I’ve got some bad news: All of your New Year’s resolutions are going to fail and there’s no one to blame but you.
Here’s the hard truth about life that people don’t want to embrace: Values and identity drive behavior. There it is. I said it. the economy, your family or who’s elected president doesn’t control you. Your own mind and your belief about who you are controls you. If you believe you’re lazy, you’ll act lazy. If you think it’s OK to give up on your New Year’s resolutions, you will.
Whether or not you’re aware, your identity is a choice that you make every day. I’m not saying there aren’t certain features that are baked in, but the majority of what you consider to be “you” is malleable. The reason identity feels fixed is simply because people rarely put in the effort to make real and lasting changes.
Have you ever seen that episode of the 90s Batman cartoon where Bruce Wayne sustains a head injury, gets amnesia and forgets he’s Batman? He becomes timid and meek, and ends up getting kidnapped and put in a camp to do hard labor. But then, in an instant, his memory comes rushing back and he remembers who he really is (“I’m BATMAN!”), and he ends up fighting his way to freedom. That episode gives me the chills because it so clearly demonstrates the power of identity.
An example that might hit closer to home is that of the parent. I’ve seen countless people up their game overnight simply because they had a child. That might be the purest form of instant identity change there is, and anyone who has had a kid—or known someone who has had one—has witnessed firsthand how a change in identity (“I’m a PARENT!”) can have a profound and lasting impact on someone’s behavior.
It’s all about the power of self-narrative. The story that you tell yourself about yourself will make all the difference in your life. If you tell yourself that you’re weak, stupid, lazy or dumb, then you’ll behave accordingly. But if you tell yourself that you’re Batman, then by god, you’re going to get after it!
The good news is you can change your identity at any moment. Here’s how to get started so you can crush those New Year’s resolutions:
1. Change your internal narrative.
You don’t have to become a parent or Batman in order to change the story you tell yourself about yourself. The key here is knowing what to build the narrative around. Don’t tell yourself that you’re something you’re not. Tell yourself the following three things to build an identity that is primed for success with your New Year’s resolutions:
- I am an eternal student.
- I’m willing to work hard to achieve my goals.
- I am careful about what I start, but what I start I finish.
2. Earn credibility with yourself.
Once you adopt the identity of the hard-working eternal student who sees things through, you have to prove it to yourself, or the identity change won’t stick. Saying you’re a parent is easy to believe when you’re up at 2 a.m. dealing with a screaming infant. Believing that you’re a hard worker is harder if you’re not actually working hard.
Begin earning credibility with yourself through micro goals—goals that are meaningful but relatively easy to hit. They’re right in the sweet spot. They’re not so easy you discount them but not so hard that you’re going to give up. Committing to going to the gym five days a week is a good example. You’ll notice I didn’t say working out five days a week; I said going to the gym. If you get there and don’t feel like working out, then leave. But you told yourself you’d go, and you went. You’ll begin to see that you’re the type of person that does what they say they’re going to do.
3. Set exciting goals as New Year’s resolutions.
According to Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory, people who set bigger, more specific goals are more likely to hit them. Why? Because although you can earn credibility with yourself by setting small goals and never missing, it’s not exactly thrilling. You need goals that get you excited. When I was overweight, the thought of losing 10 or 20 pounds wasn’t exciting. But the thought of having six pack abs was enough to keep me going for two years until I finally had them.
Here’s the key: Don’t let your identity take shape unconsciously. Recognize that identity is malleable, and that it comes before the behaviors. It’s not that you’re faking it till you make it; it’s that you decide what to become and then act in accordance with that.
The bottom line is, you are much more powerful than you think. Average human beings do astonishing things every day, from building rocket ships and performing brain surgery to being better teachers and parents. The people who have an empowering identity routinely do what others believe is impossible.
You don’t have to be Batman to actually accomplish your New Year’s resolutions, but if you do want to become Batman, just remember it all starts with saying that’s who you are.
This article was published in January 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Mariia Korneeva/Shutterstock