Keystone habits can transform your life.
Find out what they are, keystone habits examples (good and bad), and how you can start improving.
I was once in shape. I’m talking 3 hour marathons on my elliptical cross-trainer, lifting weights in shape. I was also thin at that time.
Then- slowly- over a 5 year period- I gained 100 pounds. Yep, you read that right. 100. Looking back, the downward spiral started when I stopped exercising. I could list excuses for not exercising all day. You might have used some them yourself.
I didn’t gain that weight without a fight. Looking back, it seems like I was CONSTANTLY on a diet. And it never worked. I thought it was just a “me” thing. That maybe my metabolism just sucked and that was why all the dieting wasn’t working. I was just too tired and too fat to start exercising. But I could certainly watch what I ate!
Then I decided to dump the excuses. And start with a 5 minute walk. That was it. 5 minutes. The next day I went a little further. The day after that a little further. After that, it was like dominoes falling into place. Suddenly eating less wasn’t so hard. Saying ‘no’ to the sweets was a little easier. The pounds started coming off.
It turns out my experience wasn’t unique. Exercise is a keystone habit. And embracing keystone habits can transform your life.
Table of contents
~~~~~This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link I will earn a small commission which helps keep my blog up and running but it won’t cost you a penny more)! Click here to read my full disclosure policy.~~~~~
I learned about keystone habits from the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business” by Charles Duhigg. I’ve read quite a few books on personal development over the last year.
But this one is at an entirely new level of amazing. It’s now one of my top recommendations of books for people to read.
What are Keystone Habits?
Keystone habits are those habits that have an effect out of proportion to what you would expect. They are habits that spill over into other areas, causing transformation in multiple areas of life. Even without intention on the part of the person. It’s like knocking over one domino in a line. Just applying pressure to the one ends up affecting everything else.
Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”
Another identifying feature is that the habit offers a small win, an instant of gratification when it is done.
We can’t pick any old habit and decide it’s keystone habit. Drinking your morning coffee is probably never going to be a keystone habit. We DISCOVER what habits are keystone habits.
Examples of Keystone Habits
The problem with giving a list of examples is that different stuff works for different people. And- I have to be honest- one of the ones that is listed in The Power of Habit (making your bed) really doesn’t strike me as something that’s going to have exponential effects on behavior.
So the keystone habits list below isn’t exhaustive. You might very well find another habit in your life that fits the definition of keystone. But below are 8 keystone habits that I think it’s worthwhile to cultivate.
I consider this the ultimate keystone habit. Maybe it’s just because it’s had such wild effects on my life. I quit exercising and it was the beginning of a downward spiral. I started exercising years later and it seems like everything else improved at the same time.
When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”
I was so intrigued by Charles Duhigg’s statement that I looked up the study. There is indeed a relationship between exercise and a variety of other health behaviors. And all for the better. Exercising results in eating better and smoking less, among many other things.
I’ve known for years that food tracking- just the tracking- can have effects beyond what you think. In fact, one my first printable posts was Free Printable Food Journals. In one weight loss study, “nearly 1,700 participants, those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records” (source).
I want to emphasize this again. It was the food TRACKING that has an out of proportion effect, that is the keystone habit. People didn’t actually TRY to cut back on what they ate or eat healthier. It just naturally happened as they tracked their food.
Planning & Reviewing
Planning your days, weeks, months, and even years is vitally important. But equally as important is reviewing those days, weeks, and months as you progress. And getting back on track should you deviate from your overall vision in life.
My Free Printable Goal Workbook has planning worksheets that you might be interested in. It has you take a large goal and break it down, step by step, until you know exactly what you need to do this week. It also embraces the concept of “The One Thing” to help you stay focused despite the distractions.
Every single week, I sit down at the end of the week and review how things went. I plan the next week- what my major focus will be. I review my monthly goal worksheets to make sure that my monthly goals are getting done. I track my weight on my free printable weight loss trackers.
It’s important to plan in advance. As in at least the day before. When you go to bed at night you should know exactly what you’re doing the next morning. Knowing what (hopefully healthy) breakfast you’re going to eat, when you’re going to exercise, and what your major focus for the day is.
Quick note: a lot of people find time blocking to be particularly helpful.
Organization is an attitude and actions you cultivate over time. And it can appear in hundreds of things you do. Having an attitude of staying organized spills over into everything.
A couple of examples of staying continually organized. Once upon a time mail simply piled up in my house. I finally ended up with over a month’s worth of unopened mail. And missed jury duty. So I started a system. Every piece of mail got opened the second it entered the house. Junk mail got trashed immediately. (This alone has saved time.) Every thing else gets handled once a week.
Boxes get opened immediately and the stuff put away right away. The boxes get broke down and put in a pile to go to the outside trash can. As I order quite a bit of stuff, this little organizational habit has resulted in a lot less clutter. And got rid of the endless pile of boxes sitting in the dining room.
