Most people go about habit change backwards. Here’s how to flip it.

“I’m on a diet, I shouldn’t eat that cake.”

“I’m going to try to exercise more this year.”

“I’m trying to lose weight, so I can only have a little.”

If you have ever said anything like the above, you’re in good company. Weight loss is freaking hard. As my friend Adam once said to me: “Steve I hope all of this exercise stuff is worth it for you – do you KNOW how good cake is!?”

The challenge is often never in what we need to do: it’s getting ourselves to ACTUALLY do it.

We all know we should eat less and move more. We know we should eat more veggies. We know we should hit the gym more frequently.

And yet, the scale never seems to budge.

Or worse, we get a few weeks into a workout routine or diet, life gets busy, and we fall apart. We see some progress only to backslide and realize months later we’re no better off.

This is demoralizing as hell, and it seems like nobody can make weight loss stick.

Well, not everybody.

SOME people manage to build new habits they actually sustain. Some people can build a new habit and make it become part of their new routine.

What do they do differently?

They take two very specific steps, and they ask themselves one question every day.

If you struggle with making new habits stick, this article is going to give you a strategy to implement TODAY. Backed by science, written by a nerd, with LEGO photos.

Let’s get weird.

The 3 Layers of Habit Change

My friend James Clear, a behavioral change expert and author of the recently launched Atomic Habits, lives and breathes habit change more than anybody I know.

With his book launching this week, I asked if I could share his 3 layers of behavior change to help the Rebels of Nerd Fitness finally break through the muck and mire and build the habit of hitting the gym, or going for a run, or eating healthier:


The 1st layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.

The 2nd layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.

The 3rd and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.

To put it more simply:

  • Outcomes are about what you get (“I lost weight”).
  • Processes are about what you do (“I go to the gym regularly”).
  • Identity is about what you believe (“I am a healthy person that never misses a workout.”

Now, none of the above is rocket science. I think anyway – I have never done rocket science. It’s the same thing we all do every time we try to change a habit.

The reason your habits never stick?

You’re implementing these layers BACKWARDS! Crap.

Where People Get Habit Change Wrong

Most people don’t consider the innermost layer – identity change – when they set out to improve.

We just think, “I want to be skinny (outcome) so if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).”

We set goals and determine the actions we should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive our actions:

  • I want to lose weight, so if I go to the gym more, the scale will go down.
  • I want to fit into this bathing suit, so if I follow this crazy restrictive diet, I’ll reach my goal.
  • I want to run a 5k, so I’m gonna start training every day until I run it.

In each scenario, the person never shifts the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.

Let’s talk about identity (the innermost circle) for a second. 

When working for you, identity change can be a powerful force for self-improvement.

When working against you, though, identity change can be a curse:

“Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity.

When you have repeated a story to yourself for years (or decades), it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs.”

Whatever your identity is right now, you believe it because you have recurring proof:

  • If you identify as somebody with a slow metabolism – the high number on the scale reinforces that every day.
  • If you identify as somebody with no self control – the empty ice cream containers in your trash can reinforce that identity with each additional pint polished off.
  • If you identify as a victim of “too busy,” – then every day you are reminded of how busy you are and how you just don’t have time to take care of yourself.

It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.

You might have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.

This is the crucial step that everybody misses, and it’s something you can implement today.

Identity Based Habit Change: Middle Out For the Win!

True behavior change is identity change.

In other words, start with the inside circle and work your way outward. Here’s that graphic again:

You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity:

“On any given day, you may struggle with your habits because you’re too busy or too tired or too overwhelmed or hundreds of other reasons. Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way.

This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

Anyone can convince themselves to visit the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift the belief behind the behavior, then it is hard to stick with long-term changes.

In other words, improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are:

  • The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to be a runner.
  • The goal is not to lose weight, the goal is to be a healthy self-confident person.
  • The goal is not to go to the gym, the goal is to be somebody that never misses a workout.

Can you see how this is VERY different than just “I’m gonna go on a diet to lose weight?” It’s MUCH deeper than that.

The person who incorporates exercise into their identity doesn’t have to convince themselves to train. Doing the right thing is easy. After all, when your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change.

You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be. This is the holy grail of permanent weight loss and health success.

Want to build a habit? Do these 2 Simple Steps.

If you’re going to build a new habit, it’s going to be a gradual evolution.

We change bit by bit, day by day, habit by habit. We are continually undergoing microevolutions of the self.

Each habit is like a suggestion:

“Hey, maybe this is who I am.” If you finish a book, then perhaps you ARE the type of person who likes reading. If you go to the gym, then perhaps you ARE the type of person who likes exercise.

