Video: Are You Struggling To Change a Habit? This May Explain Why

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Identity.


A great example of the importance of this strategy comes writer James Agree. In a letter I read in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, he wrote, after he’d been told that he really needed to cut back on his drinking and smoking:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

And indeed, Agee didn’t cut back on the drinking and smoking, and died of a heart attack, at age 45, in a taxi on his way to see a doctor. Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

To change a habit, we have to face that kind of conflict.

Another key point about the Strategy of Identity: for you Rebels out there (or people who work with Rebels), this strategy is one of the most effective strategies for Rebels.

Rebels generally have a tough time accepting the constraints imposed by habits, but because they place great value on being true to themselves, they embrace a habit if they view it as an essential aspect of their identity.

For instance, a Rebel might want to be a respected leader. The identity of “leader” might help him to choose to keep habits—such as showing up on time or going to unnecessary meetings—that would otherwise chafe. He will choose to behave this way.

If you don’t know what a “Rebel” is, it’s one of the Four Tendencies. If you want to find out your Tendency, take my new Quiz.

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Identity. It’s very, very important.

  • Guest

    Great video! Thanks for bringing them back, I’ve missed them!
    I was thinking about my in-laws, who I think are alcoholics. They don’t think they have a problem, so they keep drinking. So because they don’t identify themselves as alcoholics, they will likely never change this habit. My husband drinks too, and I think it’s because of his “family identity”… most of them drink, so he feels it’s “in his blood”. He identifies as a drinker, therefore it’s hard for him to cut back, though he has tried countless times. So to be successful, he should learn to identify himself as a separate person, and not necessary doomed to be a problem drinker like his family? Hmm.. something to ponder.

  • Hi Gretchen!

    As a rebel, I am very familiar with the strategy of identity. It’s what helps me get most things done (I’m a very high achieving rebel). My identity as that is so strong, I wrote it without even realizing what I was doing! haha

    But, one strategy that I also use is CHANGING your sense of identity by changing the people and places you surround yourself with.

    Amazing how a totally clean new place can help you shift your identity to be the kind of person who picks up for themselves (I actually have someone clean my house each week to bolster this sense), or how a new group of friends can transform your identity (maybe there is someone in the group who is the life of the party, so you don’t have to play that role anymore… or perhaps life of the party to them means something different, still freeing you from your identity.)

    I’ve used this (admittedly a bit drastic) strategy several times in my life. I find that, after a little practice with my “new identity”, I can be fairly effective at keeping true to it, even in the groups that I had to distance myself from.

  • Gillian

    I am currently reading Brian Little’s “Me, Myself and Us” about personality psychology. You have mentioned this book here in the past, Gretchen. A very interesting read. In it, Little talks about Personal Constructs – the lenses or frames through which you can make sense of the world. If you have too few, you can be caged in. “They determine, in part, the degrees of freedom we have for shaping our lives.” This strikes me as very similar to your Strategy of Identity.

    I tend to identify myself as a very “non-physical” person which makes it difficult for me to engage in any form of exercise. I am trying to change this. I will never become a really physical person, nor do I want to, but by shifting my identity a bit, it is making it easier for me to walk regularly, fit more movement into my day and, as of 2 weeks ago, attend yoga classes twice a week. I will be leaving in 45 minutes to walk to my 5th class.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I encountered this important insight in my 40s, and it transformed my life.

    The cues I try to notice are statements like ‘It’s just the way I am” or “I [am a person who hates] paperwork / exercise / parties / travel . . . Or “I am just not good at” x or y or z. Those words rule out mastery or even participation, or excuse failure to undertake an effort or demonstrate a plan to fail.

    Yes, I dislike doing bureaucratic paperwork. But I am not BAD at it. I used to say that not being good at managing money or disliking travel or hating exercise were all ‘just the way I am’. By compelling myself to try, I earned my way to home ownership and a decent retirement income; I’ve enjoyed adventurous travel, and even working out at a gym and walking outdoors. Do I still have to punch through the ‘not me’ barrier? Yes, but repeated successes have taught me the benefits of overcoming my reluctance.

    ‘Never say never’? Well, not quite. But at almost 68, I am much more open to the idea that I can surprise myself than I was at age 35. Your post makes me curious though: what about the things I love, or habitually do, that get in the way of the me I want to be? “I love to” . . . ” I just can’t pass up” . . . “I’m just a pushover for . . . ” Something new to think about, Gretchen.

