How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good

In one of my very first articles, I discussed a concept called identity-based habits.

The basic idea is that the beliefs you have about yourself can drive your long-term behavior. Maybe you can trick yourself into going to the gym or eating healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift your underlying identity, then it’s hard to stick with long-term changes.

Graphic by James Clear.
Graphic by James Clear.

Most people start by focusing on performance and appearance-based goals like “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”

But these are surface level changes.

The root of behavior change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.

This brings us to an interesting question. How do you build an identity that is in line with your goals? How can you actually change your beliefs and make it easier to stick with good habits for the long run?

How to Change Your Beliefs

The only way I know to shift the beliefs that you have about yourself and to build a stronger identity is to cast a vote for that identity with many, tiny actions.

Think of it this way…

Let’s say you want to become the type of person who never misses a workout. (If you believed that about yourself, how much easier would it be to get in shape?) Every time you choose to do a workout — even if it’s only 5 minutes — you’re casting a vote for this new identity in your mind. Every action is a vote for the type of person you want to become.

This is why I advocate starting with incredibly small actions (small votes still count!) and building consistency. Use the 2-Minute Rule to get started. Follow the Seinfeld Strategy to maintain consistency. Each actions becomes a small vote that tells your mind, “Hey, I believe this about myself.” And at some point, you actually will believe it.

Of course, it works the opposite way as well. Every time you choose to perform a bad habit, it’s a vote for that type of identity.

But here’s the interesting part…

As I mentioned in this article, research shows that making a mistake or missing a habit every now and then has no measurable impact on your long-term success. It doesn’t matter if you cast a few votes for a bad behavior or an unproductive habit. In any election, there are going to be votes for both sides.

Your goal isn’t to be perfect. Your goal is simply to win the majority of the time. And if you cast enough votes for the right identity, eventually the good behaviors will win out.

What Can We Learn From This?

Every time we participate in a ritual, we are expressing our beliefs, either verbally or more implicitly.
—Tony Schwartz

I find it useful to think about identity-based habits for a few reasons.

First, identity-based habits focus on you rather than your goals. It is surprisingly easy to achieve a goal and still not be happy with who you are as a person. Society pushes us to obsess over results: What are your goals? How busy are you? How successful have you become?

And while there is nothing wrong with achievement and improvement, it is also very easy to forget to ask yourself the more important questions: Who am I? What do I believe about myself? What do I want my identity to be?

Identity-based habits are one way to match your values and beliefs with the outcomes that you want in your life. (My 2014 Integrity Report was another attempt.)

Second, the idea of “casting votes for your identity” reveals how your daily actions add up over the long-term. Your actions drive your beliefs and each action you take is a vote for the type of person that you believe that you are. What beliefs are you expressing through your actions?

Third, this framework helps to remove the “All or Nothing” philosophy that can so easily wreck our progress. For some reason, we often think that if we fail to follow our exact plan step-by-step, then we have totally blown it. The truth is that it doesn’t work that way at all. If you make a mistake, remember that it’s just one vote. Be aware of the votes you’re casting and try to win the majority. Every action is a vote for your identity.

I’ve said many times that I don’t have all the answers. As always, I’m just learning as I go. If you know of other ways to change your beliefs and build a new identity, feel free to share.

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40 Comments

  1. James,

    This reminds me of something I learned as a marathon runner. Early on, I spent a lot of effort learning to run while running; building a base, the right training program, etc. I did well, but I took it to the next level when I learned to be a runner when I wasn’t running, following the habits of who I had become during the other waking hours of each day.

    Thanks for all your posts,
    Steve

    • Wonderful article! A new way of looking at personal growth-one that can really make change happen! I’ll vote for myself or off with my head!

    • Thank you for the reminder James, I really appreciate your work for it is drastically changing my life to the best as I apply your ideas. Thank you

  2. This post hit home on a couple of levels for me, and I really like the idea of casting votes towards good or bad habits.

  3. Hey,

    just wanted to first expand upon what might just be a detail. In my opinion, actions do seem to play a role in determining your self-identity. But if you’ve ever heard the term ‘correlation is not causation’, I think it plays into this.

