Last week I went over the key ideas in Atomic Habits, James Clear’s book on leveraging small but consistent changes. This week I’ll consider how you can use these ideas to create effective study habits for learning technical subjects like mathematics.
Regular readers will recall that deliberate practice is the gold standard process for learning new skills. It’s also difficult to implement consistently, which is where habit building comes in.
My favorite deliberate practice framework includes five elements that separate deliberate practice from other kinds of practice. But for this habit discussion, I’ll use a simpler approach. Last month, I presented some advice from standardized test preparation that uses a kind of deliberate practice.
At a high level, the process work as follows. First you study a math concept by reading about it or watching a lecture. Then you test yourself on that concept by solving practice problems. By checking your answers, you determine where your weaknesses are. Finally, you work on your weaknesses by re-studying the areas you had trouble with and selecting more practice problems, and the process repeats.
This process will be familiar to anyone who has taken a math class. The key is how you implement it, and how consistently you follow it. That’s how it becomes more like deliberate practice and not just the standard study process that every math student uses.
Here are some ideas on how you can use the Atomic Habits system to optimize this process.
The Four Laws Applied to Math Study
Recall from last week that Atomic Habits is structured around Four Laws of Behavior Change: To create an effective habit, you need to make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.
The habit we’re trying to create is a study habit in which we get better at math by practicing problems and learning from them. How can we use the Four Laws to facilitate this?
1. Make it Obvious
The first law sets the habit in motion. In this example, the habit starts with reading about a math topic.
Sometimes the hardest part of studying is getting started. A tool to help with this is a study plan that leaves no doubt about what to study next, and therefore acts as the cue to start studying. At some point in the day, ideally when you’re well rested and thinking clearly, you review your current progress and write a plan for the day. It can be helpful to base this daily plan on a higher-level weekly plan that you make on the weekend. When you’re done, put the plan in a location where you can’t help but see it.
When the time comes to study, you now have a clear plan telling you what to do next, whether that’s reading a section or solving problems. The work may be hard, but at least you don’t have to decide what work to do.
2. Make it Attractive
The most attractive topic to study is one you have a reason to study. The reason could be an upcoming test, but it’s better to have a reason that’s more personally meaningful. Maybe it’s something practical, like a job you could get with a new skill. Or it could just be a desire to learn the topic. Either way, it will help get things moving when it’s time to sit down with a textbook section or set of problems.
The top of your weekly plan would be a good place to write this personal reason, as a reminder of why working on those math problems is an attractive use of your time.
3. Make it Easy
Work is most motivating when it’s just hard enough — not so easy that it’s boring, but not so hard that it’s impossible to make progress on. For habit building, things work a bit differently. The goal is to start with something easier than you would normally work on. That’s because you’re trying to build a habit, not optimize for productivity at the start. There’s time for that once the habit is in place.
Continuing the weekly plan example: making it easy could mean scheduling a relatively short work session at first, then gradually increasing the length. That prioritizes the goal of getting the work habit in place. Or you could select problems you’re familiar with already, and just work on the habit of regular study and concentration.
4. Make it Satisfying
The fourth law exists so you can prove to yourself that a habit is worthwhile and worth repeating. For example, the planning habit should help you develop expertise in the subject you’re studying. Over time, you’ll find out whether the habit gives you the results you hoped for. But it can take a while to get those results. So you also need something satisfying in the short term.
In addition to the inherent satisfaction you might get from learning new things, a classic approach for the 4th Law is to create a visual measure of progress. Since you already have a plan document, that’s the logical place to illustrate your progress. You could add a section for daily habit tracking, where you put an X each day you study, with the goal of creating unbroken chains of X’s. And you could also visually track a list of problems, crossing each one off the list as you complete it.
Applying Other Atomic Habits Advice
Atomic Habits provides plenty of habit-building advice to complement the Four Laws. I mentioned a few examples last week. Let’s see how they relate to the study schedule scenario:
Build systems: create systems, not just individual habits
Although the study plan idea described above could work in isolation, it would be stronger as part of a planning system. If you build habits that encourage you to plan other parts of your life, then planning math study becomes a familiar process that can inform and be informed by your other plans.
Build your identity: start with identity, not results
You may want a result, like a high score on a test or contest. But rather than starting with the result and working backwards, start with your desired identity and work forwards. For example, you could decide to become a person with a deep understanding of mathematical fundamentals (identity). This would lead you to plan a regular study session with no distractions (process/system), which would enable you to do well on a test (result).
Cultivate a bias for action: experiment with new habits
Maybe the study schedule example doesn’t work for you as described. No problem. Brainstorm other ideas, and experiment with them to find something better. Maybe an online tool like Habitica is motivating for you. You’ll only know what works if you experiment.
Explore and exploit: use both new and old habits
The goal of experimentation is not to be constantly switching study habits. Once you find a habit that works, integrate it into your system and exploit its benefits. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop improving your process. As you’re exploiting proven habits, reserve part of your time for exploring new ideas. In the study plan example, you might find habits that work well for getting lots of problems solved. You can exploit those to increase your productivity. But as you move on to harder problems, you might also need time to let your subconscious mind find ideas. For that, you might explore less structured problem-solving approaches like loading a problem into your brain and going for a walk.
(Image credit: Ian Sane)