  • This idea resonates with me. My identity has always been (not always by choice) that of the shy, creative girl who excels in quiet activities like reading and drawing instead of physical activities like sports or running. Developing a habit of working out has therefore been difficult for me to stick with. Making time for exercise and participating in a purely physical activity goes against my identity of the little quiet girl who is just going to get hurt in gym class. But I’d rather incorporate daily workouts and shift my entire identity instead of stick with this old dated identity!

    • Megan

      I agree! I’ve put myself in the shy “box” too. It’s like we build a comfy little box around ourselves – this is what we are, and this is what we tell people about ourselves. If we try to go outside the box, it can be very easy to fall back to the comfort of this identity… people think I’m this way, so I will be this way, it’s easier to stay in the box. But let’s break out, and build a new box! Too cheesey? 🙂

  • Carrie

    Help! I need suggestions! I have a 9 year old daughter whom I am trying to encourage to be more physical by participating in sports and other physical exercise. She tells me she is “not athletic” and doesn’t like to exercise. I try to explain to her that she is perfectly well coordinated and just as able as the next kid to participate in sports, and that everyone needs to be “athletic” to some extent, since exercise is so important to health. We go round and round on this issue, and I cannot seem to get her to embrace “regular exerciser” as part of her identity – but I feel strongly that this DOES need to become part of her identity. Any suggestions?

    • Gillian

      That’s a tough one! As someone who identifies as “not a physical person”, I can identify with your daughter. A few thoughts, for what they’re worth:

      A certain amount of physical activity is essential for good health and for developing physical skills and body control. However, it doesn’t take a huge amount. Time taken in sports, etc. is time not available for other pursuits. Perhaps your daughter just resents time away from other interests such as reading, artwork, or creative activities. These have to be respected and balanced with the physical side.

      Physical activity doesn’t have to mean organized sports or working out at a gym – these are not for everyone, especially not for introverts. It can include hiking, canoeing and other activities that take you into nature. These have the added benefit of being good for the soul as well as the body.

      Perhaps you could start slowly by encouraging your daughter to go for a walk with you everyday, or every other day, for just 15 or 20 minutes. You could make it a mother/daughter ritual. If she is creative, she can look for inspiration on the walks.

      Rather than trying to get her to identify as athletic or a regular exerciser, try to get her to identify as someone who is healthy and has the strength and physical control to participate in anything she wants to and to take advantage of future opportunities.

      As a non-parent, I really have no expertise in this area but as I identify with your daughter’s “non-athletic” statement, I’m trying to present her point-of-view while encouraging a little bit of activity. Part of the question is whether Non-Athlete is an assumed identity or whether it is an in-born trait.

      • HEHink

        Both Gillian, and Mimi – Great responses! I identify strongly with both of you in this area. And for Carrie, all I would add is that if, as Gillian and Mimi both suggest, your daughter can find an activity that interests her, she can identify with that specific activity as opposed to “athletic/non-athletic” (i.e. “I’m a swimmer,” or “I do yoga.”) Also, it might be that she dislikes the competitive aspect of sports, so she really might prefer to try some of the more individual activities suggested above.

    • Ed

      This raises a really good question – how can you influence the identities of your children (or other close loved ones) so that they will adopt better habits?

    • Mimi Gregor

      Like Gillian, I don’t consider myself athletic. I’ve never liked participating in sports, and hated phys-ed in high school. That being said, I exercise daily now. I think the thing is finding out, first of all, the right reasons to do this for the person. When I first started exercising, I did it in order to tone my muscles and to look svelte. Now, however, I do it mostly to keep from getting decrepit as I grow… more timeless. And to look svelte. If your daughter is vain, you might succeed by appealing to her vanity. If she is health-conscious, that would work as an enticement.

      Secondly, there is a whole gamut of physical activity out there, some of which is done in groups (which I hate), and some which is done alone (much better). Some is outdoor-oriented, and some indoor. Some is high-impact (weights, running), some is low-impact (yoga). What she would find interesting would depend on her personality.

      Thirdly: as I said, I hated physical activity at her age, and now I’m very health-conscious. She is young, and will undoubtedly change her interests many times over. If she is a Rebel, she may even not want to exercise because you seem to want it so much! So her tendency must be taken into account. I’ve never had kids, but I was one at one time. I’d let it go. You’re not going to force her to like exercise, and eventually she may come to like it on her own. You can’t change other people… only your reactions to them.

