Habits and the Self

Since October 2010, when I first learned about the Paleo diet, I’ve been trying to cut sugar out of my life. For 14 months I struggled to cut sugar completely out of my diet. I succeeded for small stretches at a time (no more than 2 weeks), but always ended up eating sugar again (and rationalizing when I did). This was the case until January, when I made going sugar-free one of my goals for the new year. Since then, I’ve made it the longest I ever have without eating sugar, and am now rarely tempted to eat the stuff. The difference between this past month and the last 14 has been simple – I now identify myself as someone who doesn’t eat sugar.

I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how they are “trying to lose weight” only to see them give up after several weeks. As anyone can see from the many overweight people you dodge on the sidewalk, these resolutions haven’t worked too well. I understand, as I failed to cut sugar from my diet for over a year! For me, the shift came when being sugarless became a part of who I am (a part of my self-concept). Until I thought of myself as someone who didn’t eat sugar, staying away from the stuff was nearly impossible. Every time I was presented with a new situation (at a friend’s where someone made cake, at a catered lunch with cookies…), I had to consciously decide not to indulge myself and have a cookie. It was a situation I failed repeatedly – my willpower was too low and I could easily rationalize the slip given the special occasion or how well I had been doing. Once I identified myself as someone who doesn’t eat sugar, situations like these became far easier because I didn’t have to make decisions. I became someone who didn’t eat sugar – and someone who doesn’t eat sugar… doesn’t eat sugar. This was a huge departure from being someone who tries not to eat sugar – the trying part implies that it is not a permanent part of who I was.

I saw the same thing happen when I started to define myself as an entrepreneur. Before that point, I sent out a few passive emails and treated starting a company as little more than an interesting side project. Once I defined myself as an entrepreneur, I found it easier to behave in ways more consistent with the idea of a scrappy startup founder. I cold-emailed interesting people, asked smart people out to coffee, and started working on a few of my side projects. Cold-emailing someone I had never met eventually led to a meeting with Nick Pinkston of CloudFab, a high-tech startup I joined a few months later.

Changing the way I defined myself has been the best way I’ve found to change my behaviors. It means fewer decisions and fewer temptations. With so much going on in life, it’s far easier for me to make decisions based on who I am rather than think through special circumstances that are certain to come up.