Small Habits Shape Identity: How I became someone who exercises

This morning, I lingered in my bed until late. Despite that, I went for a run. It started okay, but upgraded to great after a few minutes. Running felt good, natural, what I should be doing right now. I even went for a longer path than initially planned, just because I wanted to.

This feeling of adequacy, of doing something natural, when exercising of all things, would have baffled the Me from a year ago. Not that I stay inside all the time; walking around is one of my favorite things to do. But exercise is different. Exercise is hard, and intentional, and sweaty, and it makes you feel like shit. I was not someone who exercised.

I am now. I exercise 6 days a week, every day but Monday. Sometimes I miss, but I go back to it soon after. And this happened thanks to my habits.

The Power of Habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear is my go-to book about habits. It’s every thing I like for a productivity book: well-written and straight to the point, with clear actionable advice and warning that it doesn’t apply to everything. If you’re interested in habits, read it.

But two ideas struck with me long after finishing the book: habits make identity, and even small habits count.

Identity and Habits

James Clear has a great one-liner (out of many) about this:

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

Voting theory issues aside (what’s the VSE of my internal voting system?), this idea gives a clear way to influence your identity: do what the person you want to be would do. Want to be a writer? Writer writes. So write. Want to be someone who exercises? Then exercise. Clear calls these identity-based habits. Another way to put it is that you’re changing your baseline. If you’re writing a bit every day, then what feels weird is if you don’t write. Same for playing the piano or exercising.

Once identity is changed, it becomes easier to put productivity and improvement systems in place—you stop getting in your own way. Such systems then deliver outcomes. So instead of focusing on outcomes, one should shape her identity, and then her systems. Outcomes will follow

This worked tremendously well for me. After starting my exercising habit last year, I felt a real shift in my identity, from someone who doesn’t exercise to someone who does. In turn, this helped me to build a system for improving my physical shape, and I’m feeling the outcomes one year later. Not sure that applies to anyone, but it might be worth giving it a try.

That being said, isn’t the big problem of habits that they never stick? It’s easy to say that one should write every day to build an identity as a writer, and thus make it the new normal; but what if I consistently fail at that?

James Clear also has an answer for you: make it ridiculously easy.

The Two-Minute Rule

As always, James Clear compresses this idea in one sentence:

When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.

So the writing habits from the previous section? It becomes “write one line a day”. The exercising habits? “Do 1 push-up”, or “Drive to the gym”, or “Put on your running shoes”. The point is to make the habit so simple that it takes no willpower to do it.

Yet you might wonder if that’s enough. After all, I’m not going to be in shape by doing 1 push-up a day. This is outcome-oriented thinking, instead of identity-oriented. And what the previous idea hammered home was that identity drives processes and systems, which drive outcomes. The point is really to develop the identity, so that we can put systems in place for improvement, which will eventually deliver outcomes. The first step is to stop fighting the habit—that is, doing it again and again. Lowering the threshold for “doing it” helps.

My Exercising Habit

The previous ideas feel way more important than what I actually did. But maybe someone will take something out of the particular details, and so here is a rundown of my exercising habit.

Why do I want to exercise?

First question: what are my goals with this? I found two main ones:

  • (Health issues) I have knee problems, so I’m supposed to exercise my quadriceps. My height also put me at risks of back pain problems, which can be dealt with by working out my core

  • (Self-Image) I was not fat or even chubby, but I didn’t like my body. Building some muscle and removing some fat seemed a good way to improve a bit on that.

These goals relates to outcomes. So they’re relevant to this only in how they influence the choice of habits. But thinking about them daily is definitely not the point here.

How often do I want to exercise?

Daily habits remove the need to think of when it’s a “habit day”: every day is a “habit day”. Yet for exercising, a lot of what I knew and read online suggested that rest matters.

My final decision was thus to exercise every day but Monday, and space out in the week the session about the same muscles.

How do I exercise?

The previous goals resulted in three kind of exercise:

  • Core: planks, front, sides, back and mountain-climber

  • Legs: squats and this one exercise called “la chaise” (the chair in french) where you put your back to the wall and hold a sitting position without any chair. These exercises were what my physical therapist told me to do years ago for my knee problems.

  • Cardio: Running

To not overwork myself, I cycle through these:

  • Tuesday: Core

  • Wednesday: Legs

  • Thursday: Cardio

  • Friday: Core

  • Saturday: Legs

  • Sunday: Cardio

I also do them first time in the morning, which is when my brain is still waking up, and so I wouldn’t be able to do much else anyway. And in following with the two-minute rule, my minimal workout is quite short (one series for the core and legs exercises, running around the block for the cardio). Even if I sometimes and usually go beyond that minimal workout.

Conclusion: It’s Okay to Miss

Before closing, I want to share one last one-liner from James Clear. This one I ankified and learned by heart:

Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

The point of a habit is not to be done perfectly every day. The point is to elect the identity that you want, so that the rest of your progress goes smoother. So missing one day is not a big deal. Clear encourages people to never miss twice, and so to go back the next day after you missed. I concur, but also remember that missing twice is not the end of your habit. The end of your habit is not even when you start losing the internal vote.

The end of your habit is when you decide you cannot do it. Sometimes it’s a good decision; maybe you just don’t want it anymore. And that’s fine. But if you still want to do it, and nonetheless fail, remember the two-minute rule: make it easier.