And these are the two steps we’re going to hyper focus in on.

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

STEP ONE: Decide who you want to be. This holds at any level— as an individual, as a team, as a community, as a nation. What do you want to stand for? What are your principles and values? Who do you wish to become?

We’ll get real nerdy on this step below.

STEP TWO: Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, take small steps to reinforce your desired identity. Each step, no matter how small, helps you start to realize that, maybe you CAN be a morning person. Or that you DON’T have a slow metabolism. Or that you ARE a runner!

Let’s dig deeper.

Rebel, What Is Your Profession?!

Depending on how long you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness, you might already be doing Step One.

For years now, Nerd Fitness has been turning life into a game. Depending on what you want your new identity to be, you pick the Class/Profession that lines up with this new identity.

You can even create a free character, and our uber-supportive Message Board community is segmented by these classes too. They’re also a big part of my book, Level Up Your Life.

Here are the 7 classes of Nerd Fitness. Pick the class that lines up with the way you WANT to train (longer descriptions here):

  • Warrior: strength training, powerlifting, olympic lifting, weights
  • Scout: running, swimming, biking, endurance
  • Adventurer: exploration, hiking, camping, climbing, travel excursions
  • Ranger: cross training, metabolic conditioning, jack of all trades
  • Assassin: parkour, gymnastics, bodyweight training, movement
  • Monk: martial arts
  • Druid: yoga, tai chi, meditation, nature

If you want to be a warrior, you ARE a Warrior. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Warrior Guild!

If you want to run a marathon, congrats! You are a Scout. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Scout’s Den!

If you want to lose weight and are considering joining a CrossFit gym, congrats! You’re a Ranger. Inside. Right now. Welcome to the Ranger Guild.

I don’t care if you are 400 pounds or 100 pounds and have never picked up a weight or ran a step in your life. Write out your alter-ego, the superhero version of yourself.

  • How do they train?
  • How do they eat?
  • What time do they go to bed?

The goal is not just weight loss – the goal is to build an identity that is aligned with the type of person you want to be.

Me personally? I am an Assassin in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

What is YOUR profession!?

Ask yourself this question all day, every day.

Congrats, you now have a new identity! It’s all unicorns and rainbows and effortless weight loss from here on out.


It’s still going to be hard work. There are no shortcuts. No temporary changes will create permanent results. Which means you need to change your perspective. It means you never get to be “done.” You don’t get to go on temporary diets.

Instead, you slowly shift your daily behavior, decision by decision.

And eventually, your outer evolution (lose weight, build muscle, physique change) is going to catch up to your new internal identity.

So now that you have created your new identity and picked your class, it’s time to start asking yourself the question whenever faced with a decision: “What would a Ranger/Monk/Scout do!?”

And then do that thing.

James had a friend who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?”

All day long, she would use this question as a guide:

  • Would a healthy person walk or take a cab?
  • Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad?

She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. 100 pounds later, she was right.

So let’s look at our examples:

You don’t need to run a 5k to be a Scout. You decide you are a Scout today, and running for 5 seconds makes you a Scout. So what would a scout do? Skip their run? Or go for a run even though they only have 15 minutes?

You don’t need to have ever lifted a weight to be a Warrior. You can start acting like one now. Would a warrior sit on his butt and watch TV? Or would he be doing a beginner bodyweight workout?

You don’t need to be a gymnast NOW to be an Assassin. You just start acting like one. Would a healthy badass Assassin skip his handstand training today? Nope.

This stuff works. Ask yourself what a healthy/superhero/badass person would do. Just ASKING the question makes you more likely to change behavior.

As pointed out in the book Mindless Eating:

“We found we could get kids to choose the healthier food much more often if we simply asked what their favorite superhero or their favorite princess would do.

Even if they responded “french fries”, half the time they took the apple slices. It simply causes an interruption in their thinking that causes them to pause, hit the reset button inside their head and think again.”

In other words, asking “What would Batman do?” is a real thing, and it can fundamentally change the path of your journey.

Yup, even for adults. Whenever I think of skipping my workouts to play more videogames I always ask myself “What would Captain America do?”

More often than not, I end up in the gym. Because damnit, I am Captain America.

Make a small win today.

As the saying goes, “Big things have small beginnings.”

Do enough small things aligned with your new identity, and your outward appearance will start to reflect your new superhero identity.

Building better habits isn’t about littering your day with life hacks.

Your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be.

So I leave you with three questions:

  • What is your Profession!?
  • How would that person act today?
  • Can you get a small win today to reinforce that?

