The 1 key to health behavior success

Have you ever completed a fun run, community service, or other philanthropic deed, and thought to yourself, “I am really proud of myself. I think I deserve a treat!” If you have, you’re not alone.

In Kelly McGonnigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, she talks about this exact phenomenon: coined, the Halo Effect. 

The Halo Effect takes place when we do something good, or what we deem good. It could be pretty simple: signing an environmental petition, volunteering, participating in a run for charity, or even recycling. Then, after we’ve done something good, we rationalize bad behavior because we have just done something good.

Researchers showed that folks were more likely to cheat on a test after they had completed charity work. 

But here’s the thing. Not everyone does these things, and not all the time, or under all circumstances. So, what makes the difference?


Identity is huge in our mindset, and in those habits that we choose to stick with. What do I mean by Identity? Well, it’s how you identify yourself to the world.  

Finish this sentence: I am the type of person who…

If the actions that you’re doing are not in line with how you would finish that sentence, then you are more likely to reward yourself with something counter to that action. For example: Runners completing a fun run were given the choice between two different snack bars: One healthy, one not so healthy. The distinguishing factor between those who chose the healthy snack bar over the not so healthy snack bar was that those who chose the healthy item identified themselves as runners – people who run. Those who chose the not so healthy snack bar did not identify themselves as runners.

Think of all of the labels that we currently identify with (or have previously identified with) in our daily lives: Mother, Daughter, Sister, Texan, city-dweller, country-folk, non-smoker, ex-smoker, shopaholic, drinker, tea-totaler, smart, fortunate, witty, your vocation, athlete, book worm, intellect, student…

These are just a few labels that we use to describe ourselves. Maybe you found a few that you had previously identified with, that you no longer use to describe yourself. So, our identities can change.

Know that whenever you start a new habit, it is going to feel uncomfortable. Definitely at the beginning, but as you continue with it, as it becomes part of your life, you start to identify with it more and more. If you want to continue a habit, a trick that you can do, is to repeat to yourself, aloud or in your head, “I am a _____________.” [runner, daily exerciser, vegetarian, healthy eater] Or “I am the type of person who ___________.” [eats vegetables daily, plans her meals for the week, eats protein with every meal, takes care of her health] until you get the hang of it.

What’s crucial about identity, is that even during periods of high stress, when we accidentally throw away our good habits, identity is what keeps us going back to our good habits, picking up where we were before. “I am a daily exerciser. Life got in the way the past few days, but that was just a hiccup. I’m back on track now.”