I have a product Life Organized dedicated to helping you get organized once and for all.
Like attitude, growth mindset is both an attitude and actions you take. You have to be open to learning new ideas- even those that go against what you already believe. And you have to be willing to invest the time (and money) in learning.
While the oft quoted example that reading 1 hour per day for 7 years will make you an international expert is probably not true (sadly), it will put you miles ahead of 99% of other people.
I have a recurring task on my weekly planner to learn more about blogging. I’ve been doing this many, many years. And still find something new to learn each week.
Eating Dinner Together
Eating dinner together as a family is another example Charles Duhigg shares of keystone habits.
Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”
Gratitude is another keystone habit that encompasses both attitude and actions.
One of the best ways to exhibits gratitude is to pay it forward. I have a post “150+ Random Acts of Kindness” that includes ideas and free printables to help.
I’ll be straight up honest. I went back and forth on whether to include this one. Charles Duhigg includes it in his book. Mark Manson, who I highly admire, actually calls articles saying to have more willpower “moronic.”
So I’m going to go with my gut here. I think cultivating willpower is a very important habit. But I think people- me included (at times)- use the excuse “if I just had more willpower” as an excuse for their failings. As if willpower were an intrinsic character trait that one has or does not have.
I think building up excellent habits (and dropping unhealthy habits) demonstrates willpower. But that if you try to do too much at once, you’re going to fail.
I’m not sure if willpower ALONE is a keystone habit. I think it’s one that is cultivated as you develop other habits. And as willpower builds, it naturally starts to overflow into other areas. James Clear has a great article on willpower if you want a broader perspective.
Best Keystone habit
While exercise is the one that has an effect on a lot of people- and thus has been documented- the best keystone habit for you is the one that is going to have the biggest ripple effect.
Exercise is probably so powerful because it fulfills multiple requirements for further change:
- It changes how you view yourself. (Imagine two people, one who exercises & one who doesn’t…isn’t the picture in your head pretty different?) How you view yourself has a major effect on the future decisions you make.
- It has an immediate reward effect (as much as most people, me included, hate STARTING exercise, we almost all love the feeling of FINISHING a workout).
- Exercise makes future habits easier. It’s much easier to choose a healthy breakfast after you’re wide awake from exercising and feeling motivated. If you’ve already worked out, you’re more likely to say ‘no’ to those doughnuts at work. But if you’re planning on exercising after work, you might say ‘yes’ to the doughnut. And then rationalize the day is messed up anyways, you might as well not exercise today.
Thus, if you don’t know what keystone habit to start with, I will always suggest exercise. Even something as basic as 3 20-minute walks per week.
Negative Keystone habits
My experience with keystone habits isn’t all roses. There are also negative keystone habits. And sadly, I have a story about one. Drinking to excess.
Drinking (and drug use) are habits that have multiple negative, cascading effects. The mind-altering effect alone screws up your sleep. Which makes you more tired, meaning you’ll have less willpower when it comes to eating healthy, exercising, and making smart choices. And the more you drink (or consume drugs), the more of an effect it has.
I’m not going to get into all the details (this article is already long enough!), but I can personally attest that drinking too much can mess up your entire life.
Where Do I Start?
The trick to big, long-term change is to pick a keystone habit and start with that. There are some basic principles below that are fundamental to helping you form a habit. I also have Free Printable Habit Trackers and Free Printable Resolution Trackers to help you.
Tip #1: With habits, it’s important not to do too much, too soon. That’s the problem with most New Year’s Resolutions. People decide to change everything- what they eat, exercise, etc.- and then quickly fall off the wagon. It’s just too much change at once.
When determining the size or complexity of a new habit ask yourself, “What can I stick to—even on my worst day? Start there. Master the art of showing up. Then advance.James Clear
Tip #2: Arrange your environment so it’s easy to do your keystone habit. For example, I go walking three mornings a week. Since I have a baby, it’s not as simple as strolling out the door. I have the stroller prepped and by the front door in advance. I already have a bottle of water on it. I have my earphones laying across the top. My socks are already on top of my workout shoes. My entire environment is arranged so there are no hurdles to getting out the door.
Tip #3: Habit stacking is another important way to build habits. Build your new habit on top of an existing habit. For example, I recently starting walking right after my babies 2nd morning feeding. This works great for my variable schedule (since the baby is hungry at different times!). If I tried to make it “I will walk at 9:00 am,” I would constantly be fighting to get it done. I would be struggling with a fussy baby who I was trying to force to eat too soon or one who was crying during the walk because it was past time to eat.
Tip #4: Plan ahead for setbacks. Come up with potential problems and solutions to overcome them.
What is Your Experience?
Whew! If you made it through all that, I’m impressed. Now I want to hear from you. What has been your experience with habits? Have you noticed a keystone habit in your life? Feel free to comment below.
Could you do me a quick favor? If you found this post helpful, could you share it with your friends? Share buttons are at the top!