    Our considerations, in my opinion, more directly determine our identities. But of course the things you’re acting on will be the things you’re automatically considering.

    So a small caption of the process might look like this:

    Action
    =
    Consideration
    =
    Identity.

    Perhaps hence the classic “I think therefore I am”.

    I like to put things in chains such as the way done above, this way you can follow it back, and back, and back, until it becomes easier and easier to apply a small action that creates a chain reaction “pushing over larger dominoes”.

    For some reason this morning the instant I woke up I saw a giant boulder in my mind being pushed from a side angle. I must have been dreaming just before I woke up or something. But the point was that the boulder was representing a task.

    The less you feel you have to push the boulder, the easier the task. So the smaller the boulder the easier it is to move.

    But there’s another factor – some tasks are hollow at 10ft high painted to look like boulders. This is what the vision was demonstrating to me, your task can look like it takes a lot of difficult pushing when actually it doesn’t, and vice versa. Hopefully your task would be just a football (soccer ball).

    So I think you can use that metaphor to establish:

    1. Actually how hard is the task in my mind, is it a boulder, a football or where roughly between the two is it? Would I rather push a boulder from one side of a museum to the other, or would I rather do this task? Would I rather kick a football/soccer ball from one side of the museum to the other, or complete this task? Then I guess you know what you’re dealing with.

    2. Is it a hollow boulder, or a ball made of stone? I.e., am I under-estimating or over-estimating the difficulty of completing the task?

    Then maybe you could rate each task on your to-do list this way (assuming you have a to-do list of course), and have an “easiest starting point”. So if you’re feeling highly motivated you’d choose the heavy boulder, if you’re feeling really unmotivated you might choose the light football.

    Of course how you feel about tasks can change based on your self-identity and your mood, but generally I find there are consistencies, so this labeling system could help. Last time I checked, I almost ALWAYS feel (emotionally) like eating pizza more than eating brussel sprouts. And I guess this system is about ranking your emotional responses towards things.

    An issue I see with it though is that it could detract from your sense of routine. Plus, you might be lowering your standards for how much you’re challenging yourself to get things done. But I’ll give it a try anyway, as I’m not totally in a routine anymore :).

    • I don’t normally reply or comment but your articles are so insightful and practical that I just had to thank you!

      Well Done.

  4. Love it man. Been obsessed with identity based changed since your first article on it.

    “Your actions drive your beliefs and each action you take is a vote for the type of person that you believe that you are” — love this. As Emerson said, “do the thing and you will have the power”.

  5. It reminds me of the Bhagavad Geeta — Aligning to our true selves and embracing you we are — boundless.

  6. This was a great read! I’m a social science geek so you hooked me right from the start… Is it okay if I link back to this post on my blog? I’d love to share it with my friends and readers.

  7. Actually, just making many tiny shifts is not the only way to change a belief. I used a program that helped me dissolve beliefs; most take about 15 minutes to eliminate.

      • Over at ReCreateYourLike.com, Morty Lefkoe has a free belief eliminator so you can get rid of one belief. Basically, he helps you see that you developed your self-esteem beliefs between the ages of birth and six and that these developed when we place a meaning/interpretation of our parents’ behavior. This usually happens after several incidences. His program helps you think of other interpretations we put on other’s behavior, in this case, our parents. When we realize our interpretations and “aren’t the truth”, the belief disappears. It’s an interactive program; he offers a Natural Confidence DVD also. It helped me tremendously in raising my level of confidence.

  8. I’ve definitely been affected by the all-or-nothing thinking. Thanks for reminding me, James, that it doesn’t need to be a perfect streak if I want to build habits.

  9. I like your overall message and what you have to say. I read your posts every week. I think you would be more effective if you abandoned your initial commitment to writing two times per week and wrote one time per week. Keep up the good work.

    • Interesting. Thanks for the feedback Mark.

      Do you say this because you’re getting too many emails over the long-run? Or because you think I could do higher quality work if I only wrote once per week? (Or something else?)

