Self-Identity and How to Change Habits

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 18/01/2022

Everyone was born with a unique genetic code and there is no-one in this life who has the same identity as yourself. You cannot choose your parents nor the environment that you were born in. Your life is usually shaped by the environment, the culture, the religion of your family and the expectations of your family, friends and society, and a lot of time you try to conform to these expectations and forget about your own dream, your own goal in life and your own destiny. It is often not easy to identify what you are destined to be and you need to have an open mind to see all the possibilities that life can offer, to see objectively about your own weaknesses and strengths. Life is generally shorter than you wish it to be, and a lot of people in their 40’s or 50’s found themselves unhappy after reflecting on their achievements, that they have been wasting most of the time in their lives, doing things that they were pressured to do by their family, friends and society. They have been drifting aimlessly in life without a true purpose to achieve what they want to do because they have no inner power to make a stand in their own mind, to go against the expectations of others.

There are a few useful principles that can help you to find the goal and to have the strength to achieve your goal in life.

         ●   See things objectively and gather information and facts as they are, without being distorted by your own subjective emotions.

         ●   Know yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses and your own habits (good and bad).

         ●   Do not ignore the small voice in your mind like “ I wish to be…., if I could be…” even though it seems to be impractical and different than everyone’s expectations. You need to analyze that idea objectively to see if that is a deep wish within your mind, instead of trying to suppress or give it up as it seems to be unattainable, something that you can only dream of. Any ideas need to be analyzed objectively and not discard it at first sight.

         ●   Live your life purpose: too many people waste their lives living someone else’s dream. You cannot allow others to dictate what you should do with your life. Live your own dream and you can enjoy the process of becoming your best self.

         ●   Setting a main goal in your life will give you a sense of direction, a trajectory to follow. It could be a business goal, a goal to achieve fame or status, a partnership goal or simply a moral value goal. For example, if you simply wish to be a good moral value person, it doesn’t mean that you are making great effort to be nice and follow all the expectations of the people you love at the expense of the others. You cannot cause emotional pain to others to satisfy the needs of your loved ones.

         ●   Drifting aimlessly in life is a waste of time and not before long you realize that your physical and mental strength is on a descending path and it is too late to remedy the situation. Life will teach you valuable lessons, and you need to accept things that you cannot change but you have to treat adverse life events as challenges that you need to overcome and set new goals for your life rather than give up.

Humans are habitual organisms and 70 percent of the time we function automatically following our long-term habits.

Good habits will take you to success in time and bad habits will eventually setting you up for failure.

Most people expect to make progress early and it is frustrating to see that your effort does not give the results you expected in the first days, weeks and even months. You think, “I have been going to the gym at least 3 times a week, so why can’t I see any change in my body? “or “I have been doing meditation daily, but why I cannot see any change in my wisdom?” or “ I have been doing good deeds in my life, being a dutiful child , so why do I get unlucky things ?”

You often expect progress to be linear and come quickly but the results of your effort are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that you realize the true value of the previous work you have done.

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a tiny decision, but if repeated it grows stronger. Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. Getting 1 percent better every day counts a lot in the long run.

The science of making a strong habit: (Dr Huberman podcast)

Habits are things that your nervous systems learned consciously or unconsciously. This is neuroplasticity to form a new neural circuit. There are 2 kinds of habits: immediate goal habits such as health related habits like exercises or identity-based habits.

It takes on average about 21 days to form a habit but this can vary a lot in different people. In a study by Lally in 2010, it can take from 18 days to 254 days for habit formation. It depends on how much limbic friction or effort needed to form that habit. Lynchpin habits are habits that you like and therefore it is easier to perform.

Habit strength has 2 components:

         ●   context independent that is, you do the same habit even though you go somewhere else such as brush teeth, eat the same food..

         ●   How much limbic friction to execute the task. The lower the limbic friction, the easier to perform the task.

When you want to get a new habit, it helps to do a mental exercise, to think through mentally all of the steps involved from start to finish to set up in the mindset a procedural memory of that habit.

There are NMDA (N-Methyl-D-aspartate) receptors present on the neurons surface and NMDA makes a neuron easier to fire for the execution of that habit. NMDA plays a role in controlling synaptic plasticity and mediating learning and memory functions. The dorsal lateral striatum in the basal ganglia is involved in “task bracketing” that is it is activated at the start of the task and inactivated at the finish but not the execution of the task. This sets a neural imprint and a marker of a habit execution but not the execution itself.

There are 3 phases in the circadian rhythm:

         ●   Phase 1 from 0 to 8 hours after waking: there is a typical increase in cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine and these neuromodulators support an alert and focus state. Those habits that require more effort (habits with high limbic friction) are more easily to be executed in this phase such as viewing sunlight, high intensity exercises, cold exposure like cold bath or less warm clothes…

         ●   Phase 2 from 9 to 15 hours after waking: levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, dopamine starts to come down and serotonin starts to rise to produce a more relaxed state. It is easier to generate and consolidate certain habits like meditation, yoga, hot bath/shower to tape off stress level. Habits that need less limbic friction, less resistance are easier to form in this phase.