Here’s an example for each class to get you started:

What’s that? You want to build a certain physique? Start doing what those people do!

This is exactly what we preach and teach with our 1-on-1 Coaching Clients we essentially ask them what they want to be when they grow up (lol), and then create specific programs and help guide their food choices to become that new version of themselves!

Here is my answer:

“I am an Assassin in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion. I don’t care that I have thin wrists and crappy genetics. I’m reinforcing this by hitting the gym as soon as I hit publish on this article to work on my rings work. Tonight I will eat grilled chicken, quinoa, and broccoli.”

Your turn: Leave a comment below!


PS: James Clear’s book Atomic Habits served as the inspiration and outline for today’s article – if you’re interested at all in bettering yourself and improving your health, I would highly recommend checking it out!


**All photo credits can be found right here[1]**


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    49 thoughts on “Most people go about habit change backwards. Here’s how to flip it.

    1. I am an adventurer walking across Canada. Tonight, not only will I go to hot yoga but I will do one small thing on my travel blog.

    2. Awesome book, btw! I’m about halfway through it already. And what Steve didn’t tell you is that he and NerdFitness are even mentioned in the book. How cool is that?

      As a Ranger, my small, 2-minute habit is parking my car at the far, far end of the parking lot at work. One of those things that everyone says is a good idea, but nobody ever does.

    3. Hi Steve, fantastic article, and you’ve nailed it again! Reminds me of the watershed moment 3 1/2 years ago, when I realised I was too slow for my sporting roles at the time. But I thought like an athlete, and went looking for better ways to train, which has been very successful. Intuitively, I used the process you’ve outlines. Being an athlete meant training was the option. I could then add further identities as needed like “sprinter” (better do some speed work) and “decathlete” (gotta be versatile, do some throws, jumps and hurdles as well). Didn’t say I was good at the latter either, they’re still very much a work in progress. 🙂 Thinking like an athlete also means taking a holistic approach to training, with a broader focus.

      One little question though. I am a sprinter, and my defining characteristic is raw speed, though by implication, I have power as well (takes power to rapidly accelerate to high speeds – basic high school physics there). I don’t see a Profession in the Revolution that really fits me. Your thoughts?

    4. I love the way you do business, Steve. I appreciate that you continually reinforce the concepts that are most important in this journey (i.e. small changes, diet is 90% of the issue, etc.). I am an Adventurer/Assassin hybrid. I will do my next bodyweight workout tonight, and will be hiking, or mountain biking, or white water rafting this weekend (weather will dictate).

    5. I freaking love the “What would a healthy person do?” angle.

      I am a healthy person, with an eventual goal of becoming an old lady. What would someone who lives to be 90 do? Today, I will eat plenty of protein and produce. I will not raid the candy jar. I will walk and I’ll do my physical therapy. I will rearrange my schedule to get to that yoga class on Monday.

      I’m playing the long game.

    6. What a great article. Identity is such an important part of accomplishing whatever goal you set out to do.

      In fact, I’ve also seen it go the other way. For example, someone who identifies themselves as a power lifter or Olympic weight lifter and then gets injured to the point that they can’t compete at a high level anymore, it begins to mess with their beliefs and they go through an identity crisis!

    7. Forgive me Steve, I altered your prompt just a bit….I can’t bring myself to identify with any one class because I love them all! I am all of the classes!!! (Insert slightly rebellious laughter here.) I love to do all the things in each class and at one point was actively living in these classes on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, as the years have gone by and I’ve lost my ability to do a lot of these things like I used to (or at all), I slowly convinced myself that who I was before isn’t me now simply because I cant do the things I used to. Instead of finding ways to get back to myself, I decided to change who I was to match my current habits…because I easily ran out of breath, I wasn’t a runner anymore…because I couldn’t complete yoga poses, I wasn’t a yoga person…because I wasn’t able to pick up things as easily as I used to, I was weak….because I ate lots of fast food, I was unhealthy…and there was nothing I could do about any of these things because that’s is who I was. I accepted this altered version of myself because accepting I was ‘unable’ was easier than changing back into who I really am.

      Sooooo, in an effort to remind myself of who I really am, I wrote out all the things I’ve unlearned over the years and am again throughout my journey. I will remind myself of this everyday and ask myself everyday, What Would Della Do?

