Our identity is born of habit. Our beliefs about ourselves emerge from our routines. The behaviors we exhibit repeatedly define our character. The definition and etymology of the words habit and identity provide insights into the relationship between the two. Webster’s definition of a habit is a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition. The word habit is derived from the Latin habitus meaning condition. A habit is, therefore, a conditioned pattern acquired through repetition. The definition of identity is the sameness of character in different instances. Identity derives from the Latin idem, meaning sameness. Our identity is our sameness of character in a variety of circumstances. It is a product of our habits. Our actions are not a product of our character. Rather, our character is a manifestation of our habits, or as Aristotle more elegantly stated, “We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.”

The more often we repeat a behavior, the more it solidifies our identity. Repeated actions create our identity the same way a bricklayer creates a structure, one brick at a time, stacked one upon another. Each brick by itself is unsubstantial, but together, they create a solid structure. The more often we work out, the more proof we have that we are a fit person. The more often we log our food or eat according to a meal plan, the more we reinforce the identity of a disciplined person, capable of controlling their eating.

Goal setting is useful, but it focuses on an outcome. Once that outcome is achieved, the journey is over. Being fit is a lifestyle, not a goal with a deadline. An unsustainable 12-week program is not a solution to becoming fit unless you have only 12-weeks to live. What is quickly done is quickly undone. A more effective strategy for adopting healthy habits is to focus on who you want to become instead of what you want to achieve. Our goal might be to lose ten pounds, but what we really want is a lean physique. Unlike a goal, there is no finish line for identity, just as there is no finish line for habits. As soon as we quit performing a habit, it is no longer a habit. Goals are useful, but what we really want is a new identity. We don’t want to train for a race; we want to become a runner. We don’t want to read a book; we want to become a more knowledgeable person. When we focus on identity first, the results take care of themselves.

Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.

Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

Chinese proverb

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