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What Motivates You More: Consequences or Identity?

What Motivates You More: Consequences or Identity?

AJ Keller
By AJ Keller on July 21, 2023

Who are you?

It’s a question that might instinctively prompt you to respond with your name, age, background, hobbies, and job. After all, it’s an unusual question to ask somebody. 

But truly explaining the core of your identity goes beyond casual small talk – your true self is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. The concept of 'you' is not easily defined.

Let's imagine we’re rewinding the tape of your life. All your trophies, certificates, and accolades are stripped off the walls, out of your files, and returned to their original state. Your children and siblings, if you have any of either, gradually become younger and then vanish entirely. You, too, become smaller and younger. Your adult teeth revert to baby teeth, and your distinct traits and eccentricities fade away. We continue rewinding until we reach a remarkable singularity: the single cell that will eventually develop into you.

Now, the question is: What happens when we press 'play' again? Are your talents, traits, and insecurities so deeply ingrained in your genes that they are essentially inevitable? 

Or could the course of events of your life change significantly with just a few slight nudges? In simpler terms, while we do originate from our genes, how much of our destiny can be attributed to our genetic makeup, our life experiences, personalities, or just mere chance?

While we can’t control where we’re born, what family we’re born to, or what circumstances we’re born into – we can control our own internal motivations to change the things we aren’t happy with, and develop different parts of ourselves.

Consequences versus identity what motivates you

Logic of Consequence vs. Logic of Identity

Many of us believe that the most effective method to motivate ourselves for a challenging task is by conducting a quick cost/benefit analysis on the back of a napkin. We try to reason with ourselves, thinking thoughts like, "I will definitely be grateful once I accomplish this," or "If I skip it now, I'll surely regret it later," or "Completing my workout will make me feel so much better."

We assume that if we can just attain enough clarity, we will be spurred into action and get moving.

But things aren’t always what they seem…

According to the research of the late Stanford professor, James March, there might be a more effective approach. Instead of relying on a traditional cost/benefit analysis, his studies propose a more potent tool for motivation that stems from a completely different source: our identity.

This idea is critical and underpins the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

You have to ask yourself:

Who am I? What are my values and principles? And what kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what’s missing: any calculation of costs and benefits. (Switch, emphasis mine, p. 153).

In essence, behavior change is not solely driven by incentives; our sense of self also plays a crucial role. Our beliefs about who we are in the world can act as a powerful catalyst, if we understand how to harness their potential.

The Heath brothers state:

“Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure…So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequences?” (Switch, emphasis mine, p. 154).

That is to say, in order to leverage identity to change your behavior, it boils down to these two questions:

1. Who do I aspire to be? (Reflect on the kind of person you want to become.)

2. How would a person with that identity respond in this situation? (Evaluate if your actions align with your envisioned identity.)

In essence, identity extends beyond our current roles (parent, accountant, concerned citizen); it also encompasses our aspirations (courageous, loving unconditionally, willing to tackle challenges). Our identity can be shaped not only by the roles we occupy but also by the character traits we strive to embody.

It’s a simple two-step protocol that will change the way you motivate yourself from here on out.

This leads me back to my personal journey. One of the identities I have previously cultivated is that of a "tech company founder": someone who embraces challenges and tackles difficult tasks. Initially, this statement was merely a budding belief, something I would tell myself, especially after successfully overcoming a genuinely challenging situation. However, over time, this incipient belief evolved into a more integral part of my identity, becoming deeply ingrained in my sense of self. My aspiration was for this identity to take root even further through continuous practice and accumulating evidence, convincing myself that it truly reflects who I am.

The real magic of behavior change lies in the second question. As your new identity begins to establish itself, you'll naturally be inclined to align your actions with this newfound sense of self. In essence, if you identify as someone who embraces challenges, you'll naturally contemplate, "What would a person like me do in a situation like this?" This introspective question guides your behavior and decisions in accordance with your evolving identity.

Even when you find yourself reluctant to tackle the difficult task, your mind’s natural cognitive dissonance frequently will nudge you to adjust your behavior in line with your emerging identity. 

As this process unfolds, your identity gains strength, and the new behavior becomes more consistent. Therefore, the next time you face the challenge of motivating yourself, remember to use this two-step protocol. 

You might just find yourself doing the hard thing, too...

But that’s not all.

When I was in the process of designing our Signature Crown, I wanted to create a device that would help people focus, so they could become the people they had always envisioned.

Using the two-step protocol, my co-founder and I managed to develop exactly that.

Now, on days where the hard work is overwhelming, using The Crown helps me get in the zone and focus in a flow-state. It’s much easier to embody the person you want to be when you’re in control of your focus – and with The Crown, I get to do that everyday. 

So let me ask you again: who are you?


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