In recent weeks, I’ve been considering how we can use the advice in James Clear’s Atomic Habits to develop good study habits for learning technical topics. This week, I’m wrapping up my overview of the book with some final Atomic Habits advice.
Recall that the First Law of Behavior Change is make it obvious. This law is important because habits (by definition) are automatic behaviors, not conscious decisions. To optimize your habits, you first have to see them.
A tool that Clear recommends for noticing habits is the habits scorecard. Here’s how it works: throughout the day, be on the lookout for habitual behaviors, and make a list of them. Then rate each behavior as positive, negative or neutral. I like to modify this process by giving behaviors a score from
-2 (most negative) to
+2 (most positive), with
0 being neutral. I like that scale because it lets you identify habits that are good but could be better, but it doesn’t give you too many numbers to get lost in.
Here are some study habits, and how you might rate them:
- You work on a problem set while YouTube plays in a window on your computer:
- You work on a problem set while listening to music with words:
- You realize you have some free time, so you get a few problems done:
- At the beginning of the day, you set a target for 2 hours of study time, and you meet the target:
- At the beginning of the day, you set a target for focused work time from 5 PM to 7 PM at your desk, and you meet the target:
These are just examples, and your experience or ratings may be different. The idea is to make yourself aware of how you work, and intentionally decide which practices best support your goals. Having habits explicitly written and evaluated makes them harder to ignore and easier to improve over time.
+2 habit above is an example of what Clear calls an implementation intention. The idea: the more specific you make a behavior, the more likely you are to turn it into a habit. If you’re trying to develop the habit of practicing math problems every day, you could (0) Practice whenever you find yourself with free time; (1) Commit to practicing for two hours per day, or (2) Commit to practicing for two specific hours at a specific time and place. The last option is most likely to lead to success in the long run because you aren’t just relying on being motivated at some point during the day. When 5 PM arrives, you know you’re supposed to get to work. The more you plan a schedule and execute on that schedule, the more you get in the habit of organizing your time that way, and the less likely you are to skip the planned activity.
In the spirit of make it easy (the Third Law of Behavior Change), you shouldn’t try to start with the most specific behavior. Using a habits scorecard to track your progress, you can start by doing some work (rating
0), move on to using a time target (rating
1), and finally settle on a fixed schedule (rating
What Gets Measured
The habits scorecard is also an example of tracking the right metrics. To illustrate that principle, Atomic Habits includes a detailed description of the Career Best Effort (CBE) system used by Pat Riley when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. CBE defined a way to quantify each player’s contribution to the team’s success. Riley and his assistants calculated the metric for each game, and challenged each player to improve his average rating by 1% during the season.
While you might not want your boss managing you to that level of detail, tracking metrics on your own can help you improve. For example, you might track these learning-related metrics:
- The sum of your study habit ratings, as defined above.
- How many hours you spend on a learning project.
- Your average level of focus, using some measure of concentration that you define.
- The number of problems you complete.
The main idea of Atomic Habits is to improve over time by making frequent small changes. Measurements can help you verify that you’re following that advice.
“The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom”
The Atomic Habits system, while it makes no guarantees, is designed to increase the probability of success. The Four Laws combine to make a desirable behavior happen the first time and subsequent times, turning it into a habit. Techniques like the ones described above build on the Four Laws, attacking specific areas of difficulty.
But even with the best system, there’s no getting around the fact that learning technical subjects is hard, and requires doing repetitive practice as you train your brain to recognize patterns and work through detailed problems. With repetition can come boredom, which can lead to distraction, the enemy of progress. So part of making improvements is recognizing that boredom is part of the process. Use the Atomic Habits techniques to give yourself an edge, but also learn to love the process, even when it’s boring.
Oaks and flowers
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Atomic Habits:
The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. Breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak. Building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower.
(Image credit: Joel Kramer)
I’m writing about discrete math and competitive programming this year. For an introduction, see A Project for 2019. To read the whole series, see my Discrete Math category page.