To learn effectively, it’s more important to have good study habits than good study skills. Study skills include activities like taking notes, reading with comprehension, and preparing for exams. Study habits cover topics like time management, focus, and prioritization. Skills and habits are both important. But even with the best skills, it’s hard to overcome poor habits. You can be a champion speed reader with the ability to write every word of a lecture in real-time. But if you start studying an hour before an exam and have YouTube videos blaring in the background, you won’t get great results. In contrast, if you consistently plan what you need to get done in the coming week, follow your schedule diligently, and cultivate the ability to concentrate exclusively on the task at hand, you will succeed even without fancy study techniques.
Good study habits don’t happen on their own, especially given the incentives of the online attention economy. You have to develop them. For a practical habit handbook, it’s hard to do better than James Clear’s Atomic Habits. This week, I’ll cover a summary of key ideas in the book. Next week, I’ll suggest ways to apply these lessons to studying technical subjects.
Atomic Habits and the Four Laws
The core of the atomic habits approach is to pursue small gains and avoid small losses. Over time, small gains compound into large gains. But on any given day, your only goal is to be slightly better than the day before. Conversely, small losses can erode your capabilities over time until you eventually find yourself far behind. To avoid this, you only have to be on the lookout for slight declines each day.
Achieving small gains requires small habits. Clear defines Four Laws of Behavior Change that a good atomic habit must follow:
Law 1: Make it Obvious
Preceding each habit is a cue that sets the habit in motion. For example, your alarm is a cue to get out of bed in the morning. Without a cue, there’s nothing to initiate the habit. Therefore, the goal is to make the cue obvious so you don’t miss or ignore it. Conversely, for habits you’re trying to get rid of, the first step is to get rid of the cue.
Law 2: Make it Attractive
The cue doesn’t directly trigger an action. Instead, it triggers a craving that you believe the habit will satisfy. For example, the sight of a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter could be the cue that triggers a craving for a healthy snack.
If a habit isn’t sufficiently attractive, then it won’t trigger a very strong craving, which means you may lack the motivation to carry it out. You can use this law in reverse against bad habits, by making them as unattractive as possible.
Law 3: Make it Easy
Even if you create an obvious cue that triggers a strong craving, you might still not act on a habit if it’s too hard to do. To maximize the chance that you’ll carry out a behavior, make it easy.
You might wonder what the point is of creating an easy habit. If an action is easy, you should be able to do it with no special effort, and it won’t give you any great benefit. As John F. Kennedy said in 1962, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
This would be a valid objection if you were planning to learn one habit and leaving it at that. But remember the atomic habits philosophy: pursue small gains. A habit starts out easy so that you’ll do it regardless of your motivation level. Once it becomes habitual, you can make it slightly harder. And because you have mastered the previous level of difficulty, this new level is still easy in relative terms. If you keep repeating this process, you’ll end up with a habit that might seem hard to people who haven’t been following along. But it’s easy for you because you’ve built it up in a series of easy increments.
Law 4: Make it Satisfying
A behavior only becomes a habit through repetition. It’s not worth the trouble to make a behavior obvious, attractive, and easy if you only do it once. That would just give you a single easy result, which isn’t too impressive. Instead, you need a reason to repeat the habit again and again. The reason is that it is satisfying.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change comprise a feedback loop. Repeatedly going through the loop leads to repeated behaviors, which leads to habit formation, which is the goal. The purpose of the Fourth Law is to set up the next repetition. If you find a behavior satisfying, you’ll be motivated to do it the next time the cue appears, and the loop will repeat.
Advice for Habit Formation
The Four Laws form a structure for every habit, but Atomic Habits is also full of other advice on building better habits. Here are a few examples.
The reason to create an atomic habit is to make a small improvement that gradually compounds into a larger improvement. But it’s still an improvement in a specific area, since good habits are targeted habits. To make more general improvements, you need to collect many habits into an improvement system.
For example, to build a reading habit, you might start by reading one page per day, then gradually increase the number of pages you read until you’re reading a book every week. But you’re still just reading books. To build a comprehensive learning system, you could add habits in related areas like note-taking, memorization, and writing.
Clear argues that the key to self-improvement is not to set good goals, but to create good systems. One of the key ideas in the book is, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Build your identity
Setting goals puts the focus on results. Building systems focuses on the process of improvement that leads to results. But there’s an even more fundamental level: starting with your desired identity, the kind of person you want to be. If you mold your identity over time, you can use it as a basis for choosing the right habits and systems, which will lead to the right results.
For example, if you want to become the kind of person who is continually learning, that identity will cause you to build habits like reading regularly and avoiding trivial distractions.
Cultivate a bias for action
Besides being easy to do, small habits are also convenient for experimentation. If a habit isn’t working out, there’s no harm in dropping it if you have many other small habits that you’re also working on.
But this process only works if you keep a pipeline filled with ideas for new habits. If you’re on the fence about trying one, it’s better to go for it. In the worst case, it doesn’t work out and you drop it in favor of another habit. But over time, you’ll come up with more habits to add to your system. This is the advantage of a bias for action.
Explore and exploit
Another way that Clear describes experimentation with atomic habits is the explore and exploit framework. Explore means trying new habits to see how they work. He recommends spending 10%-20% of your time exploring new habits. Use the higher end of this scale when you’re younger, and the lower end as you get older and have a trusted repertoire of habits. You can then use the remaining 80%-90% of your time to exploit the habits that have worked out for you. Your exploit time gives you the compounding improvement that is the goal of the atomic habits system.
(Image credit: Kathleen Tyler Conklin)
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.