In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear differentiates between two types of habits: outcome and identity. ‘Tis the time of year for goals, and no one met a goal she didn’t love more than me! I love crushing goals. But when I read about outcome and identity goals, I wondered if I’ve been focusing on the wrong word.
Did you notice in the last paragraph that I started off mentioning “habits” and then switched to “goals”? Let me circle back to the difference between outcome and identity habits and then we’ll get to my sneaky word trick. The difference between outcome and identity habits is that “the focus is on what you want to achieve verses what you want to become.” (page 31)
Outcome habits can look a lot like goals. In contrast, identity habits point to something deeper: the type of person you want to be. Clear suggests deciding on the type of person you want to be and then proving it to yourself with small wins.
For example, maybe you want to be someone who is consistent and reliable. This means your focus shifts from “learning French” (outcome) to being the type of person who consistently and reliably studies language (identity). Much of what we do as cross-cultural workers might be outside of our control when it comes to the outcomes. Can we make anyone follow Jesus? Can we force anyone to grow deeper in Him? Can we compel people to support us? Maddenly no, and wonderfully no.
So, instead of focusing on outcome habits, what type of person would you like to become—or become more of—in 2021?
I thought of five potential identities for cross-cultural workers:
Want to strengthen your support team?
Identity: Become the type of person who communicates consistently.
Small win: Write a newsletter every two months.
Want to learn a language?
Identity: Become the type of person who studies regularly.
Small win: Attend class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Want to lead a team? Or head a new project?
Identity: Become the type of person who grows as a leader.
Small win: Schedule a sixty minute call with team members once a month so you stay informed on how they are.
Want to grow spiritually?
Identity: Become the type of person who doesn’t “phone in” your spiritual life. (Phone in here means to do something half-heartedly or disinterestedly).
Small win: Experiment with a new spiritual habit or discipline the first week of each month for a year.
Want to be a better homeschool teacher?
Identity: Become the type of person who always has a plan for the month.
Small win: Spend one hour every Saturday planning out the next week. (The executing of the plan may take longer!)
Describe an outcome or appearance goal. I want to: _______________
What type of person would achieve that goal? A person who achieves this goal is someone who: ________________
Think of two or three small steps you could take toward becoming that person. I could: _____________
A year ago in December, I decided I wanted to become someone who is wise(r) . . . I knew I wasn’t going to become truly wise in just one year. And I did become wiser. (How can we share certain of our identity habits without sounding like pretentious jerks? I’m not sure, but let’s try!). The truth is, even before I heard about outcome versus identity habits, I wanted something beyond a mere goal (which, by the way, I still love!). If you’re participating in the January Challenge, pull out your Reflection Packet. As you look through it, do you see any identity habits you could focus on this year? If not, are you noticing a theme in some of your goals that might point towards an identity that is closer to how God sees you? How you can grow in your identity towards the person He would have you be?
These are deep and important questions. It’s okay if nothing pops immediately to mind, but I would invite you to spend time with a spouse, friend, or God talking through your outcome and identity habits for 2021.