Act As If

Who you feel like you are determines, at every moment, what actions feel reasonable and unreasonable, doable and not doable, natural and contrived, uphill and downhill. If you can see, even for a moment, what the path looks like from the top of the hill, no part of it looks treacherous, at least for you.

Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there.

We often regard the “baby steps” explanation as being the complete story, because we presume that success is more-or less just a matter of effort. But there’s something more important at play that we often miss, which is the change in self-image that always comes along with a successful change in habit or behavior. In every pursuit, it aids the established people and hinders the novice.

If you go from couch potato to morning runner, however you did it, you can’t help but feel like a different person. Lazing around all morning will no longer be attractive to you. You’ll relate to everything in your life differently — food, television, your couch, the outdoors, successful people, unsuccessful people, free time, and your expectations of the future, because your moment-to-moment sense of who you are is different.

This sense is the thing that makes the real difference in any personal change. It makes the effort happen or not happen. The actual efforts involved in our goals — as in the miles we run or the pushups we do — are often less like choices and more like reactions to who we feel like we are in relation to those efforts. If you always self-identify as someone who isn’t cut out for exercise, every workout will feel like self-spite, and it is.

We tend to think of these identity changes as being involuntary consequences, or rewards, that come after the behavior change. You did the running, and because of the running and resulting fitness, your self-esteem and relationship to the world changed.

But it’s two-way relationship. This new identity, if you could somehow access it beforehand, would have made the running a lot easier. It would feel downhill rather than uphill. It would feel like an obvious and inviting thing to do, rather than a solemn self-sacrifice.

With some basic creative visualization, you can consciously envision living life as the person who has already achieved those goals, and experience the reinforcing effect immediately. If you spend ten or twenty minutes envisioning what your present moment would be like if you already were in the habit of running at dawn every morning — including the consequences to your physique, sense of self-worth and confidence — you’ll find getting the shoes on and getting out the door dramatically easier.

But the effects are broader and longer-lasting than that just getting you out the door. If you make a point of locating that identity frequently, you’ll naturally find yourself grocery shopping differently, planning your day differently, and entertaining yourself differently. You’ll begin to find it more natural to do the things that will create and sustain a fitness habit, and you’ll find it less natural to do the things that sabotage it, like eating bad food and lazing around.

This isn’t a matter of “Fake it until you make it.” You aren’t trying to fool anyone, just to cultivate, as often as possible, a present moment sense of what right now feels like when you’re the person who’s already doing what you want to do.

It’s easy to overcomplicate this. Close your eyes, take ten minutes, or even five, and imagine your present-moment reality as if you’re already living the way you’re trying to live. It’s totally rational. Who you feel like you are determines, at every moment, what actions feel reasonable and unreasonable, doable and not doable, natural and contrived, uphill and downhill. If you can see, even for a moment, what the path looks like from the top of the hill, no part of it looks treacherous, at least for you.