Atomic Habits to Become a Better Researcher

In this blog post, I will talk about the concept of atomic habits and how it can help you achieve your goals in general, but especially to become a better researcher.

The concept of Atomic Habits, was popularized in a book called “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. The idea in this book is quite simple but yet, it is a powerful way of achieving your goals by applying some simple steps in your daily life.

Setting your goal

The first step is to set some clear goal about what you want to do. This is important as it is the target that you want to achieve. A goal could for example be to improve your paper writing skills.

The importance of the process or system

Having a goal is good but it is yet not enough because persons who succeed and fail still have the same goal (e.g. the winner of a race vs the losers, or the researchers who got a tenured positions vs those who don’t). Thus, what makes the difference between succeeding and failing is not the goal but the system or process that is used to achieve it.

The system of atomic habits

The main idea in the book of James Clear is that we can achieve big goals by changing our daily habits. This can be by adopting some good habits. For example, if your goal is to improve your English writing skills, working on it 20 minutes every day may not do much in the short term but in the long term may lead to major improvements. But it can also be useful to remove the bad habits. For example, one may want to stop wasting too much time browsing the Web every day.

However, as many people knows, it is often hard to start a good habit and keep it for a long time. Many people will for example start to do some physical exercises for a few weeks and then give up quickly. It is also hard to stop bad habits.

To help change habits, the key points proposed by James Clear are:

  • Make it easy: Do not try to make some changes that are too challenging early. For example, if you decide to study English 5 hours per day, it would be perhaps be difficult to sustain over the long term. It is perhaps better to start with 20-30 minutes per day, and later you may increase. But at first, consistency is what is important and will help you to not give up.
  • Make it obvious: To make sure that you continue your good habit every day, it is important that you do not forget about it. Thus, you may try to connect your new habit with your previous habits. For example, if you want to take some medicine every day, you may put it beside your toothbrush to not forget to take it. If you want to read a book every night, you may put the book on your pillow.
  • Make it attractive and satisfying: Because the long term goals may take a lot of time to achieve, it is important to make sure you associate some short term rewards to your good habits . Thus, you may think about some rewards such as: If I study English every day for one week, I will buy myself a hot chocolate cup.
  • Make it harder to keep the bad habits: You may think about strategies to make your bad habits harder to do. For example, if you want to drink less alchool, you may put the bottles out of sight.
  • Track your habits: You may use some book to keep a record of your habits over time.
  • Find the right environment and the right people. The environment and the people that we interact with also play a role in changing habits. Changing the environment or getting along with other people having the same goals may help.

These ideas are quite simple and can be applied to many aspects of life (loosing weight, etc.) but can be also used by researchers to become better researchers. Some good habits for researchers may be to waste less time on the Internet, to have a fixed schedule and sleep well every day, to eat well, to exercise, to improve writing skills, to write more papers, to write a book, to improve programming skills, to write a blog post every week, to improve presentation skills, etc.


In this blog post, I gave a short overview of the book Atomic Habits and discussed a little bit about how it can be used in the life of a researcher. If you do not have time to read the book, you may have got the main idea from this blog post. There is also some good video presentations by James Clear that can be watched online (it is shorter than reading the book, if you are busy like me!).

If you have any comments, please post in the comment section below.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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