What are Keystone Habits? 11 Examples of How They Work
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What are Keystone Habits? 11 Examples of How They Work

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Think about the domino effect that would occur if you went from eating fast food every day to eating whole, natural foods instead. What other areas of your life would be impacted aside from your waistline?

First of all, you would lose some weight, which may then inspire you to start exercising. After a little bit of time, you would notice that you have a lot more energy and you feel less bloated or full all the time, which would help you become more productive at work.

And as you’re eating whole foods at home, you will start to see your weekly expenditures go down, so you may be able to start saving some money. You will notice that your skin looks healthier, which might impel you to make a habit of taking better care of your skin.

You will become generally happier, as your body is getting the nutrients that it needs to become balanced–both mentally and physically, which could lead you to make some social changes in your life. And so on…

What you will notice in this example is that the one habit of changing your diet can have a chain reaction impact on multiple areas of your life. Habits are contagious, and if you change a few critical ones–such as eating an apple instead of a piece of pizza–you can begin to do a larger overhaul of your life.

In this case, starting to eat healthy foods instead of junk foods would be considered to be a keystone habit.

In this article, I will: provide a quick definition of a keystone habit, talk about the origin of this phrase from a book called The Power of Habit and then give you 11 examples of keystone habits that can change your life for the better.

What is a Keystone Habit?

Quick backstory: The idea of keystone habits was first introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit. He described these actions as being “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”

In architecture, a “keystone” is the stone that sits directly in the center of an arch and helps to interlock all of the other stones in place, while bearing the least amount of weight. If someone were to remove the keystone,  the arch would fall apart, as this stone is a fundamental part of the whole structure. Likewise, a keystone habit is a fundamental part of any healthy habit routine.

So, essentially, keystone habits lead to the development of other good habits. They start a chain effect in your life that produces a number of positive outcomes. There are some habits that you can incorporate into your daily life that will simply make it easier to succeed in other areas of your life as well.

You might already practice some keystone habits, even if you’re not aware of it, but more importantly, if you know how to develop these habits, you can greatly improve your health, professional life, and relationships in order to start living your best life.

Now, not all keystone habits are positive. Think of the negative impacts that could occur in your life if you started drinking a six pack of beer every night. Your physical health, mental health, relationships, and career would all probably suffer as a result of this.

This means that it’s important to recognize how one action that you do on a regular basis can influence the larger picture of your life–and because of this, we want to make sure that our everyday actions are leading us to becoming the best version of ourselves rather than hurting us in the long run. If you recognize and adopt good keystone habits, you will notice that your life can improve dramatically because of one small change.

Let’s look more at the power that habits can have over your life.

Charles Duhigg on Keystone Habits

If you do something over and over again to the point that it can be considered a “habit”, there must be a reason, right?

Well, that's what Charles Duhigg talked about in his book, The Power of Habit.

Duhigg found that there are three elements to every habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward. This is often referred to as a habit loop. Once this loop is formed, you start to crave the reward that you get from engaging in the routine–and that craving begins when you’re triggered.

The most common triggers fall into five categories:

  • A place
  • A specific time of day
  • Other people
  • An emotion
  • A preceding behavior or action

If you have a habit of running every morning when you wake up, the trigger (or cue) that leads you to do that is probably the sound of your alarm. Your alarm sends your brain into an automatic processing state, meaning it would actually take effort for you to dispute the trigger, while it would feel natural to move forward to get that feeling of satisfaction after completing your run.

This reward is why your brain determines the actions you took leading up to it are worth remembering in the future. The reward provides positive reinforcement for the behavior, which increases the likelihood you will do the actions again in the future.

When thinking about how powerful your habits are, consider this: almost 40% of everything that you do is a result of your habits, not your decisions.

Charles Duhigg explains that a keystone habit is particularly powerful because it can change your self-image. Once you develop a positive habit, you may be more likely to notice something else in your life that could be improved and start working on making additional positive changes.

Duhigg argues that the power of habits is especially important because people can make any change that they want to if they’re able to recognize this framework. If you can identify your routine that defines your habit loop, you can determine what craving or reward your routine is really trying to fill.

Duhigg offered a personal example of this by explaining that he was able to determine his mid-afternoon cookie cravings were actually filling his desire for socializing, which he was able to do in the cafeteria when he went to get a cookie.

All this to say, whether you’re trying to break a bad habit or create a positive one, knowing the lifecycle of a habit is critical.

So let’s look at some keystone habits that you can adopt that will have a positive, widespread ripple effect on your life.

11 Examples of Keystone Habits that Can Change Your Life

1. Dress Better

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Dressing better will result in an increased sense of confidence.

I’m sure you’ve heard of dressing for the position you want, not the position you have. Dressing better is an example of a simple or minor keystone habit that can make a big positive change in your life.

If you’re used to being seen as the person who rolls out of bed and heads to work, wearing a suit to work might feel completely off base to you. But what if you did it for a week anyway? Do you think it could have an impact on your life?

Suddenly, you look better. People see you in a new, more professional light. You notice that they are treating you differently– the person in front of you at the coffee shop holds the door open for you and the person behind the counter addresses you as sir or ma’am.

When you walk out, you notice you’re carrying yourself in a new way–with some more confidence and self-assurance.

What happened here? You made a change that seemed small that ended up having a big impact on other parts of your life. You dressed better, which resulted in an increased sense of confidence and people treating you with more respect.