    • Katie

      Carrie, I too used to say I was not an athletic person. Gym class was a nightmare in high school, and the few sporty friends I had loved to laugh at my total lack of coordination. But what I have learned about myself over the years, (I am now in my early 40s) is that I am not a COMPETITIVE person. I actually hate sports and that really is part of who I am! But here are some things I LOVE: running, swimming, hiking, Zumba, going for long walks, and basically doing anything in nature. Sports are just not for everybody, but we can all do something with these bodies God gave us!

    • penelope schmitt

      And as a FAMILY do you all regularly do things together that involve physical activity? Does your daughter see you, her father, her siblings regularly do things that are active? Maybe organized sports are not for her but just being outside and walking would be good. Heck, walking around a nearby shopping mall (full of pitfalls of course, but you get my point) is ACTIVE. Does she go with you to the grocery store and walk up and down all the aisles? Is it possible to walk to the post office? the library? your place of worship, if any? Do you have a yard that needs mowing or raking? A flower or vegetable garden? There are lots of ways to get activity that really don’t have a label that shouts ‘exercise’ or require ‘gym clothes’ to do them. This is one of those cases where the whole family’s activity level is probably a really helpful driver of a grade school age child’s level of activity unless she WANTS to play soccer. or some such sport. She can’t be ‘left behind’ if she is included in situations where she more or less has to come along.

    • elisa

      Are you sure she *needs* to? I imagine she already has several hours per week of physical education at school, hasn’t she? Why should you dedicate more time to that instead of, say, painting of playing the flute? Your use of capitals (“this DOES need to become part of her identity”) makes me think that you might be mistaking your desire with her needs —and this is a no-go with rebels (and questioners with a rebel aspect)!

  • GG

    I think that how you identify yourself is often based on how
    those people around you identify not only themselves, but also you. If you grow up around a family who says that
    everyone in their family, including you, is clumsy, or chubby, or ditzy, or bad with money, or whatever, then you are more likely to identify yourself that way, not only
    because you have been told that you (as a member of that group) have that trait, but also
    because you want to be a part of that group. Preteens, teens and those in their twenties
    are heavily influenced by their peers, and “learn” to identify themselves a
    certain way so that they won’t be left out or laughed at. To some people, this might seem silly or
    shallow, but those influences when we are young can stay with us until the day we die. I think it is wonderful that Gretchen has
    sifted out and identified this concept of Identity, but I also think that it points to the
    need for ground-shifting changes in some people, especially Rebels. (And isn’t it a bit ironic that a Rebel has trouble with habits because of his or her prior need or desire to fit into a group?) If it took years to develop one’s sense of
    identity, then you would think it would take years to modify and perhaps
    “unlearn” certain aspects of one’s identity.
    How you see yourself and your identity is too huge for there to be a quick fix. I hope that Gretchen will delve further into
    this complex issue.

  • Plr

    I admire your controlled eating. You have even mentioned having vegetables for a birthday cake. I am curious about your menus and would enjoy having you list some of sample meals.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    You’ve hit on a key support beam in the architecture of change. Changing a habit implies a change of who we are right now. And there was a reason or two why we evolved into the person we are right now whether our current set of habits are healthy, or not. Obviously the wish to change a habit means the action (and therefore who we are) is not working for us anymore. So it’s a smart strategy to sit down and work out what perception of “that kind of person” we’d be is unconsciously causing resistance to change of habit. Thank you for giving me an interesting new puzzle to ponder!

  • Katie

    I totally agree with this! But I also have a question to throw out there….I struggle with something so much deeper than just a bad habit, and it’s almost talking over my life. I was born extremely shy. This gets reinforced all the time by people commenting on how shy I am… Now, in my forties, it has only gotten worse, not better. It limits me, controls what I get involved in, and where I go. Maybe this is the wrong place to be looking, but if anyone can point me to a website or discussion group that they find helpful, I would really appreciate it. I am just starting to come to terms with how bad it is, and need to find steps out.

    • Ines

      Reading Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts” changed my life in that I now no longer despise myself for being shy/introverted. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

      • Gillian

        I agree – it is a terrific book for introverts and everyone who lives or works with introverts. Not all introverts are shy but Cain does talk about shyness.

