Most people go about habit change backwards. Here’s how to flip it.

“I’m on a diet, I shouldn’t eat that cake.”

“I’m going to try to exercise more this year.”

“I’m trying to lose weight, so I can only have a little.”

If you have ever said anything like the above, you’re in good company. Weight loss is freaking hard. As my friend Adam once said to me: “Steve I hope all of this exercise stuff is worth it for you – do you KNOW how good cake is!?”

The challenge is often never in what we need to do: it’s getting ourselves to ACTUALLY do it.

We all know we should eat less and move more. We know we should eat more veggies. We know we should hit the gym more frequently.

And yet, the scale never seems to budge.

Or worse, we get a few weeks into a workout routine or diet, life gets busy, and we fall apart. We see some progress only to backslide and realize months later we’re no better off.

This is demoralizing as hell, and it seems like nobody can make weight loss stick.

Well, not everybody.

SOME people manage to build new habits they actually sustain. Some people can build a new habit and make it become part of their new routine.

What do they do differently?

They take two very specific steps, and they ask themselves one question every day.

If you struggle with making new habits stick, this article is going to give you a strategy to implement TODAY. Backed by science, written by a nerd, with LEGO photos.

Let’s get weird.

The 3 Layers of Habit Change

My friend James Clear, a behavioral change expert and author of the recently launched Atomic Habits, lives and breathes habit change more than anybody I know.

With his book launching this week, I asked if I could share his 3 layers of behavior change to help the Rebels of Nerd Fitness finally break through the muck and mire and build the habit of hitting the gym, or going for a run, or eating healthier:

THE 3 LAYERS OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE:

The 1st layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.

The 2nd layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.

The 3rd and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.

To put it more simply:

  • Outcomes are about what you get (“I lost weight”).
  • Processes are about what you do (“I go to the gym regularly”).
  • Identity is about what you believe (“I am a healthy person that never misses a workout.”

Now, none of the above is rocket science. I think anyway – I have never done rocket science. It’s the same thing we all do every time we try to change a habit.

The reason your habits never stick?

You’re implementing these layers BACKWARDS! Crap.

Where People Get Habit Change Wrong

Most people don’t consider the innermost layer – identity change – when they set out to improve.

We just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) so if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).”

We set goals and determine the actions we should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive our actions:

  • I want to lose weight, so if I go to the gym more, the scale will go down.
  • I want to fit into this bathing suit, so if I follow this crazy restrictive diet, I’ll reach my goal.
  • I want to run a 5k, so I’m gonna start training every day until I run it.

In each scenario, the person never shifts the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.

Let’s talk about identity (the innermost circle) for a second. 

When working for you, identity change can be a powerful force for self-improvement.

When working against you, though, identity change can be a curse:

“Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.

When you have repeated a story to yourself for years (or decades), it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs.”

Whatever your identity is right now, you believe it because you have recurring proof:

  • If you identify as somebody with a slow metabolism – the high number on the scale reinforces that every day.
  • If you identify as somebody with no self control – the empty ice cream containers in your trash can reinforce that identity with each additional pint polished off.
  • If you identify as a victim of “too busy,” – then every day you are reminded of how busy you are and how you just don’t have time to take care of yourself.

It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.

You might have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.

This is the crucial step that everybody misses, and it’s something you can implement today.

Identity Based Habit Change: Middle Out For the Win!

True behavior change is identity change.

In other words, start with the inside circle and work your way outward. Here’s that graphic again:

You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity:

“On any given day, you may struggle with your habits because you’re too busy or too tired or too overwhelmed or hundreds of other reasons. Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way.

This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift the belief behind the behavior, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes.

In other words, improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are:

  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to be a runner.
  • The goal is not to lose weight, the goal is to be a healthy self-confident person.
  • The goal is not to go to the gym, the goal is to be somebody that never misses a workout.

Can you see how this is VERY different than just “I’m gonna go on a diet to lose weight?” It’s MUCH deeper than that.

The person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn’t have to convince themselves to train. Doing the right thing is easy. After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change.

You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be. This is the holy grail of permanent weight loss and health success.

Want to build a habit? Do these 2 Simple Steps.

If you’re going to build a new habit, it’s going to be a gradual evolution.

We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.

Each habit is like a suggestion:

“Hey, maybe this is who I am.” If you finish a book, then perhaps you ARE the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you ARE the type of person who likes exercise.

And these are the two steps we’re going to hyper focus in on.

  • Decide the type of person you want to be.
  • Prove it to yourself with small wins.

STEP ONE: Decide who you want to be. This holds at any level— as an individual, as a team, as a community, as a nation. What do you want to stand for? What are your principles and values? Who do you wish to become?

We’ll get real nerdy on this step below.

STEP TWO: Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, take small steps to reinforce your desired identity. Each step, no matter how small, helps you start to realize that, maybe you CAN be a morning person. Or that you DON’T have a slow metabolism. Or that you ARE a runner!

