Focus on Your ‘Who’: Why Identity Is a Powerful Tool for Behavior Change and Healthy Habits

Published Date: Feb 8, 2024
Photo of a woman with a contemplative expression, gazing out of her window

Focus on Your ‘Who’: Why Identity Is a Powerful Tool for Behavior Change and Healthy Habits

Published Date: Feb 8, 2024
Photo of a woman with a contemplative expression, gazing out of her window

Focus on Your ‘Who’: Why Identity Is a Powerful Tool for Behavior Change and Healthy Habits

Published Date: Feb 8, 2024
Photo of a woman with a contemplative expression, gazing out of her window

Focus on Your ‘Who’: Why Identity Is a Powerful Tool for Behavior Change and Healthy Habits

Published Date: Feb 8, 2024
Photo of a woman with a contemplative expression, gazing out of her window
Table of Contents

Are you looking to build a new habit or change your behavior? Maybe you're chasing big goals like getting fit, learning to cook, running a race, or writing a book — or maybe yours are more modest. No matter what you’re working toward, if you’re like most people, you start with the end in mind, focusing on what you hope to achieve. Or you might be laser-focused on the systems you’re going to set up to support your goal, like reminders or tracking apps.

But these approaches are missing something crucial: your identity.

Behavioral scientists suggest you also focus on your identity as a powerful tool to help you build healthy habits. Rather than concentrating only on what you want to achieve (e.g., getting fit), focusing on who you are or who you want to become (someone who exercises consistently) can be much more effective.

Hinge Health, a digital clinic for muscle and joint care, helps members harness the power of identity to build habits that reduce pain and get them back to doing what they love. Let’s look at how you can use identity to power your new habit.

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About Our Author

Rachel Foster, PhD
Behavioral Scientist
Dr. Foster is a Hinge Health behavioral scientist who applies principles of behavioral science to help members develop health, fitness, and wellness habits.

Focus on Your ‘Who’

You’ve heard the expression: You are what you eat. When it comes to habits and identity, it’s more accurate to say: You are what you do. The actions you repeat every day, every week, every year define who you are. If you make your own meals every day, you are a cook. If you use a daily to-do list, you are a planner. If you tend a garden daily, you are a gardener. As behavior change expert James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, “You get what you repeat.” In fact, Clear says that your current behaviors are a pretty accurate reflection of your current identity, whether you’re aware of it or not.

The powerful part of the habit-identity equation is that it works in reverse. “I am an athlete, so I work out daily,” or “I am a healthy person, so I eat a balanced diet.” 

This means that focusing on your identity can help you change your beliefs about yourself and, in turn, help change your behavior. 

In other words, claiming an identity can drive behaviors that are reinforced to support that identity. When you base your actions on your identity (say, as a person who values physical activity) instead of an outcome (being fit), you’re much more likely to stick with the behavior that moves you toward the end goal. There are plenty of studies showing this is true for any habit you’re trying to adopt, whether your goal is related to fitness, health, diet, hobbies, finances, or something else.

Why Identity Works

Identity-focused habits are effective for two big reasons:

  • They promote consistency. You’re more likely to weather life’s predictable ups and downs that can interfere with your intentions when you stay focused on your identity. After all, a person who values physical activity continues to prioritize exercise even if life occasionally gets in the way of their daily workout. 

  • They’re less work. When your behaviors are based on who you are, it takes less mental effort to maintain them. You spend less energy developing elaborate systems and processes to support your habit. Instead, behaviors become “automatic” because they’re an integral part of your identity, which makes them easier to sustain over time.

That's why our Hinge Health program encourages members to think of themselves as people who use movement to work toward less pain and better health. We know members who claim this identity are more likely to stick with their workouts. 

Harness Identity to Power Your Habit

Not sure how to begin using identity-focused habits? Here are six ways to start:

1. Write It Down

If you want to believe new things about yourself, start by putting pen to paper. Writing down statements about your behaviors and your identities can help shift your identity beliefs — especially if you practice flipping them around to put identity first: Consider phrases like:

  • I am a great friend, so I schedule quality time with people I care about

  • I am a lifelong learner, so I find opportunities to learn new things

  • I am resilient, so I bounce back from setbacks

  • I value the importance of sleep, so I prioritize a consistent sleep schedule

  • I value mental health, so I take time for stress-management activities

  • I’m a healthy person, so I make time for exercise

Once your identity focus is clear, it’s easy to list the behaviors that are associated with it. And then your actions reinforce your identity in a positive feedback loop. After all, you are what you do and every identity-aligned behavior affirms the identity you’re working toward.

