Atomic Habits: Both Big and Small

Atomic habits are seemingly insignificant actions you take in your life every day (such as practicing a language for 20 minutes a day). The power of the atomic habit is when repeated day after day and year after year, the result is immeasurable and even atomic to our progress (Clear, 2018). Twenty minutes of Spanish per day for a year will likely result in you having a decent knowledge base and ability to communicate in your new language.

Atomic habits can be useful in ALL aspects of life. An atomic habit can help you change your outlook on life, make you a healthier person, turn you into a better student, make you a better partner/spouse, or revamp your professional life.

Atomic habits can include a diverse set of things. This graphic shows just some of the aspects of life that can improve when you strive to make small changes over time to your life.

The Three Layers of Behavior Change

One of my personal favorite parts of this book is when James Clear discusses the Three Layers of Behavior Change. Clear stresses the significance of using identity-based habits rather than outcome-based habits to achieve your goals and become a better person (Clear, 2018, p. 31). Below I will describe the difference between these methods of behavior change and describe how I can use this in my science classroom:

Identity-based habits

  • Focuses on who we wish to become
  • Grows outward (identity -> outcomes)
  • Helps us improve ourselves

Outcome-based habits

  • Focuses on what we want to achieve
  • Grows inward (outcomes -> identity)
  • Helps us reach a specific goals

Based on the list above, it is notably better to use identity-based habits over outcome-based habits whenever possible in the classroom! Encouraging this type of behavior will help students realize it is not about the direct outcome (for example a grade on a test (though we as educators must realize the importance of grades as well)) but rather, it is about how one’s actions and learning habits will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Figure 1. The layers of behavior change (Clear, 2018, p.30).

A Lesson Plan for Thought on Identity vs. Outcome Based Habits:

So you might be thinking: this is great, but how do I infuse this into my science classroom? One idea is to give your students a long-term project such as growing a plant from a seed. To do this successfully, students will have to come into class every day and tend to the needs of their growing plant. If their goal was just to make the plant sprout and then dispose of it, then you have reached an outcome-based habit with your student. When the student strives to keep this plant going and works hard every day to bring the plant to adulthood, then your student has accomplished an identity-based habit. In other words, at the end of the day it isn’t about completing the assignment but about bringing a healthy living thing into the world.

Just 1% Better…

In life, I think many of us have good intentions of becoming a better person. Each new year, we might tell ourselves this is the year we are finally going to learn to play the guitar, learn a new language, or lose unhealthy body fat. But is it just me or do these overarching resolutions rarely seem to happen?

We want to become better, but we tell ourselves when we fail that “life just gets in the way” and try to make excuses to ourselves and others as to why we did not reach our goals.

Fortunately, James Clear proposed a new way of thinking…if you focus on getting just 1% better every day, you will end up being nearly 37 times better after a year (Clear, 2018).

“Success is the product of daily habits–not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

Clear, 2018, p. 18.
Figure 2. This graph shows how small changes over time can amount to an astronomical improvement (Clear, 2018, p.16).

A Lesson Plan for Getting Just 1% Better

One way to use the idea of getting just 1% better each day in your science classroom is by setting up a healthy and friendly competition for students. For instance, I could divide my students into 2 teams at the beginning of the year. Over the course of the year, based on their level of participation and enthusiasm in the course, students would be awarded points for their team. In the classroom, a whiteboard would show each team’s points and ways to participate to generate more points for their team. At the end of the year, the team with the highest points would receive a reward. However, I think I will have to use caution in this activity to not make it all about the points for students… students should focus on getting 1% better each day and when they do that, they will also receive points. If I sense students are getting overly oriented towards the points and not improving themselves, I will have to modify this activity.


  1. Hi Colleen!

    Oops I didn’t see your comment until just now! Thanks for reading my post first of all and your kind words. To answer your question, no, I do not think I would tell students my intention from the start with the plant activity. I think the power of the activity comes from having the experience/putting in the work first and getting results later. One of Clear’s main ideas presented in the book is habits result in delayed (not instant) gratification. It’s important that students recognize the impact of their care and hard work over time and learn to not always expect instant results.

  2. Hi Emilia! Wow oh wow! You did an amazing job with this blog post. I love everything about this post from the flow of the writing to the examples. I particularly love your activity to show how to model identity-based habits, rather than outcome-based habits. I think using the plant in that way is so unique and innovative. Would you later discuss with your students what taking care of this plant was doing? Or would you take a more “unconscious” approach of positive words of encouragement and praising their attitudes about their plants/plant care, rather than if their plants are the tallest, or produce the most fruit?

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