  10. Many thanks James for sharing your work! I’ve been thinking quite often about that ósme people with the strong tendency to make everything perfect and looking for the extremism in any field have actually much more difficult. Many reasons. It’s much more difficult to be satisfied with the goal. It’s much easier to give up. It’s more difficult to have a simple pleasure from doing something. Another source for the related subject could be The Inner Game of Tennis by James Gallwey.

  11. I like the idea of small, simple changes. Years ago, I was given a guitar. I didn’t know how to play, but wanted to be “the kind of guy who plays guitar around the campfire”. So, I got a guitar stand (to keep the guitar accessible), and made sure I picked up the guitar for at least 5 minutes every day. Now, I can play a number of songs, including some original stuff. I am not good enough to be a professional, but that was never my intention. What I am doing now, is the same thing, but with my art. Thanks for the simple, practical wisdom. Articles like this one, help keep my focus and perspective. You are doing real good for everyday people who dream of becoming something different than they currently are. Thanks!

  12. When I work with clients, I use identity-based goals (more specifically I get the client comfortable with a broad spectrum of “why” statements to promote more self-determined forms of motivation, of which “identity-based goals are only one). One of the tools I use to do this is “The Five Year Old Game.” For a quick tutorial, go talk to a five year old. Like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZ32BZT9pnk

    Over the course of 3-5 minutes, the clients (I work in groups) quickly collect a whole bunch of reasons they want what they want and we write them all down. That’s their list of “whys.” Motivation being multivariate (Deci & Ryan, 2002), this list of “whys” now becomes a tool to keep the clients focused on the only thing that matters for long-term behavior change: showing up. So whenever they struggle, they look at the list and find the “why” that is the most motivating for them in that moment. Whatever is going to get them to show up that day and put in the reps to make an intention a habit, however tiny it may be.

    As they say in Zen, “chop wood; carry water.” Focus on the task, not the enlightenment.

    Coach Stevo

  13. A great article, James, and really insightful strategies as to how to build a personal identity, brick-by-brick.

    “Who am I? What do I believe about myself? What do I want my identity to be?”

    Yet, you have to know what you want, what you believe and who you’d like to be. That’s often the hardest part, at least for me.

  14. Thanks James for this voting idea and all your helpful articles. It is useful for me to see that each action is a vote for one or another way of being in the world. I am so much more content when I “vote” for behaviors that are in line with my values.

  15. Great post James :-)
    Completely agree with the belief system and about casting of vote concept. I have started doing work out from last 2 months and only 3 times i missed out due to xyz reasons…
    Every monday & thursday very eager to read your posts.

  16. My dear James,

    Thank you for the article. I read the previous identity-based habit article too. I love the concept, but I wish I knew how to work it for quitting a bad habit. Starting things seems to be so much easier for me than stopping things. I want to quit smoking. How do the “small wins” look for not doing something?

    • I actually came here to say that I used this approach to finally kick smoking to the curb. For years I went back and forth between full-time smoker and “social” smoker – telling myself and my friends that I “only smoke when I drink”… or “only smoke when I’m camping”… or “only smoke when I’m stressed”.. or whatever the occasion was that I used as an excuse.

      Recently, I read something similar to what James has mentioned above – change your beliefs about yourself. The next time I was in a situation where I would smoke “Socially” I said no thanks, I’m not a smoker. The first time I stayed behind while my “smoking buddies” went and smoked was the hardest, but it gets easier every time.

      And I tell myself that every day – NOT that I’m a former smoker, not that I’m a social smoker, just that I am NOT a smoker. It’s changed my beliefs about myself – I don’t want to be the type of person who blows money on such a stinky habit – or is controlled by nicotine – or dies of cancer because of my own actions – so I decided to NOT be that person anymore.

      It’s hard some times, but I just DON’T smoke. Because I’m not a smoker.
      This was relatively easy for me once I changed my thinking – but unrelated to this article – I have heard EXCELLENT things about Alan Carr’s book – Easy Way to Stop Smoking.

      Good luck!

  17. I’d like to share one thing that has also changed… rather transmuted for me in this context. And that’s doing deep psycho-emotional growth and healing work digesting repressed rage with an emotional growth facilitator.