2. Visualize Your Future Self

How do you harness the power of identity if you’re not quite there yet? Maybe you want to be a daily exerciser, but you’re not yet carving out the time for exercise every day. Focus on your “future self.” Spend time visualizing the person you want to be. With your future self identity in mind, ask yourself what actions or behaviors flow from that vision. Think about the things you’re already doing that are in alignment with that identity. Imagine, in as much detail as possible, what your future self will do to express this new identity. 

Let’s say you want to be a person who makes their physical and mental health their number one priority but you struggle to do this now. Ask yourself what this kind of person would do to prioritize their physical and mental health. Are there actions you could start taking that align with this next version of yourself? Maybe you would allow yourself to get enough sleep during the upcoming weekend instead of staying up late on a Saturday night. Or maybe you could take some time to prepare healthy lunches for yourself on a Sunday afternoon instead of eating on the go throughout the week.

3. Ask: How Do I Want to Feel?

If envisioning your future self is too hard, try imagining how you want to feel instead. Do you want to feel confident? Happy? Strong? Consider the actions you are taking right now that are causing you to feel differently. Now think about actions you can take that might allow you to feel the way you desire. The more you visualize yourself feeling and acting in ways that mesh with your new identity, the more you start to engage in current behaviors that are consistent with it.

4. Use Your Name

Another helpful exercise when using identity to support behavior change is to use your own name in action statements. For example, “[your name] is the type of person who does XYZ.” This can help you envision taking specific actions or working on a new habit or skill. 

Saying it out loud or writing it down is also a way of making a contract with yourself. Once you’ve declared that you are the type of person who takes some action, that commitment makes it harder to abandon the behavior. Consider this mini psychology lesson: Cognitive dissonance is a term for the discomfort that happens when you realize there’s a mismatch between your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. Declaring yourself the type of person who does something (e.g., an athlete) makes you want to perform the action that aligns with your self-concept (e.g., daily exercise). This helps you avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. 

Behavioral economist and decision scientist Katy Milkman, PhD, explains in her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, “signing a pledge is a … form of commitment because the penalty is simply the guilt and discomfort you’ll feel if you break your word, to others or yourself.” 

5. Tweak Your Self-Talk

Focusing on your “who” also means considering the ways you talk to yourself and how your internal dialogue impacts your self-esteem. Is your self-talk supportive or do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake or have a hard time changing your behavior? Having a self-critical internal dialogue can lead to unsupportive, unhelpful thought patterns. This, in turn, can decrease your confidence, feelings of self worth, and ability to embrace new identities. 

If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, ask yourself, What evidence is there that this thought is true? Is this thought helpful? How can I be kind in this moment and pave the best path forward for myself? 

More often than not, our internal dialogue is overly self-critical and our thoughts can be influenced by our emotions, rather than what’s actually happening. Another way to interrupt negative self-talk is to try this simple shift: Would you talk to your best friend like this?

6. Harness the Power of Group Identity

One of the most powerful ways to change your identity is to join groups whose values and identities align with the identity you aspire to. Jay Van Bavel, PhD, and Dominic Packer, PhD, write about how group membership can help reinforce habits and behaviors in their book, The Power of Us. If you want to be a runner, for example, joining a running group is one of the best ways to reinforce that identity and encourage the behavior (running) that the group is centered around. That’s because groups have shared values, identities, and norms that members (consciously or unconsciously) seek to align with. It doesn’t have to be a formal, organized group, either: a few like-minded, supportive friends can be just as good.

The Identity Takeaway

It can be hard to shake the idea that setting end goals (getting fit, learning to cook, running a race, etc.) alone is key for new habits. A lot of new Hinge Health members think this way. But focusing on your identity instead helps keep you committed to the process (exercising more, making time to work on a skill, eating a healthier diet, etc.) that will actually get you more reliably to your end goal. 

As James Clear notes in Atomic Habits, “If you’re looking to make a change … stop worrying about results and start worrying about your identity. Become the type of person who can achieve the things you want to achieve.”

What identity can you start focusing on today?

Learn More About Hinge Health for Healthy Habits and Pain Relief

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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