2. Make Your Bed

According to Dr. Randall Bell, a socio-economist who has spent nearly three decades studying high-achieving people, making your bed every morning can inspire you to have a productive mindset for the rest of the day and spark other productive behaviors. Doing something as easy as making your bed can increase your efficiency at work and help you get more accomplished.

Further, in a commencement speech given at the University of Texas by Navy Seal William H. McRaven, he stated that making your bed every morning allows you to accomplish that first task every day, which will give you a sense of pride and encourage you to do more tasks.

As Admiral McRaven points out, making your bed sets you up for success throughout the day. At the end of the day, you will realize that completing that one thing led to the completion of many more.

3. Cooking

If you start a habit of cooking your own food, you will gain control over what and when you eat, which will prevent you from settling for unhealthy food that is quick and easy. When you build a habit of cooking for yourself, you’re setting yourself up to have the power to control what goes into your body, which can lead to a huge variety of positive impacts on your health.

4. Exercise in the Morning

If you put forth the effort to go to bed at a reasonable time so you can wake up early and get to the gym before having to rush off to work, how likely would you be to then do something that would completely undo the steps you just took toward your best health? In other words, if you’re going to make the effort to work out in the morning, you’re not going to turn around and hit the drive-through for a deluxe breakfast.

Furthermore, when you exercise in the morning, you’re likely to notice an improvement in your mood. You will feel good after working out–like you already accomplished something. Then you will feel better about facing anything else that comes your way after that.

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Doing exercise in the morning will relatively improve your mood.

And if you don't know how to get started, then here are 11 good morning exercises you can use to booster your metabolism.

5. Effective Time Management

What you do with your time has a direct impact on your overall success. Do you use your time efficiently? Or do you watch as it passes you by?

This keystone habit involves using a system such as the Pomodoro Technique. This time management technique forces you to identify your most important tasks and give them your full focus when you’re working on them.

If you’re able to manage your time in this way (or any other technique that you may use), it will have a large impact on the amount of work you’re able to get completed and can help you stop working and do what you want to do in the evenings because you know your day has been productive.

6. Practice Gratitude

A lot of times, it is much easier to see what you don’t have than what you do have. People are so busy thinking about the things that they don’t have that they forget to see everything that is around them.

Practicing gratitude is essential if you want to have a peaceful mind and live in high spirits. Take some time every morning–maybe 15 minutes–to write down the things you’re grateful for that day. Put your problems aside and just focus on the positive.

Once you can make this keystone habit commonplace, you will find out its effects spill over to all the other areas of your life. You will be happier, more mindful, and become quicker to notice the blessings in your life.

If you get stuck with “what” to be thankful, then here are 120 gratitude prompts.

7. Learn a New Skill

You won’t become successful if you just sit around. You have to continue to discover and learn new things to help you reach your goals.

It is so easy to get out of the habit of learning new things. It’s easy to become complacent and just accept mediocrity. However, if you’re not adding any value to society, you’re not making any progress…toward anything.

There are so many resources you can use to learn a new skill, such as YouTube, TED talks, etc. Use these to grow your skillset, which will then allow you to find ways to enhance the amount of value that you can offer to the world.

8. Sleep!

Yes, we all wish we had more waking hours during the day to get things accomplished. That’s not going to happen. However, when you get high-quality sleep for 7 or 8 hours a night, your mind and body will be set up and ready to tackle the next day. This means you’ll have more energy and mental awareness to do the work that you need to do and do it well.

Sleep is also a keystone habit that leads to many other benefits such as eating healthier, making more sound decisions, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing stress.

9. Write Down What You Eat

Studies have found that keeping a food journal can help you lose twice as much weight as you would lose without a food journal. This is because people who keep a record of what they eat are able to go back and find routines and triggers in their eating habits.

With this information, people are able to plan for the day because they know at what times they will be hungry and they could pack a healthy snack to eat at that time. Food journaling created a sense of structure that allowed other good habits to flourish as well.

10. Sticking to a Routine

This might mean going to sleep at the same time every night or doing the exact same thing every morning to get ready for your day. Either way, having consistency creates a huge amount of positive effects.

According to Duhigg, the way that you organize your routines has a big impact on your health, productivity, happiness, and financial security. For example, if you wake up and run out of the door every day to get 45 minutes of cardio in, you will be setting yourself up to be more productive during the day, which could, in turn, set you up for more financial security as your boss is noticing how efficiently you’re working.

11. Meditating

Doing some meditation in the morning can help you stay calm for the remainder of the day. Also, meditation has been linked to improved memory and awareness, a reduction in stress levels, and a higher sense of motivation to set goals.

Because of these connections, meditating can be a keystone habit that may lead to reduced anxiety, more motivation to get your work done well, and a greater sense of urgency to set goals.

Final Thoughts on Keystone Habits

To figure out the keystone habits that you may already be practicing, consider any of your behaviors that have a domino effect. What do you do that changes your other behaviors without inputting extra effort?

Duhigg says that, ultimately, willpower is the most important keystone habit if you want to achieve success. Everything boils down to your self-discipline. Do you do what is right or best even though it might not be the easiest choice? Or do you give in to what is going to give you the most immediate satisfaction?

Consider adopting some of the keystone habits listed above into your life and see what other areas of your life start to improve.

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Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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