About a year ago I decided to create a habit of reading a book for an hour every morning.
Initially, I did this just because I wanted to read more. I didn’t have the time during the day and I’d simply forget to do it in the evening — or I started watching a movie.
After doing this for a couple of weeks, I noticed my days were becoming more productive. I was more relaxed in the morning and had an easier time getting out of bed. I was more focused while I was working.
I just thought this was a coincidence until I learned about keystone habits.
What are keystone habits and why are they important?
Charles Duhigg, the guy who coined the phrase, describes keystone habits as “small habits or changes people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives”.
In his book, Duhigg describes how Alcoa (the aluminum manufacturing company) increased its profits by focusing on worker safety. The idea behind it was that by focusing on safety, workers would start to look at the way they worked and they would start to improve their processes. Or as the CEO described it:
‘If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important. They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.’
The habit of improving safety ended up having a positive impact on the company’s income and profits.
Each of us has one or two habits that have a disproportional impact on our lives — positive or negative. Improving those habits will lead to an overall increase in well-being.
Let’s look at some examples.
I realize the concept of keystone habits can be hard to grasp, so let’s look at some examples and how they benefit you.
1. Positive thinking
Whenever someone mentions positive thinking they always do it in a cheesy way. “Just have positive thoughts and all the scary problems will go away!”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. What positive thinking and positive emotions do is they help you see more possibilities in life.
When you look at the benefits of things instead of all the disadvantages, you’re more likely to try out something new.
If you’re constantly trying something new, you’re more likely to find something you love. This , in turn, increases the quality of your life and reinforces the idea that trying out new things is great.
But if you’re letting your limiting beliefs get the best of you and you’re constantly doubting whether or not something is worth it, you’re not going to try anything new.
2. Getting a full nights sleep
Sleep is usually the first habit that gets brought up. For good reason.
A lack of sleep impacts your memory, blood pressure, immune system, and even sex drive. If those aren’t reasons enough to fix your sleep, I don’t know what is.
Besides the health benefits, getting a full night sleep impacts your productivity. It’s a lot easier to wake up early if you’re getting enough sleep throughout the night. You wake up refreshed and you come up with better ideas.
Exercising is another one people always talk about. The biggest benefit here is health. Exercising helps you lose weight, get ripped, get faster, and so on.
But it has plenty of side effects too.
When I started going to the gym, I did it because I wanted to get stronger. After a while, I noticed I was becoming more disciplined as well. I stopped avoiding the uncomfortable things I needed to do.
Not only that, but I started sleeping better as well. I fell asleep faster, slept better, and woke up more refreshed in the morning.
I still think exercising is one of the best keystone habits I’ve ever built. I highly recommend you build it as well.
4. Starting conversations with people
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
Parents repeat this to their kids over and over again to the point where a stranger can seem like a bogeyman. To be honest, it’s sound advice when you’re small and unable to defend yourself. The downside of this advice is that over time it creates this association that strangers are bad.
Talking to strangers can give your life a solid boost. You have to learn how to initiate a conversation, learn how to listen, and learn how to build connections. All of this helps you with other relationships in your life (work, family,…)
The biggest barrier, however, is people telling themselves it’s weird. I did.
I’ve always considered myself a shy introvert. I thought it was weird and told myself talking to different people and building connections just “wasn’t me”. I thought starting a conversation would just annoy people.
But after doing it a couple of times I can tell you it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. The first benefit is that it helps you get over shyness. You realize most people don’t have a clue what they’re doing. They’re just improvising as they go along.
That realization reduced a good deal of my anxiety around people. You realize that an awkward conversation is awkward because you’re trying your hardest not to make it awkward.
5. Reading every day
Few problems in our lives are unique. With thousands of years of written history, there’s bound to be someone who went through what you’re going through right now.
And if they wrote down their experiences, you’re in luck. Reading different kinds of books helps you come up with better ideas. You’re exposed to different ways of thinking and different viewpoints. All these can help you form a better opinion or help you come up with better ideas.
It also affects work. If you’re like me and you like reading nonfiction books you can learn a lot about different subjects. Those books can help you get better at your job and come up with better solutions.
6. Planning your day
When I was younger I was never very big on planning. I would just wing everything.
As you can probably imagine, I didn’t get a lot of things done. I was jumping from one thing to another, never committing to anything. And if I did, it usually wasn’t something that would get me closer to my goals.
