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Being stuck at home during this time of COVID-19 has definitely given me more time to do some extracurricular reading. Finally getting around to James Clear’s Atomic Habits was fantastic, since it gave me some new ideas on how to work with my bad habits, rather than just trying to get rid of them with no success for years. When reading the concepts in this book, it was so clear (no pun intended) to me that atomic habits can be a wonderful tool for teachers and students. In today’s video (embedded below), I go into detail on how the ideas in this book can apply to our academic life. Since it’s a longer video than usual, I also summarize it a bit in the rest of this post.

There's a lot of great content, so I recommend reading the whole book at some point. But, here are what I consider to be the main points, along with some examples to make everything easier to understand. #PhDChat Click To Tweet

Atomic Habits for Academics

Feel free to listen to the video in the background while doing some cleaning or light exercise, but as I use a whiteboard to note down the main points, watching would be best.

Main Ideas in Atomic Habits

There’s a lot of great content in this book, so I recommend reading the whole thing at some point. But, here are what I consider to be the main points, along with some examples to make everything easier to understand.

Habits Involve a 4-Step Process:

  • Cue: an event occurs
  • Craving: the event causes you to crave something
  • Response: you respond to that craving with an action
  • Reward: you are rewarded for completing that action

I provide a couple examples of this process in the video, but here’s a simple one:

Cue: Your phone chimes with a notification.

Craving: You want to know what the notification says.

Response: You pick up your phone and read the notification.

Reward: You have new information that you wanted to know and feel up-to-date on important news.

Knowing that this four step process occurs constantly in your daily life, consider what habits you want to add to your life and how you can cue them to occur when you want them to. For bad habits, consider how you can get rid of the cues that start these habits. For more on this, see below.

Habit Stacking Allows You to Add Positive Habits to Bad or Neutral Habits (or Other Good Habits):

Creating a habit stack basically means adding habits to one another so the cue-craving-response-reward process continues for more than just one round. Since bad habits are so hard to get rid of and new positive habits are so hard to start, stop trying to do both at once. Unless it’s a habit that’s really terrible for you or the people around you, try stacking a good habit on top of a bad one.

For example, I check my phone every morning before getting out of bed. Email, social media, perusing the internet. I do it all while laying down. Not the best way to start my day.

BUT, I’ve started stacking a good habit on top of that bad one.

After doing my usual stuff on the phone, I then check my affirmation app for my daily affirmation and open up my digital bullet journal and write out my tasks for the day. [I talk more about using my phone to be productive in this video.] By adding this element so smoothly to my usual habit, I’ve started to add a good, productive habit that pushes me into a more productive mindset once I get up for the day.

So, consider what bad or neutral habits you have, and consider how you can stack a good habit or two on top of it.

If you’d like to know more about my morning routine and how I design it, I talk about that in this Elevate Your 8 podcast interview.

In order to create behavior change and add good habits to you life, make the habit cues obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. Do the reverse to bad habits you want to get rid of.

For example, let’s say you want to add a writing habit to your early afternoon schedule.

  • Obvious: Eat lunch in a location where you can see your writing set up ready-to-go. Or, add a motivational writing quote or poster to a wall where you eat lunch so you’re inspired to go write once you finish eating.
  • Attractive: Keep your writing area clutter free and bright.
  • Easy: Make sure all your writing tools are ready to be used at your writing location. Make sure getting from your lunch location to your writing location is easy.
  • Satisfying: Have a favorite candle lit, a soothing music playlist on, and/or a really comfortable chair to work on. Make the writing experience as satisfying as possible.

Remember, for bad habit cues, make sure they are not-obvious, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.

Here's a quick summary of the main ideas in James Clear's Atomic Habits. See full blog post and video for more concepts and examples.

There are 3 layers of behavior change (outcome, process, and identity), but the best one for creating good habits is identity.

Having a specific outcome to strive for informs what habits you need to create in order to achieve that outcome. For example, if you want to submit a book proposal this year and already have a dissertation ready to be converted into a book, then you need to create good habits tied to researching publishers and the book proposal genre, as well as habits tied to revising your dissertation.

Having a specific process you want to do in your life informs what habits you need to create, too. For example, if your process goal is to have a daily writing habit of more than 3 hours of writing a day, then you need to have good habits that lead to that process becoming natural to you. For example, setting up your writing location the night before, keeping your writing area decluttered, keeping the tools and content you use for your writing organized, and working up to a writing habits that lasts three hours a day.

But, rather than striving for an outcome or process, consider striving for an identity that you want to embody. Once you know who you want to be, figure out what habits will help you become that person (if you aren’t already that person, in which case just keep doing what you’re doing). Our pride in being or becoming that person will inspire us more than a goal or process being achieved.

For example, let’s say you want to be “someone confident in their academic writing.” This is an identity that will take me a while to attain, but that I’m working towards at the moment. What habits can help me attain this belief?

  • A consistent writing habit will help me feel more confident in my academic writing ability. If I’m not struggling with writing consistently, that means I have plenty of ideas to write about and a successful process for writing about these ideas.
  • Getting published will help me feel more confident in my academic writing. That means I need to make a habit of checking for CFPs that relate to my research interests and submitting abstracts and drafts to those CFPs in a timely manner.
  • Getting positive feedback from readers will help me feel more confident in my writing. So I need to create a habit of asking friends and colleagues for feedback before submitting articles for publication, and also asking for feedback from readers once these articles are published. I can’t get positive feedback if I don’t ask for it.

And so on…

So, what identities do you want to strive for in your academic or non-academic life? What habits will help you get there?

Track Your Habits to Keep Yourself Accountable

Finally, Clear emphasizes the need to track your habits in order to insure you stick to creating them (if they are good habits) or getting rid of them (if they are bad habits). So, consider what tool will help you track your habits. Make sure the cue for tracking your habits is obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. This might mean a paper planner or bullet journal, a digital planner or bullet journal, a habit tracking app, or some other tool.

Here’s a video where I go through a number of paper or digital options for planner and bullet journals.

Here’s a video on why I think digital bullet journals are better than paper ones.

Here are the digital bullet journal courses I offer, including a free option.

Here’s a blog post about productivity apps for academics and writers.

Finally, here’s a video about finding an accountability group or partner and tracking your progress with them digitally using three different methods.

Apply Atomic Habits to Working from Home

If you’re stuck at home while teaching or “studenting,” consider what small habits you can add to your life that will have positive effects to your life at home and your academic achievements. What habits can you create for creating content for students, completing your own course assignments, grading, researching and writing, doing your own self-care activities, etc.?

I have a few resources for teaching online that might help with the content creation process.

I also have some suggestions for self-care activities.

If you want to read Atomic Habits yourself, check your library apps or other book resources.

And consider talking with your students about how they can create their own atomic habits to help with their working from home experience.

Final Thoughts

Having good, productive habits is such a necessary tool during this time of anxiety and physical constriction. I’m definitely struggling to create my own positive habits, but I keep reminding myself that each day is a new day to make progress. Here are some more productivity tips to try out, if you’re looking for more general advice for getting productive. And if you have your own advice, please share them in the comments below.

Comment Below: What atomic habits will you be using to achieve your ideal identity?

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Find out more about atomic habits with this video and blog post. Get the key takeaways from this productivity book and apply them to your academic life. If you're a teacher, college instructor, or grad student, this information is for you. #highered #productivity