2 Main Reasons Why Most Self-Improvement Fails and How to Avoid Them

why most self-improvement fails - close up of a stress man in the office

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Why most self-improvement fails and how to avoid them

At some point in my life journey, I was obsessed with self-improvement and all things related. I attended numerous seminars on personal development, motivational training, read quite a lot of self-help books, and also watched countless videos surrounding this particular topic.

You know what I learned? Most of them worked to some extent.

I was engulfed in a surge of motivation every time I attended any of those seminars. Remember the new-year resolution?

But, after enough time had passed, I felt like I was still no further away from where I started. I’m not saying that it’s a complete failure. I just couldn’t’ justify that I had much improved.

I felt that I was falling back to my old self.

When I was trying to build a habit of consistent meditation practice and overcoming the hindrances that come with it, by chance, I found something valuable that might be the answer to why most self-improvement fails.

It was in this amazing book by James Clear.

You might have heard that for any self-improvement to work, you need consistency. Meaning, you cannot rely on the occasional burst of motivation. You need a system that works in auto-pilot.

To be consistent, you’ll need to build a certain set of habits to be the foundation of your auto-pilot system. Once established, that system will stick around and work non-consciously to bring you closer and closer to your goals.

But, do you know how hard it is to build new habits?

Check this article to learn the secret to successfully build new good habits and eliminate bad ones:

Now, back to the question of why most self-improvement fails. After much reflection, I can point out two main reasons:

  1. Most self-improvement, personal development, or self-help programs rely heavily on motivation or willpower.
  2. Most of them try to improve or change the wrong thing. 

Why relying on motivation or willpower is the recipe for failure? Because motivation and willpower are fickle things. They are heavily affected by mood swings.

I’ve learned that at most, motivation and willpower can get you started. But, as soon as they run out of steam, and believe me they will, chances are, you’ll end up not much further away from where you began.

That way, you will not achieve the consistency you need. It’s like building your house on the sand.

The next important key point is what you’re trying to improve, or at which level a change of behavior is expected to take place. In my opinion, this is much more important than the consistency.

Three layers of behavior change

There are three levels at which a change of behavior can occur. Imagine them like the layers of an onion:

why self-improvement fails - 3 layers of behavior change: outcomes, processes, identity
There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity.

The first and outermost layer is changing your outcomes. At this level, you’re concerned with changing your end results: earning more money, winning a competition, losing weight, better fitness, writing a book, becoming a musician, etc. Most of the goals you set are related to this level.

The second and middle layer is changing your processes. At this level, you’re concerned with changing your habits and systems: simplifying your workflow for better efficiency, implementing a new program in your training, building a meditation practice, etc. Most of the habits you build are related to this level.

The third and center layer is changing your identity. At this level, you’re concerned with changing your beliefs, your worldview, your self-image, your judgments toward others and yourself, etc. Most of your values, beliefs, assumptions, and biases are related to this level.

Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.

Now, the problem is not that one level is better or worse than another. All levels of change are good in their own way. The problem is the direction of change.

Many self-improvement programs begin the process of behavior change by focusing on what you want to achieve. This is called the outcome-based approach.

The alternative is the identity-based approach. With this approach, we begin by focusing on who we wish to become. We begin at the core that is our identity.

the difference of direction of change is one of the reasons why self-improvement fails: outcome-based approach starts from the outer layer, identity-based approach starts from the center layer
With outcome-based approach, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based approach, the focus is on who you wish to become.

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette.

When offered a smoke, the first person refuses by saying, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” While that response does sound logical, it implies that this person still believes that they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They’re hoping that their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.

The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference and easily overlooked, but this statement signals a shift in identity. It implies that smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, “If I stick to this process, I’ll get that outcome.” They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions.

What they don’t realize is that their old identity can sabotage their efforts.

If you start from the outer layer of behavior change by using certain techniques or strategies to hack your outcomes, and if those techniques and strategies are not in sync with your identity, you will fail.

Why? Because your identity is deeply ingrained in your subconscious. And, since our subconscious is immeasurably powerful, the probability of winning fighting it is an absolute zero. 

That is the problem with the outcome-based approach.

Then, what’s the solution?

First, don’t rely on motivation or willpower in your self-improvement efforts.

Second, begin at your core which is your identity so that it won’t sabotage your efforts.

That means building identity-based habits as the foundation of your auto-pilot system.

How to build identity-based habits as the foundation of your auto-pilot system

What is an identity-based habit?

It’s a habit that reinforces your identity and also that is a reflection of your identity. 

Let me give you a simple example.

If you want to develop a habit of reading, then the goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.

See the difference? Reading is a process. Reader is an identity.

So, in the process of becoming a reader, you would ask yourself, “What would a reader do? Watching television, or reading the first chapter of Atomic Habits?” You might ask yourself similar questions several times a day to guide your behavior.

Then, you would arrange your reading desk in such a way to make it easy to start reading, schedule your time of reading, and ready your favorite books on your desk.

The easiest way to develop a habit is by following the natural way of habit formation.

To become a habit, all behavior needs to go through these four stages: cuecravingresponsereward repeatedly to form a habit loop. Repeated enough times, a behavior will stick around and become a habit. Each completed habit loop is a vote to your identity.

Do you know why it’s so easy to develop bad habits? Because the cues are everywhere so they can easily trigger our craving. And if the required response to get the satisfying reward is not difficult to perform, then a complete habit loop is guaranteed.

Imagine leaving our television on and our phone on the working desk. Then our favorite tv shows and social media notifications will give us plenty of cues that trigger our craving for that feeling of satisfaction after checking the social media or after watching our favorite tv shows. This kind of habit loop is a first-class ticket to unproductivity.