    The moment I walked out of this session was the first time my depression/anxiety brain fog loop was gone. There was nothing left but strength, love and confidence. Especially with women because this moved in response to expressing many years of repressed rage towards my mother who is a man hating/man eating feminist who put her world into my head that twisted me inside and ate up my confidence and destroyed my love for women until it was expressed. It was actually in feeling the depth of my hatred for my mother I was able to feel the depth of my love for women.

  18. James, you might not have all the answers but you have the majority. You have my vote. Thanks for your true intention and actions to encourage others.

  19. Great great article! I’m very much more into the person we are than to whatever goals we achieve. And if there’s anything huge about achieving goals at all, it would be to become the person it actually takes to achieve that goal.

    I believe one of our most prized possessions is our own identity.

  20. Nail on the head – making many tiny actions in order to build an identity for yourself.

    I’m reading Influence by Robert Caldini and he reported something very similar.

    In the 1960’s, social scientists Freedman and Fraser conducted a public service study.

    2 groups of homeowners in California were asked by researchers posing as volunteers to perform a preposterous public service task – erect a very large ‘Drive Safely’ billboard on their front lawn.
    Now this billboard will so big and poorly lettered that it was undoubtedly unattractive.

    In one group, 83% understandably refused, but in the second, 76% offered the use of their front yards to erect this ugly sign!

    What was the difference?

    It was this – 2 weeks earlier, another researcher had come to the second group and asked them to make a very small commitment to driver safety.

    They were asked to display a three-inch-square sign that said ‘Be a safe driver’. Because this was such a trivial request, almost everyone agreed.

    This small act 2-weeks earlier alone was responsible for the big difference in responses between the two groups.

    Freedman and Fraser concluded that this small act CHANGED HOW THE RESIDENTS SAW THEMSELVES.

    By first doing something tiny, they saw themselves as public spirited and therefore, were willing to do something much larger 2 weeks later.

    The take-away?

    Doing things, however small, consistently with how you want your identity to be, will lead you to eventually take on that identity.

    Great article James, keep up the writing.

  21. Hey man thanx for the great advice. I think we not even aware how much we push ourselves down at times by trying to be too perfect , while forgetting to just keep on going. Thanks a lot James!

  22. Hi – I’m new and I’m really enjoying your articles! I started training with an olympic weightlifting coach about 18 months ago. I am only able to train once per week so my progress is slow but steady. I understand and can implement strategies for adding in good habits. Start small, focus on the process, set yourself up for success right from the start. My first clean was 7K (yes, seven) now it’s 30K and I’ll be at 35K by Memorial Day. I get that. Maybe in another year I’ll be at 50K. I started lifting when I was 51 years old and I am never going to stop.

    But I am having a hard time with eliminating bad habits. Specifically: food. More specifically: portion control and frequency of eating. I don’t have “bad” food in the house. I eat good carbs, lean meats, vegetables, fruits, limited dairy and I stay away from rice, pasta, potatoes. Bread is my downfall so I try to keep that out of my sight. But I eat a TON — way more than I should. And I fall off the bread and chocolate wagon regularly. Thoughts on changing bad habits? (I have no medical or health problems.) Thanks!

  23. Good day James,

    The small increasing/bettering goal, that you are teaching is known as the Kaizen method. It`s a Japanese term for small stage improvements constantly.

    Hey James, you have traveled extensively world wide, but have you visited South Africa? It’s a beautiful country with a lot of different landscapes to see, and to photograph. We have beautiful beaches, mountains, deserts, forests just to mention a few. It would also be affordable as our Rand is 10.4 to the Dollar.

    Regards,
    John

  24. Very good post about taking small steps to make changes. We must also remember how our views about oursleves effect what we do. If we struggle with self-esteeem issues, figure out why and start tackling that issue first. A healthy self-esteem is needed for our success.

  25. Your philosophy is something I feel I can do. Can provide some examples regarding a transition to healthier eating?

    Thank you,
    Kimberly

  26. James,

    I’ve theorized about this before, but I’ve never been able to formulate it as well as this. If anything the fact that you advocate this becomes an instant excuse eliminator, so now I have no choice but to get back to building a more positive and proactive identity!

  27. I have the lowest self esteem and scared to try new things….too scared. I need you! Test subject? I am available. Lol

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