Do Atomic Habits Create Macroscopic Results in the Classroom?

“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”:

  1. Tiny or small in composition
  2. The single irreducible/fundamental unit of a larger system
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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):

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be
  2. 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).

It’s time for us to invest in ourselves as students. We are worth the effort.

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.

James Clear illustrates the benefits of atomic habits in the form of compound interest. Getting 1% better at something every day for one year is better than getting 25% better at something within a span of one week.


  1. Jay,
    I loved reading your blog! I also thought your tweet was well said. I like that you said small changes “seem” insignificant. That captures their appearance of not amounting to large scale change, but they in fact do when we remain consistent. I also enjoyed reading your ideas for the flower activity. You could also make this activity more inquiry-based if there were multiple flowers students to pick and choose from. They could predict outcomes of flower growth and spot differences between growth rates and other variables. This would allow for more discussion and collaboration between students. What do you think about that? Would you do it differently to make it more inquiry-based?

    • Hi Riley,
      I think those suggestions are great ideas and well thought out too. I would definitely consider using this activity in my future classroom. Thank you so much for contributing; I really appreciate it!

  2. Jay,
    I love your classroom activity because it connects science and forming better habits! If a student is resistant to changing their identity just for one “small” habit, how might you go about convincing them?

    • Hi Evan,
      My interpretation of “Atomic Habits” was that in order to get the result you want, instead of focusing on changing your outcomes, you would alter your habits to change your identity. In relation to the classroom activity, students would choose a habit of their own free will and if they discover that they wish to maintain that habit, then they would be convincing themselves to change their identity. I believe that us (future teachers) cannot be the ones to convince our students to change their identities, however we can provide them with opportunities to change/grow and guide them down a path towards self-reflection and adjustment.

  3. Jay, Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I really enjoyed the graphic you shared about habits building on a weekly model. I, too, chose to discuss The Plateau of Latent Potential! I feel as if this concept is not discussed enough. We need to understand, as future educators, the importance of patience. The valley of disappointment is oftentimes looked at as failure when the whole picture isn’t seen. We must persist through until we start to see results. Have you ever changed your identity using James Clear’s two-step process? Can one change their identity more than once?

    • Hi Brooklyn,
      I honestly can’t say that I have ever changed my identity using James Clear’s two-step process, however I do believe one can change their identity more than once. As humans, we are given the ability to adapt to not only physical changes in environment but also social changes. Whether you move to a different state/country or find another friend/peer group to associate yourself with, you might find yourself associating your identity more with that friend group or a completely different identity from before you moved to a different country. As for me personally, I have definitely gone through more than one identity change from when I was a child to now so I believe it is possible to change one’s identity more than once throughout an entire lifespan.

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