We might not be aware of this process in our daily life. And, because bad habits are rewarded immediately, combined with our addiction for instant gratification, they stick around easily like glue.

Fortunately, you can manage these four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward, in such a way to develop good habits and eliminate bad ones by following the four laws of behavior change.

In my article: 4 Tiny Steps to Reach Your Goals Without Motivation, you can learn from some examples of how you can build good habits that last and eliminate bad ones in the process just by making small shifts in behavior, no need for drastic changes.

Each completed habit loop is like a vote for your new identity. Like in any election, you don’t need a unanimous vote to win, you only need a majority. This is good news for self-improvement using the identity-based approach since avoiding bad behavior completely is unrealistic. That means you only need to make sure that the majority of the time, you manage to complete the loop of the good habits.

True self-improvement means becoming a better version of yourself. That means identity change, not littering your days with life hacks. 

You might start a new habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is if it becomes part of your identity. Anyone can push themselves to go to the gym or eat a healthy diet once or twice, but if you don’t shift the belief behind your behavior, it’s hard to stick long term.

On the flip side, a person who incorporates exercise and physical fitness into their identity doesn’t need to convince themselves to train. They just do it because that behavior is fully aligned with their identity.

So, the shift of view goes like these:

  • The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader.
  • The goal is not to learn to play guitar, the goal is to become a guitarist.
  • The goal is not to exercise, the goal is to become a physically fit person.
  • The goal is not to eat a healthy diet, the goal is to become a healthy person.
  • The goal is not to practice meditation, the goal is to become a meditator.

Now, to next question is if your beliefs and worldview play such an important role in your behavior, where do they come from in the first place?

How, exactly, is your identity formed?

And, how can you strengthen new aspects of your identity that serve you and get rid of the ones that hold you back?

How to change your identity with ease

Your identity is formed mostly by your habits.

I’m not saying that your habits are the only factors that shape your identity, but because of their frequency, they’re usually the dominant ones.

No one is born with preset beliefs. Every belief we have, including those about ourselves that is our identity, is learned and conditioned through experience, either consciously, or non-consciously.

So, your habits are how you express your identity. When you exercise each day, you express the identity of a fit person. When you check your works each time after completion, you express the identity of a careful person. When you play the piano each day, you express the identity of a musician.

The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior.

Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. If you meditate regularly twice a day, each day, you have evidence that you are a consistent meditator. If you go to the gym even in bad weather, you have evidence that you are committed to fitness.

The more evidence you have for a belief, the stronger you’ll believe it. As the evidence builds up, your self-image begins to change.

Every habit is a suggestion for an identity. Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single occurrence will transform your beliefs. But, as the votes accumulate, so does the evidence of your new identity.

The point is meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a significant difference by providing evidence of a new identity.

Putting it together, it’s clear that habits are the way to identity change. If you want to change who you are, you change what you do.

  • Every time you practice the piano, you are a pianist.
  • Every time you motivate your colleagues, you are a motivator.
  • Every time you write a page, you are a writer.
  • Every time you exercise, you are a fit person.
  • Every time you eat a healthy diet, you are a healthy person.

If you want a new identity, you’ll need new evidence. If you keep casting the same votes you’ve always cast, you’ll get the same results you’ve always had. So, the path to successful identity change is a simple two-step process:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Whether you’re an individual, a team, or a community, that two-step process remains valid.

You may not be so sure where to begin. But I bet you do know what kind of results you want. Start there and work backward by asking yourself, “Who is the type of person that could get that outcome?” There, you have it, the identity of the person you wish to become.

For example, who is the type of person that can run a successful business? It’s probably someone who has wit, who thinks positively, and who is communicative.

Who is the type of person that can lose forty pounds? It’s probably someone disciplined and consistent.

Once you get a handle on the type of person you want to be, you can begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity.

Wrap it up

True self-improvement is behavior change. True behavior change is identity change. That means becoming a better version of yourself.

Two main reasons why most self-improvement fails are:

  1. They rely too much on unreliable things like motivation and willpower.
  2. They use the outcome-based approach that is prone to conflict with our identity.

If you reverse the direction of the approach by starting at your core identity by building identity-based habits as the foundation of your system that works in auto-pilot to bring you towards your goals, you are much more likely to succeed.

Identity change is a simple two-step process:

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg.

The book is like an operating manual explaining the step-by-step plan for building better habits and eliminating the bad ones in the process.

You will learn more in-depth insights from the author’s years of research and personal experiments on habit and behavior change:

  • Three layers of behavior change. How to formulate strategies for behavior change in the right direction.
  • How to design your environment to help you establish new habits without relying on motivation
  • How to keep your habits on-track
  • How to make good habits inevitable and bad habits impossible
  • How to find a game where the odds are in your favor
  • How to stop procrastinating by using the two-minute rule
  • How to stay motivated and avoid boredom when forming a new habit using the Goldilocks Rule.
  • The secret to results that last.
  • And much more.

As the author said, 

“Success is the product of daily habits, not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

Success does not require radical changes. It only needs small shifts in behavior here and there that get compounded over time, tiny changes that bring remarkable results.

That’s why the book is titled “Atomic Habits.”

I highly recommend it.

Meditation is a very effective, if not the most effective way to build mindfulness which is a mental aspect essential in behavior change. If you find that building a consistent meditation practice is challenging, consider taking a meditation course.

For a mediation course, this is the one I highly recommend.

Read my review here.

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Featured photo by andreas160578 from Pixabay 

Chris Linard

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