      Who am I?
      I am strong, mentally and physically.
      I am adventurous
      I am fun
      I am silly
      I am wise and dumb all at once.
      I am kind
      I am honest
      I am genuine
      I am a morning person
      I am a swimmer
      I am a scuba diver
      I am a scientist
      I am healthy
      I am a runner
      I am a teacher
      I am a support for those I love
      I am in the moment
      I am happy
      I am calm
      I am competitive
      I am successful
      I am a good sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, and cousin
      I am Della and I will act like it.
      Be true to you and ask yourself,

      On a side note, I’ve been part of the Nerd Fitness group for almost a year now and am sad to say I haven’t acted quite like Della would. I have struggled on many things and am in desperate need of a reboot but my biggest struggle has been finding a big why. I humbly request your blessing in changing my big why to a Big Who. I don’t have a why yet, but I do have a who. I want to learn how to be me again. I am dedicating my recovery from years of lost faith in myself to my true self. My Big Who is the real Della (there is a slim shady joke there somewhere, I know it). The Della who never backed down from a challenge and never feared failure. The Della who stood strong not only for other people but for herself as well. The Della who beat back her inner doubts and demons through pure stubbornness to not admit defeat. I am that person and I will prove it.

      Thank you Steve & the entire NF team for being such a wonderful guide and wizard in the insanity of everyday life. You’re the bestest!

    8. Great article Steve, really hit home. That’s why you are the leader of this rebellion.

      I am a warrior through and through. I lift heavy things for the good of those I protect. I will not let the poor habits of my past dictate my future. I will crush my deadlifts tomorrow and to ensure I do this I will eat intelligently today and not drink too much tonight. Hell, I’m even going to go to bed on time because my iron will is as strong as my warhammer!

    9. “Whenever I think of skipping my workouts to play more videogames I always ask myself “What would Captain America do?”

      More often than not, I end up in the gym. Because damnit, I am Captain America.”
      This almost made me cry. (I’m very emotional at this time in my life, lot going on) I guess it gave my inner child some hope. Thank you for writing these articles for us. You are awesome.

      I am actually having trouble with the identity thing though. I don’t even know what I want to be. I have it narrowed to a few but really unsure… Are there more examples of the Ranger besides crossfit (not possible for me right now)?

      I may just go with asking myself, “What would Qui-Gon do?” or Obi-Wan. Or Duchess Satine. Or Padme (anybody seen the kind of shit she does in The Clone Wars series? She is super fit).

      Nope! I’ve got it.

      What would Iroh do? Iroh is my favorite character in any show or movie ever. I actually started drinking tea because I wanted to be like Iroh and still love tea to this day. 🙂 that was the first healthy food/beverage I started consuming actually.

    10. I signed up for the 1 on 1 training and am awaiting my trainer to be assigned. I’m most definitely a Ranger! I’m a stay-at-home parent with two teenage boys. I’m about 100 lbs overweight and currently can’t do much Ranger-y stuff. Tonight, I’ll have one win and not add butter, cheese and bacon to my baked potato that we’re having with the roasted chicken tonight. Gotta start somewhere!

    11. I am a Ranger. Crossfit is outside of my budget right now, but that’s not enough to stop a Ranger! So I’ve got a gym membership and I use it. Since I’m a BAMF Ranger, I’ll earn some wins today by eating the lunch I packed, eating healthy snacks, and going to the gym tonight for some cardio and weights.

    12. Hey Anne! Thanks for your patience! We had a crazy influx of new people over the past few weeks and I know Lauren (our head of coaching) really digs into people’s backgrounds to make sure they’re matched up with the perfect NF Trainer 🙂

      We’re excited to have you in the coaching program, and I can’t wait to hear more about your journey 🙂

    13. Thanks for sharing Tiff-Gon Jinn 🙂

      And YES! A Ranger doesn’t just do crossfit – a Ranger is a Jack/Jill of all trades. Meaning even doing something like our beginner bodyweight workout would qualify you for a Ranger!

      A ranger just means you’re preparing for multiple disciplines! And I think Any of your examples works too…though Iroh sounds like the best fit for ya.


    14. Hey Tony

      Hmmm, I think I’d still put you in the Scout guild with your focus here, as the Rebellion definitely needs people who can run like hell. Though if you want to create your own hybrid/class that speaks more strongly to you.

    15. You’re a good man Joseph Paul – thanks for reading. Adventurer/Assassin hybrid sounds awesome. I hope whatever adventure you ended up on this weekend was adventurous!

    16. Hi Steve, my interpretation of the Scout profession is that it’s more about distance and cardio, which is very different to what I do and my true capabilities.

    17. Fantastic way of looking at this, as always, Steve. Thank you for this. I am an adventurer already, *maybe* identifying more and more as an assassin. Been doing calisthenics at home for over a year, and recently hit the neighborhood rock wall once a week. I want to be the dad who stays limber, able bodied, and strong for his family… And who can climb and do cool stuff on the playground. I do notice, though, that you don’t have a link to your description of the adventurer. Is that on purpose? Would “climbing“ as seen in the adventurer guild include Rock Climbing? It would be good to see a more in-depth description of that guild.

