* challenges and trying to look good in the future–in other words, it will induce a fixed mindset.

    On the other hand, if you praise that athlete by saying, “Wow! You really pushed through those last few reps and stuck to your form,” that is likely to get the athlete to work hard and use good form in the future, in other words inducing a growth mindset.

    • Duff — first, thanks for saying hello. It’s great to have you sharing your ideas here.

      I really appreciate what you said above. It sounds like you’re more familiar with Dweck’s work than I am, so it’s possible that I’ve got it wrong. However, I think I’m trying to make the same points that Dweck does … but I’m failing because of my own terminology. (Smooth move, James.)

      Here’s my attempt to explain it more clearly…

      My main point is this: it’s better to set habit goals for yourself (especially in the beginning) than it is to set performance or appearance goals (things that focus on a result). Furthermore, by focusing on your habits (and not on the results), you should be more likely to have the growth mindset that Dweck describes.

      The story I mentioned above about Leah and her running habits was a perfect example. She didn’t focus on her results, her performance, or her appearance. She simply focused on building the habit of running consistently. After a few months of running (i.e. committing to the daily habit), she said “I’ve started to think of myself as a runner.” In other words, not only did her habits lead to success, they also shifted her identity. This is where the term “identity-based habits” comes from.

      When you want to achieve something, I think it’s better to focus on the habits that could shift your identity, rather than worrying about your performance, your appearance, or your results.

      As another example, you mentioned a result in your comment: “You are a really strong person.”

      I absolutely agree with you. If we focus on that result, then we tend to fall into a fixed mindset and avoid the actions that we need to pursue to become better. But identity-based habits aren’t about telling yourself, “This is my identity.” They are about focusing on the habits that could lead to a better identity. (I realize that’s confusing. Maybe I need to think of a better term.)

      Example: If your goal is to become “a really strong person,” then what are the daily habits that could lead to that identity? What are the habits that really strong person practices each day? Things like training each week, eating healthy food, getting good rest — focus on those habits, not on results like your PR performance.

      Final example: Let’s say you want to become a successful writer and you just landed an article in the New York Times. You might think, “I’m a successful writer” and fall victim to a fixed mindset. But the goal of identity-based habits is to get you to say, “No. It’s not about the result. It’s about the habits that have made me a better writer.” Hopefully, you won’t let your performance define you and you’ll be back at the keyboard the next day.

      I think this approach (while perhaps more confusing) is saying the same thing as Dweck’s research. A fixed mindset is focused on the result (your level of talent, your performance, and so on). Meanwhile, a growth mindset is all about the process and the daily habits that lead to success. People with a growth mindset are committed to daily practice and continual effort. They show up over and over again, even in the face of challenges.

      This is also the process I’m trying to push people toward with identity-based habits. It’s not about thinking, “I’m a champion.” It’s about thinking, “What are the habits that make a champion? And how can I practice those each day?”

      Does that make more sense? Does that sound like it agrees with Dweck’s research? Or am I still missing the point entirely?

      • Well, it is a bit confusing–I’m trying to understand and apply it myself. I read Dweck’s more scientific book Self Theories (highly recommended) and I’m not Dweck, so I’m just giving my interpretation of what I read.

        According to what I read in Self Theories, Dweck begins by trying to figure out why some students give up when they encounter challenges (“helpless orientation”) and others persist or even revel a challenge (“mastery orientation”).

        Surprisingly, her and her colleagues found that a helpless orientation was not due to a lack of belief in one’s abilities, nor was a helpless orientation only found in poor students. In fact, many top students had a helpless orientation. For instance, a high performing math student with a helpless response pattern may report agreement with a statement like “I am good at math” as long as the math tests are easy, and yet when they encounter a difficult math problem, they give up…and oddly their attitude also changes, often attributing their failure to their own inability (“I suck at math”), or blaming the teacher, etc.

        By contrast, a poor math student with a mastery orientation might strongly disagree with the statement “I am good at math,” yet when encountering a difficult problem (for instance something they haven’t been taught yet), they will persist and sometimes even figure it out.

        Helpless responses to challenges seem to be due to holding what in the literature is called an “entity theory” about the self–that is to say, belief that intelligence (or some other ability or attribute like math ability, physical strength, personality, etc.) is basically fixed and easily determined by a single test or example.

        By contrast, mastery responses to challenges seem to be due to holding what is called an “incremental theory” about the self–basically that abilities like intelligence can be improved with effort and good strategies.

        In fact, students with an incremental theory think that working hard *is* intelligence…whereas students operating from within an entity theory think that working hard is for morons and chumps, and that smart people should be able to get the right answer quickly and without working too hard.

        In addition there is another distinction here, that of a performance goal orientation vs. a learning goal orientation. This brings us to your example of the runner Leah.