Let’s dig deeper.

Rebel, What Is Your Profession?!

Depending on how long you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness, you might already be doing Step One.

For years now, Nerd Fitness has been turning life into a game. Depending on what you want your new identity to be, you pick the Class/Profession that lines up with this new identity.

You can even create a free character, and our uber-supportive Message Board community is segmented by these classes too. They’re also a big part of my book, Level Up Your Life.

Here are the 7 classes of Nerd Fitness. Pick the class that lines up with the way you WANT to train (longer descriptions here):

  • Warrior: strength training, powerlifting, olympic lifting, weights
  • Scout: running, swimming, biking, endurance
  • Adventurer: exploration, hiking, camping, climbing, travel excursions
  • Ranger: cross training, metabolic conditioning, jack of all trades
  • Assassin: parkour, gymnastics, bodyweight training, movement
  • Monk: martial arts
  • Druid: yoga, tai chi, meditation, nature

If you want to be a warrior, you ARE a Warrior. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Warrior Guild!

If you want to run a marathon, congrats! You are a Scout. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Scout’s Den!

If you want to lose weight and are considering joining a CrossFit gym, congrats! You’re a Ranger. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Ranger Guild.

I don’t care if you are 400 pounds or 100 pounds and have never picked up a weight or ran a step in your life. Write out your alter-ego, the superhero version of yourself.

  • How do they train?
  • How do they eat?
  • What time do they go to bed?

The goal is not just weight loss – the goal is to build an identity that is aligned with the type of person you want to be.

Me personally? I am an Assassin in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

What is YOUR profession!?

Ask yourself this question all day, every day.

Congrats, you now have a new identity! It’s all unicorns and rainbows and effortless weight loss from here on out.

Kidding.

It’s still going to be hard work. There are no shortcuts. No temporary changes will create permanent results. Which means you need to change your perspective. It means you never get to be “done.” You don’t get to go on temporary diets.

Instead, you slowly shift your daily behavior, decision by decision.

And eventually, your outer evolution (lose weight, build muscle, physique change) is going to catch up to your new internal identity.

So now that you have created your new identity and picked your class, it’s time to start asking yourself the question whenever faced with a decision: “What would a Ranger/Monk/Scout do!?”

And then do that thing.

James had a friend who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?”

All day long, she would use this question as a guide:

  • Would a healthy person walk or take a cab?
  • Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad?

She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. 100 pounds later, she was right.

So let’s look at our examples:

You don’t need to run a 5k to be a Scout. You decide you are a Scout today, and running for 5 seconds makes you a Scout. So what would a scout do? Skip their run? Or go for a run even though they only have 15 minutes?

You don’t need to have ever lifted a weight to be a Warrior. You can start acting like one now. Would a warrior sit on his butt and watch TV? Or would he be doing a beginner bodyweight workout?

You don’t need to be a gymnast NOW to be an Assassin. You just start acting like one. Would a healthy badass Assassin skip his handstand training today? Nope.

This stuff works. Ask yourself what a healthy/superhero/badass person would do. Just ASKING the question makes you more likely to change behavior.

As pointed out in the book Mindless Eating:

“We found we could get kids to choose the healthier food much more often if we simply asked what their favorite superhero or their favorite princess would do.

Even if they responded “french fries”, half the time they took the apple slices. It simply causes an interruption in their thinking that causes them to pause, hit the reset button inside their head and think again.”

In other words, asking “What would Batman do?” is a real thing, and it can fundamentally change the path of your journey.

Yup, even for adults. Whenever I think of skipping my workouts to play more videogames I always ask myself “What would Captain America do?”

More often than not, I end up in the gym. Because damnit, I am Captain America.

Make a small win today.

As the saying goes, “Big things have small beginnings.”

Do enough small things aligned with your new identity, and your outward appearance will start to reflect your new superhero identity.

Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks.

Your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be.

So I leave you with three questions:

  • What is your Profession!?
  • How would that person act today?
  • Can you get a small win today to reinforce that?

Here’s an example for each class to get you started:

What’s that? You want to build a certain physique? Start doing what those people do!

This is exactly what we preach and teach with our 1-on-1 Coaching Clients – we essentially ask them what they want to be when they grow up (lol), and then create specific programs and help guide their food choices to become that new version of themselves!

Here is my answer:

“I am an Assassin in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion. I don’t care that I have thin wrists and crappy genetics. I’m reinforcing this by hitting the gym as soon as I hit publish on this article to work on my rings work. Tonight I will eat grilled chicken, quinoa, and broccoli.”

Your turn: Leave a comment below!

-Steve

PS: James Clear’s book Atomic Habits served as the inspiration and outline for today’s article – if you’re interested at all in bettering yourself and improving your health, I would highly recommend checking it out!

 

**All photo credits can be found right here[1]**