When changing diets, people rarely say “now I only eat cabbage, eggplants, and potatoes for dinner.” Rather, we hear them proclaim what they are. “I’m vegetarian.” Or, “I’m keto,” or “I’m paleo.” While they may not say it out loud, their diet becomes pinned to an identity. They spend money on cookbooks, seek out Facebook groups to discuss best practices, and post instagram pictures to showcase their gluten-free zucchini noodle carbonara. This activity results in a shared sense of identity.
I’ve taken advantage of this idea to jumpstart new habits. Years ago, my foray into running was less than impressive, jogging only a few kilometers per week and regularly getting passed by 85-year old oba-chans. But when people asked me what I did to stay healthy, I replied matter-of-factly, “I’m a runner.” Weeks of repeating this runner-mantra resulted in a snowball effect. When I felt like sleeping in, I asked, “are you the kind of person who sleeps in, or are you a runner?” This often gave me the necessary push to detach my butt from the bed and insert it into running shorts.
While creating a sense of identity was a good start, it wasn’t enough to build a consistent habit. Two other factors came together to make this stick. First, I dropped some dough. I invested in a pair of expensive Vibram five-finger shoes and got a membership at an uncomfortably expensive gym. Second, I signed up for a half-marathon race that was only weeks away. This left me no choice but to put my shoes on, train frequently at the posh gym, and get ready for the half-marathon. Eventually, running became an almost inseparable part of my identity.
The Three Ingredients That Made it Work
For those working full-time jobs and trying to forge new habits, it’s not enough to sign up for a group on Meetup.com and put it in your calendar. This action is helpful, but considering your busy schedule, it won’t build a lasting habit. Here are three key ingredients that you need to build new habits through new identity formation.
- Sunk costs (financial anxiety). A sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. So, committing to spend an uncomfortable amount of money in order to change your habit. Buying a premium subscription, product or service that will better allow you to achieve your goal.
- Group pressure (regret). This could be an accountability partner, joining a group, or committing to attending event that will be hard to break free from. You’d feel guilty for not going, missing a day when people are counting on you.
- Frequency (boredom). Doing some activity on a regular basis. It will inevitably be ‘boring’ at times, but accept that it is the nature of building a new habit– it’s not always exciting 100% of the time!
What could this mean for you? Here are a few examples:
- Training for a marathon/spartan race/triathlon: The running group is a small first step (group pressure). But you also need some financial pressure. So you could a) buy the most expensive running shoes b) join an expensive gym, and/or c) find a marathon that is out of your city or country. Frequency can be met by adding another element — get a friend to run with every weekend, on top of your regiment with the team.
- Learning a new instrument like the guitar. Pick up the most expensive guitar you can find (sunk cost). Organize a party at your house and promise to play 2 or 3 songs on your new guitar (group pressure). Get a biweekly guitar teacher and instruct them to teach you the songs (frequency).
- Eating keto or whatever diet. Throw away all of your food and stock your pantry with the highest quality salmon, eggs, almonds, and whatever else is allowed (sunk cost). Join a keto group or paid forum online or subscribe to a biohackers paid newsletter or video products (there are plenty) — or buddy with a couple of friends who wants to try the diet with you (group pressure). Follow your regiment 6 out of 7 days…give yourself one cheat day. (Frequency)
- Write a book or start a blog. Before writing your book, hire an expensive book cover-designer and get an amazing cover made (sunk cost). In the case of a blog, you could get a web designer to create a great, customized blog. These sunk costs should give you a sense that “shit, I’ve already spent all this money, so I have to start writing.” Join a writing group in your city to get feedback. Or find an accountability partner and schedule a recurring weekly meeting with them to read your blog post (group pressure). Commit to a small goal like writing 250 or 500 words per day, every morning or evening (frequency).
- Start a podcast. Buy the most expensive recording and audio equipment you can find (sunk cost). Reach out to twenty people and schedule the conversations (group pressure) — it will be painful to cancel these meetings. Promise your podcast listeners that you will have a weekly podcast (frequency + group pressure).
- Launch a startup. Bootstrap it. Get a lawyer, register a business and drop some cash on a website. Start building your product out of pocket (sunk cost). Schedule calls with 10 people so that they can try out your MVP in one month from now (group pressure). Find a startup-mentoring program or individual who is willing to mentor you on a weekly basis (frequency).
- Become a better cook. Buy the nicest, stainless steel pots, pans and knife set that you can find (sunk cost). And the best ingredients. Join a cook group near where you live and go on a weekly basis (frequency). Organize parties at your place or commit to cooking for your spouse/friends/colleagues on a weekly basis (group pressure).
The sunk cost anchors you down and signal that you’re serious.
Frequency is “the grind,” as any new habit requires a certain amount of hours spent before it becomes ingrained.
The group pressure or accountability partner is the glue that keeps you coming back, as well as a boost of motivation.
You can apply this method to build practically any new habit.
If you’re trying this approach and have had some success, I’d be curious to know what you’re doing.
Drop a comment below and share! If you haven’t started — what are you waiting for?