Now I set aside 10 minutes every evening to plan out my next day. On Sunday, I plan out my week. At the end of the month, I plan out the next one, and so on. Doing this helped me think more clearly and become more organized.
Besides that, this habit also made me more focused and increased the feeling of control over my life. It allows me to track whether I’m reaching my goals or if I have to adjust anything.
I don’t have to spend precious time in the morning trying to figure out what I need to do. I just wake up and start doing.
I resisted journaling for the longest time.
I thought it was a lame thing tweens do. I didn’t know how to do it and, honestly, I just didn’t see the benefit of it.
But seeing multiple people talk about it I decided I wanted to give it a real shot and try it out for a longer period of time. Doing it every day seemed a bit much, so I went for weekly instead. Every Sunday I would go over the week and write down what went well, what didn’t go well, and what I wanted to do for the next week.
And after a month or two it started growing on me. Journaling helps you get an overview of what’s going on in your life. It helps you notice patterns in your behavior and allows you to process what’s happening.
As a result, your productivity improves because you become aware of where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Since you’re writing down what went well that week, you also remember the things that you can do instead of all the things that you can’t do.
On June 7, 2004, ABC news anchor Dan Harris had a full-blown panic attack on air. He starts out talking about medications and somewhere in the middle of his sentence you can see him start to get really uncomfortable.
He starts to stutter struggles to get through his sentences. He cuts it off early and realizes something is messed up.
After the incident, Dan decided he needed to change something and started looking for a solution. One of the things he tried was meditation. It took him a while, but he found that meditation helped a lot with calming down your mind. He became less reactive to what was happening around them and he was a lot more mentally healthy.
Meditating regularly can help you become aware of your own negative thoughts. It allows you to catch when you’re thinking in a negative way or when you’re beating yourself up.
How to figure out yours
A mistake people make is they think they need to implement every keystone habit under the sun in order to be successful.
In reality, you need to figure out what keystone habits fit your goals and personality type. Here’s how to find out which ones you should build.
What habits do the people I admire have?
One way I like doing it is looking at the people I admire and seeing what habits they have. They became the person they are today because they built the right habits.
For example, I admire James Clear because he built a massive website by writing interesting articles. He got there because he was writing articles every week (in the beginning two times a week) and he did that for years.
Building a large site is something I always wanted to do, so I figured writing every day or publishing every week is a habit that I needed to create.
Your goals will be different.
Maybe you want to get really fit or really strong so you’ll need different types of habits. You’ll need to create a habit of lifting weights, of eating healthy, counting calories and so on.
So set aside 10 minutes and come up with 10 people you admire. Then, write down all the habits that would’ve helped them become the person that they are today. Then see if you can build those habits into your own life.
What habits would make success inevitable?
Another way of figuring out what keystone habits you need to create is to think about what actions you need to do repeatedly in order to make success inevitable.
For example, let’s say you want to lose weight. What actions would make success inevitable?
At its core, weight loss is really simple. When the amount of calories you burn exceeds the number of calories you take in, you’ll lose weight. So the habit you want to build here is calorie counting.
Counting what you take in also has other benefits. It forces you to take a closer look at the things you put in your mouth, you’ll become more aware of what’s healthy or not. You’ll quickly realize a Big Mac (257 calories) doesn’t make you feel as full as a 1 1/2 chicken breast(247 calories) does. Or as someone from this Reddit thread put it:
When I was lifting I used a nutrition tracking app that included macros and it was pretty astounding how little of an idea I had about my diet. Little things like frozen food for two days can spike your sodium, I would go some days drinking way too little water, I would go weeks without getting any of some vitamins.
Even if you don’t track diet, habits, etc long term, just doing it for a month can reveal things about yourself you never knew.
Another example is improving your relationships. What would make success in this area inevitable? In this case, talking to random people is a keystone habit. Practicing starting and holding conversations, listening, and asking the right questions will result in better relationships.
One or two habits can change the course of your life
When you start out improving your habits, it’s best to focus on one or two keystone habits that will ripple throughout your life.
They don’t have to be huge habits either. Maybe you start by saying “hi” to people you pass on the street. Maybe you start by checking the labels on food. Maybe you start by writing for 5 minutes every day.
Just make sure it aligns with what you really want, and not with what you think you should want.