      • gretchenrubin

        Susan Cain is a friend – I know, the book is terrific.

      • Trixie

        I loved the book, too. I am a sociable introvert, as is my daughter (age 9), while my husband and son (age 13) are extroverts – much more extroverted than we are introverted. For a long time, I thought some of the differences among us were male/female issues, but after I read Susan Cain’s book, I realized they were introvert-/extrovert-related. It was an eye-opening discovery. My sister is very introverted (much more so than I am), and her husband is very extroverted. I think it can be a nice balance in a relationship as my sister and I both are our spouses’ opposites, but things seem to work out well.

    • Chris B. Behrens

      Your local ballroom dance studio. I’m not shy, but we see this a lot in my studio – it’s incredibly effective therapy at resolving social anxiety. You will find yourself with a bunch of other people working through the same issues.

  • louisec

    Someone very close to me believes he is a rebel and a risk taker. Yet, his behaviour does not match this belief. I find it quite funny, yet this belief is a huge influence in many decisions and choices he makes. I imagine many of us are like that. The point is, I think our beliefs about ourselves (our internal identify) may not always be accurate. I’ve had people tell me things about my personality that I did not recognize about myself. So, the thing we need to do, and I think this is a life long pursuit, is to increase our self-awareness. We’ve learned that our brains are actually quite flexible and continue to change throughout our lives. Is this also true for our personalities, how we express ourselves and how we live our lives?

  • Lost in space and time

    One can choose to be a rebel for good like Mother Teresa or a rebel or evil like Hitler. The question becomes: Do you want to make the transition to good or evil? Do you want to deny yourself and do good for others no matter how they treat you?

  • Chris B. Behrens

    HUGE observation. There might be an entire book in this topic.

  • Chris B. Behrens

    I experienced the complement to this. For years, I was an intensely mentally disciplined person – very organized, ambitious and effective in my career. Unfortunately, I had terrible eating habits, and was about a hundred pounds overweight. I was aware of the disconnect – how is that I’m so focused and effective in all of these areas, and yet physically, I’m a disaster?

    With a focused weight-loss program and exercise (check out my profile photo), I lost the weight and resolved the disconnect – I brought my physical condition in line with my identity as a focused and effective person. That was a huge, positive change for me.

  • Lyn

    Love your books! Do you ever offer special bundle prices? I would order the audio and the hardback together in a special deal. But can’t justify buying both.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a subject of much discussion in the publishing world! That would be a deal that would come from the publisher or the retailer (I think?) – definitely not up to me.

  • andreasd

    Hello Gretchen,
    I need to chime in!

    I am a full blown Rebel.

    I’d like to share a tactic I apply when I need to do (repetitive) chores but everything in me screams ‘noooo’. It is a variation on what you call Strategy of Identity.

    I call it ‘as if’. I simply enact being somebody else or doing stuff while being filmed:
    e.g. I enact being a perfect butler, cook, chambermaid, laundress, interior designer. Works for difficult stuff like writing essays, difficult letters: the famous poet, the cool scientist….

    I know it sounds cheesy, but it really works. Sometimes I spend days hopping from one identity to the next.

    Disclosure: I learned this tactic from a friend who is impoverished nobility and needs to do ‘servants chores’ by herself.

    Best, Andrea

  • anonymouse

    Hi Gretchin,

    I think this is one of your most insightful observations with regards habit. I think it also works in the positive sense, making new habits easier to acquire when they mesh with your identity or the way you want to shape your identity…at least that’s what I’ve found with regards this year’s batch of New Year’s resolutions.

  • sue

    I have struggled with the habit of staying up late and waking up late, since I got married and my husband is on 2nd shift. I used to wake up at 4-6 am when I worked. I keep trying to change my habit but I also want to spend quality time with my husband. When I had a job last summer I was successful mostly but it was a struggle.

  • I simply want to tell you that I am all new to blogs and really loved your website. Likely I’m want to bookmark your blog . You surely come with outstanding articles and reviews. Cheers for sharing with us your blog site.

  • Pingback: Are You Struggling To Change a Habit? This May Explain Why()

  • Something I have found really helpful with the point you are making is to ask myself what my higher value is and keep focussed on that as I form a new habit. Helps keep motivated and the “why” of what I am doing as a carrot dangling in front of me.