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Words Matter: Tips for Distinguishing Between Identity and Habits

Are you a chronic procrastinator, or can't manage your time? Your bad habits don't determine who you are. Learn how to change your sticking points.

To catch up on this three-part series on identity and habits, click here for part one and here for part two.

Let’s start off with some definitions of your identity and your habits. Identity is who you are. For our discussion, habits are the persistent, consistent things you think, say and do. They’re the shortcuts your brain takes to get the results you are seeking. Habits shape your identity, but your habits are not your identity.

This distinction is essential. When you recognize your habits, you’re empowered to change the ones that don’t serve you so that you can shape your identity to be anything you want.

Here’s an example:

Suppose you’re a procrastinator. You might say that you are a procrastinator. I’m going to argue to the contrary.

To say, “I am [blank]” is to claim that as your identity. When you claim it, you reinforce it. Your brain, not knowing the difference between your claims and reality, will make what you say true. If this is part of your identity, you’ll behave in ways that reinforce the characteristic. It becomes harder to change.

Think about the traits you’ve taken on as part of your identity that you want to change. These are really habits. You’re not a procrastinator – you have the habit of procrastinating. Repeat those two statements out loud. Do you feel the difference? These are simply things you do, not who you are as a person.

Creating change

Now, you get to decide what stays and what goes. The habits that go are those that don’t serve your vision for your life and business. Recognize that if you take an action habitually, you’re getting something out of it. Stop to consider how you can get that same benefit more constructively.

Sticking with our procrastination example: why do you procrastinate? What are you getting out of it? When I ask my clients, it usually has to do with getting some downtime. The problem is that they’re not actually enjoying the time they spend procrastinating. They think about what they should be doing, and feel guilty about not doing it. That means they’re not getting work done or having fun. The result – wasted time and energy.

So, spend the time necessary to examine your life and your behavior. Determine which are the result of your identity and which are habits. If you don’t like what you see, make a change. Make changes to any area that don’t move you towards your vision for your life and business. Focus on your ‘why’ and let that fuel you. Swap out habits that don’t serve you with ones that will help you achieve your goals.


In the end, you get to decide who you are and what you do. Take the time to discern the difference between the two. Don’t confuse your identity with the habits that you’ve adopted. And if you have habits that no longer serve you and your business, know new habits are around the corner.

Whitnie Wiley, author of the article

About the author

Whitnie Wiley is a leader in organizational, leadership and employee development.

After spending years in companies with crummy cultures and lousy leadership, Wiley has dedicated herself to helping organizations and individuals adopt and implement strategies that create workplaces and cultures people love to work in.

As an in-demand coach, speaker, and trainer, Wiley shares wisdom from her own life experiences, as well as those of her clients, with grace, humility and humor to drive change in today’s business world.

Her clients include aspiring, emerging and new executives aiming to be the kinds of leaders even they’d want to work for and organizations seeking to hire, retain, develop and promote the best talent.


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1 Comment

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  • I love the last words! It’s no one but us who decides who we are and what we want. And it’s up to us whether we decide to use positive words or negative words, or whether we allow ourselves to take action or wait for the miracle. Our lives are in our hands!

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