“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.”James Clear, Atomic Habits, pg. 15
James Clear chose the title Atomic Habits for his book under 3 separate but equally impactful definitions of the word “atomic”:
- Tiny or small in composition
- The single irreducible/fundamental unit of a larger system
- The source of immense energy or power
One of the key enduring understandings of Clear’s book is that even the smallest change in habits can create the most significant results if you see them through, but there are many different factors that influence how long it takes to keep at those habits until you arrive at the results you want.
This figure illustrates not only the compounding effects of positive atomic habits, but it illustrates why so many people give up on their habits before they can yield visible, significant benefits.
Clear outlines 3 clear ways on how one can go about change.
- The first layer involves changing your outcomes or results. This is the method that most people tend to obsess about. Whether it is losing weight, eating healthier, reading more books, these changes are mainly superficial and usually fall through as failed New Year’s resolutions that stopped being exciting to do after 2 weeks.
- The second layer involves changing your processes. Changes that happen here go beyond making a resolution. They require you to change the habits you are comfortable with and persist with those habits in order to achieve the outcome you want.
- The third layer involves changing your identity. Every process and every outcome should not be without metacognition of those processes. This involves challenging your beliefs, your biases, your self-image, etc. Your self-efficacy revolves around how you view you yourself, your identity. Making small efforts to change your identity goes a long way to changing your processes, which ultimately yield in changing your outcomes.
How Do Atomic Habits Make its Way into the Classroom
Identity, or the lack of one, gets in the way of many students’ ability to perform to the best of their abilities. A student could hate physics because of a bad experience he had with the subject or a teacher in that subject. As a result, that student could say “I’m horrible at physics or I’m just not a physics student” because their identity has led them to believe that it is impossible for them to perform well in math class. But if that student needs to improve their grades in math in order to graduate, the best approach would be to change their identity in order to change their grades (their outcome).
Clear has stated that there is a simple two-step process for changing one’s identity (pg. 39):
- Decide the type of person you want to be
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Each (changed) habit is like a suggestion. Over a period of time, if you do it enough times, you start thinking to yourself “maybe this is who I am or who I’m supposed to be”. If you ask anybody why they identify as a musician, they will probably tell you that “I love music and I’ve practiced my craft so many times that I’ve just become one”. But nobody ever starts off as a musician after playing the piano once or twice.
To bring it back to the struggling student, if the student puts in enough effort to practice physics problems (changing their habits) over an extended period of time, they are actively working towards changing their identity. Both of which, work towards getting that student a physics grade necessary to accomplish his goal (graduation).
Consider the Following for Your Next Classroom Activity
Consider having your students grow and observe poppies. These flowers should be given early in their growing phase. The students must also choose a specific habit that they would like to consistently perform.
While students record the flower’s growth every other day, they will be expected to act upon their habits on days that they are expected to observe and record. On days where students have to water their plants, encourage them to treat themselves to something nice for all their hard work.
This activity encourages both committing to small habits and self-care.