        A learning goal orientation is when a person pursues a goal to learn and get feedback that helps build competence in an area. A performance goal orientation is when a person seeks to demonstrate competence, preferring positive feedback and wanting to avoid negative feedback — in other words, they want to look good! A learning goal orientation is associated with an incremental theory and a mastery response to challenges, whereas a performance goal orientation is associated with an entity theory and a helpless response to challenges.

        In the long run, a learning goal orientation will increase skills whereas a performance goal orientation will stall out one’s progress.

        I assume Leah was focused on not just getting out and running, but also getting feedback and learning from her runs so she could improve, but not in order to say to the world “Look how fast I ran today!” but to maybe run a little more smoothly and a bit faster day by day, or maybe ease up a bit on days when it got hard, etc., in order to build competence at running. But I’m concerned that if she focuses too much on the identity “I am a runner” then this may actually *decrease* her performance. But it might not–an occasional focus on performance won’t necessarily hurt a learning goal orientation/incremental theory.

        Here’s an example: one day I was squatting in the gym (I’m not the strongest man by any means, but I enjoy exercising). An obviously fit woman asked how many more sets I had and as I had just begun my first warmup set I said it would be a while, but she could work in with me if she wanted. She replied, “well you are much taller than me,” which was true, “and you probably are a lot stronger than me too,” which I immediately thought was probably *not* true.

        In that moment I felt myself get psyched out. I was doing a 5×5 program and I totally wimped out on my 5th rep of each set, failing to hit even what I had done in the previous week. And I had just been reading Dweck so I knew what had happened–this young woman’s compliment “you are probably a lot stronger than me” temporarily put me into an entity theory. Rather than focusing on working hard and keeping good form, I gave up early and I allowed my form to become compromised.

        In terms of the habits of a champion, those are certainly important to practice on a regular basis. And yet there are two kinds of champions: those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. The champion attitude in my opinion is that of the growth mindset. Growth mindset folks are less concerned about identity and more interested in how they can apply themselves and what they can learn to overcome obstacles and improve their abilities in a given area. Even after reaching elite status they might still think they suck! Confidence in one’s abilities and an identity as an expert is not necessarily correlated with a growth mindset.

      • With regards to the runner, the real challenge comes when she sets a 5k goal to run in under 25 minutes and fails.

        If she has a fixed mindset she might blame the weather conditions, or say “I guess I’m not a runner after all.”

        If she has a growth mindset she’ll instead focus on how specifically she can improve: “I need to up my weekly mileage and add some sprints twice a week. And maybe I should join that weekly running club so that I’ll be pushed to run faster.”

        • Hi Duff! I think your comment helps to challenge the ideas in the article, and is thought-provoking, but I strongly disagree with one thing: I firmly believe that it is not possible a successful athlete thinks his running “sucks”! I experienced running a bit before, and you can’t possibly finish correctly a race thinking you sucks… From my point of view, the key for improvement is to think “I can do better”, but to overcome challenges, you also need to think “I can do it” or “I’m doing okay” (considering your actual level). Because looking down on yourself will make you think more easily that you are not made for running, and you will give up when you finish last in a race, instead of thinking “okay, this time, I manage to finish the race, next I’ll try to catch up with the pack” and continue your training. I hope my writing is not too confused…

  12. James,

    Great article. It’s definitely critical to cultivate a growth mindset when it comes to things that are important to you. I really like the idea of establishing an identity first. It’s actually much more realistic to set a habit goal than a performance goal when you are first starting out.

    Alykhan

  13. James,

    I totally agree with you. If you want to be some kind of person or if you want to achieve success in life , you should have that kind of habits in your everyday’s life.

    For example, you want to win marathon but you don’t have confidence or belief that it is possible. WHY? Because running is not your daily habit. Maybe, you ran 2 years ago for 5 minutes and then you gave up . So, first you need to give PRIORITY to form habit as runner if you want to participate in marathon.DON’T think about result or performance or win the marathon now, just concentrate on building the habit as a daily runner. FIRST, MAKE YOUR IDENTITY. If you think about your performance , result or outcome you may give up.

    For example, I was not exercising everyday. But , after that , i started to run for only 5 minutes everyday which was possible for me. I tried to think about my identity , not my performance . I was happy that at least i had running habit in my life. After two months, my friends gave me an identity as a RUNNER who ran everyday . Identity gives you confidence , So first build up the identity by setting daily habits and then think about building your performance ,if you want.

  14. I agree with this article, many of us as people can acknowledge this and we know that this may be what’s holding us back. Even after looking at the facts many of will refuse (subconsciously) to change how we view ourselves, this in the end will set us up for failure and lead to a lack of success

  15. Yes this has influenced the way I will approach this semester. I believe that my skills for each of my classes are different. Some are good and beneficial and for some they are weak and leaves me stressed worried if I will be able to pass the class. But for those classes, I will develop those good and bbeneficial skills through effort, good teaching and persistence. I don’t think everyone’s the same or anyone can be a smarty pants, but i believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. If I work hard and study on a daily basis, I’m sure I will overcome my struggles in the classes I find difficult for me with an excellent growth mindset.

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