         ●   Phase 3 from 16 to 24 hours after waking. Low light, low temperature in the room and avoid caffeine will help a good night sleep. Neuroplasticity happens in deep sleep to rewire and consolidate memory. Learning occurs in the hippocampus but this information needs to be transferred to the neocortex to form long term memory. That is when the habit becomes reflexive.

The motive of learning a new habit is to get a reward after completion of the task. Reward prediction error is modulated by dopamine. If you achieve your task, you receive a psychological reward and if an unexpected reward happens the dopamine level is even higher. Dopamine is involved in the positive anticipation of a reward that is going to happen. It gives motivation to achieve a task. If you expect a reward and this reward does not come, the dopamine level will drop to a level even lower than before.

To help adopting a habit with high limbic friction, it helps to mentally thinking or writing down the sequence of events before and after the habit to cast a broader time envelope, positively anticipate the onset and the good feeling after the experience. Apply the reward prediction to the whole experience, positively anticipate the behaviour before and the reward after will enhance the habit.

There was a study involving people to perform 6 activities a day for 21 days and expect to do 4-5 activities and testing after another 21 days to see how many habits remained. Breaking the 21 days into 2 days chunk was more beneficial, like doing activities for 2 days than do the resetting – this technique gave better results. After 21 days, test whether the habits are strongly formed that is how many activities they still continue to do. You can repeat the 21 days cycle again and again. 21 days of learning new habits and 21 days of testing how many activities you can continue to perform than you can restart it again by adding other new habits.

Breaking long term bad habits is very difficult.

If a set of neurons work together over time, those 2 neurons A and B fire together more easily (long term potentiation). To break that habit of the neurons A and B working together, long term depression can be created. If neuron A is active and neuron B is not active at the same time the long- term connection between the 2 neurons becomes weaker. If you have a habit that you want to break, people try to put a reminder (a note in the phone or a sticker), establishing a reward of not doing it or set up a punishment. FRITZ in 2020 wrote a meta-analysis where it was found that those reminders did not work in the long term, it may need a stronger reminder like electric shock or with the punishment it needs someone to monitor. The tool is, immediately after the bad habit, you have to be consciously aware of it and you can actively engage in another positive behaviour (something easy to do like drinking water..) The major effect is, there is a link between the bad behaviour with a good habit, causing a cognitive and temporal mismatch between the neurons. Previously the 2 neurons A and B fire together without you to be conscious of, but if you change the whole sequence, if neuron B fires, you insert neurons C, D, E, F to fire. With that constant conscious awareness, you can remap the whole neural circuit. Thus, the neural circuit between the neuron A and B involved in the bad habit is gradually weakened.

How your habits shape your identity (and vice versa)

It is often difficult to keep good habits like exercise, meditation, going for more than a few days but unwanted bad habits seem to stay around forever like eating junk foods, procrastinating, too much television or playing games.

There are 3 layers of behaviour change according to James Clear:

         ●   Change your outcomes to get results such as losing weight…

         ●   Change your process by implementing a new system or routine

         ●   Change your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. With this approach, we start by focusing on who you wish to become.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a part of your identity. It’s one thing to say that I ‘m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this. The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.

True behaviour change is identity change. Your behaviours are usually a reflection of your identity.

Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.

The 2 steps process to change your identity according to James Clear

Your beliefs are learned and conditioned through experience. Your habits are not the only actions that influence your identity, but because of their frequency, they are the most important ones. Each experience in life modifies your self-image.

The two-step process:

         ●   Decide the type of person you want to be.

         ●   Prove it to yourself with small changes. People with high self-control tend to spend less time to change a bad habit in tempting situations. It is easier to avoid temptations by reducing exposure than resist it.

Generally, the closer you are to someone, the more likelihood that you imitate some of their habits. One of the most effective ways to build better habits is to join a group where your desired behaviour is the norm of that group.

The journey is more important than the destination.

If you are obsessed with the final outcome and the results, you end up missing out on all the things that happen along the way. When you put emphasis on attaining your big goal, it is tempting to think that you haven’t succeeded until you achieve it and you can never be happy. The result is not as important as the practical lessons that you learn and the person that you become.

         ●   Break your big goal into mini- goals and start small

         ●   Finding out the factors that hold you back

         ●   Enjoy the present moment: Practice mindfulness in everything you do, so your awareness of yourself and of the environment will improve your wisdom.

         ●   Celebrate your progress for small improvements along the way and you will be motivated to take on bigger goals.

         ●   A lot of people tend to daydream about the future instead of focusing on what they can do right now to improve. The doing is often more important than the outcome.

         ●   The main point is not to get better than others but it’s to get better than the old version of yourself.

         ●   Reflect daily on your motivation will remind you of your own goal and why you started in the first place.


Atomic Habits- Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Dr Huberman podcast: How to form Strong Habits.