    18. I love this! When I first started (I’ve lost 85lbs and still going) I decided that I wanted to be the person that climbed mountains and did death defying runs on their bike every weekend. I started taking steps to become a person that could do that and not die. I knew that I couldn’t go cold turkey cause I would actually lose my mind, so I started with what seemed like the easiest thing: drinking more water. A year (and so, so many trips to the washroom) later and I’ve created habits that enable me to live the lifestyle I wanted.

      I hope everyone with dreams of being a real life superhero reads this and takes steps to change their lives for the better 🙂 I may not be able to levitate, but a 360 ̊ view from the top of a mountain will do.

    19. Love this article! I know it became easier for me to focus on fitness when, instead of saying, “I take pole classes,” I started saying, “I am a competitive pole dancer” (training for my first competition now). That small shift, making that a part of my identity, began to inform my decisions about things like food, because a competitive pole dancer is a healthy, strong person (it takes a lot of muscle!). “Yes, I really want the birthday cake at work, but I’m in competition training, and it’s not worth the extra sugar (and extra weight on the pole).” “A lunch made up entirely of starch sounds delicious, but for my competition training, I need more protein than that.”

      In Rebellion terms, I’m definitely an Assassin. I want to be able to climb up anything, and make pretty shapes when I do it!

    20. I have suffered from depression for a big fat slice of my life, and now I can’t think about myself anything else than “depressed”: a depressed girlfriend, a depressed illustrator, a depressed employee… I’m trying to change this mindset, but it’s taking a big toll on my force of will. I’ve been trying to build myself this character, a warrior who is not afraid to fail (and often does), but keeps kicking: but in my worst moments, I cannot identify with her and I just spend the day crying.
      So, although powerlifting is not my thing, I’d like to call myself a warrior.
      Fitness-wise, my next objective is to learn to lift my own bodyweight in a pull-up: this afternoon I’ll go to the gym and train my back and shoulders, so to bring me one workout closer to this.

    21. I’ve got a can sheet written out at my desk on index cards. Too often I focus on what I can’t do. Like I can’t go to the gym because my husband has the car and I’ve got two little ones. My can sheet is what I CAN do. I can drink water. I can do bodyweight exercises. It leads into an attitude of gratitude also. I will incorporate the identity call to action. I had to do it with my job also. I am a graphic artist because I work on art every day. If I want to be a motion graphics artist (and I do) I better get some mileage.

    22. I’m a Druid/Warrior (multiclassing FTW) and tonight I’m cooking a healthy dinner, getting to sleep by 10pm to get my 8 hours sleep and then hitting the gym at 6am tomorrow! Thanks for the inspiration, Rebel Leader!

    23. So am I!
      Today I did my Hormonal therapy routine with meditation and tomorow morning it is my strenght training. And I am on Whole30 currently.
      I am 3 months on my way and still long to go to be lifetime war-druid 🙂

    24. One of my favourite pins on Pinterest says “People don’t stop exercising because they get old…they get old because they stop exercising”

    25. Fantastic article Steve! It really flips everything I thought I knew on it’s head. In all the exercise and weight loss groups I’ve ever been in they talk about building habits but never about changing the way you view yourself as a first step. I can honestly say mind blown! So as for me to my great surprise I found out from this amazing site that i’m a warrior even though i have soft flabby flesh and am extremely overweight. I’ve been strength training for the last few weeks though and i’m really starting to love it. Looooong way to go though, i’m still on the baby weights but I will get there with time cos that’s what a warrior does right? Quick wins today…eating a portion of protein with each meal to help my muscles recover, drinking at least my 2l to keep myself hydrates and functioning at my best and taking a 25 minute walk at lunchtime to stretch my muscles from last night’s workout.

    26. I am an Assassin, and even though I’m currently overweight, not flexible and kinda clumsy, I’m going to overcome these things and change them. The first thing I’m going to do is start a yoga routine to help with the flexibility as soon as the app downloads on my phone. Later tonight I’m going to work on walking in heels to help with balance, and because assassin’s need to look good while doing their job. Lol

    27. I am a rogue (not listed, but the class/profession I most identify with – think scout/assassin combo). I can swim for miles, and maneuver my body into and out of tight situations. Beka (Provost Dog) never skips a run, and Aly (Trickster Duo) practices her combat and gymnastic drills every day. What would they do?

    28. i am a scout and will walk 10 mins everyday, building up to running everyday.

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