Forget goals. You need a new identity

A couple of months ago, I met a former colleague clutching a lunchbox. He told me this was part of his goal to save £2,000 for a big trip. Although he was rightly pleased with himself for not having bought a sandwich from Pret that afternoon, this was only Day One. His eyes betrayed scepticism that he could achieve lasting change. That’s the trouble with goals. They dangle in front of us seductively, but they’re deucedly difficult to pursue over the long term. We find it hard to summon the necessary willpower and persistence.

In his best-selling book Atomic Habits, James Clear explains (clearly, of course) that we need to start with our identity, rather than with the outcome. In my colleague’s case, his goal was not to save money, but to become a saver. There’s a subtle but crucial difference here. As Clear writes, “when your behaviour and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behaviour change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.” When we’re wondering whether to order a pizza or defrost an elderly curry, we can ask ourselves, “what would a saver do in this situation?”.

We can also think more broadly. What sort of person becomes financially independent? What habits do they practise? If we emulate those habits, it shapes our identity; our new-found identity then shapes our habits. It’s a virtuous circle. For me, the standout quote from Atomic Habits is, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” If we do the right things consistently, we get lasting change; when we just visualise a goal and retain our old habits, we get stuck.

Keep taking the smallest action that reflects the type of person you want to be.

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Catherine Pope

I'm a financial coach who loves Victorian novels, technology, and big books about pensions.

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