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Keystone Habits: The Quickest Way to Change Your Life

How do you change your life?

There’s a million different answers to this question. Some people will tell you that you just need to practice affirmations every day and all of your problems will be solved.

Other people will tell you that as long as you set goals the right way, you’ll be able to achieve anything that you set your mind to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question recently, and I’m starting to realize something.

It’s not the right question. Because when most people are asking themselves this question, what they are really want to know is this:

Which specific change should I make in my life that would have the greatest impact on my overall fulfillment?

The “how” is easy once you have a proven framework for behavior change, but the “what” is a bit more tricky, as it requires you to draw on your own unique life experiences.

Luckily, keystone habits offer a great starting point for change. 

What are keystone habits? And how can we leverage them to create meaningful change in our lives?

Those are the questions that we’ll dive into over the course of this article.


Habits Are Like Investments

 Changing your life like investing in the stock market. When you invest in the stock market, your goal is to invest money into the asset that will give you the greatest return on your investment. 

The same rule applies when you’re looking to change your life.

I consider myself to be a pretty healthy individual. I go to the gym 5x a week, drink lots of water, avoid soda, and eat relatively healthy. 

If I was looking to form a new habit, it wouldn’t be smart for me to pick a habit that deals with health/fitness.

Why? Because I already have a fairly good handle on my exercise habits and eating habits. 

It’s not as if that area of my life can’t be improved, but I’ve already built up the identity of a fairly healthy person. Spending energy and willpower reinforcing that identity would provide a marginal return in terms of overall happiness, fulfillment, etc. 

It may help me make inches of progress, but most of you reading this are trying to make leaps and bounds — that’s where keystone habits come into play.

There are certain types of habits that have a larger impact on your life than others, and make achieving success or happiness easier, regardless of the circumstances you face. These habits are often referred to as keystone habits.


keystone habits are like investments


What are Keystone Habits?

 In his all-time classic, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses the idea of keystone habits. 

He writes, Keystone habits don’t create a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but they can spark chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.”

Keystone habits have tremendous upside. Once implemented and solidified into your life, they can unintentionally bring about other changes — these changes are a byproduct of the ripple effect that was started by your keystone habit.

For example, let’s say that you decide you want to get in shape, so you start exercising for 20 minutes per day. If you kept this habit up every day, after three months you’d probably have lost a decent amount of weight.

However, is the number on the scale the only thing about your life that would be different?

Absolutely not. 

As you get in better shape, you’ll probably up the difficulty of your workouts, which means you’ll be dropping even more weight.

Because the pounds are really starting to fly off, you might start skipping out on fast food because you don’t want to gain back the weight you’ve worked so hard to lose.

Repeated consistency in the gym will likely boost your self-esteem because you like the body you see when you look in the mirror.

Because you’re no longer insecure about your weight, you may be more open and engaging in social interactions since you’ve set yourself free from judgement.

See what’s going on here? 

You started off trying to build an exercise habit — at no point was it your goal to eliminate fast food or become more social.

That’s the power of keystone habits. Once the first domino falls, others can fall naturally.


domino effect of keystone habits


How To Identify Keystone Habits

 Now that you recognize the power of keystone habits, let’s talk about how you can start leveraging them.

The first step is to identify potential habits that could be considered keystone habits based on your unique life experiences.

There’s two ways to figure out what your keystone habits are:

  • The Self-Awareness Method
  • The Biggest Demon Method

The Self-Awareness Method

The self-awareness method requires you to venture into the past and analyze the periods in your life when you felt fulfilled.

Your goal is to pinpoint periods of time in the past where you felt your best. Once you’ve landed on a few of these time periods, you need to dig deeper and figure out what daily actions were contributing to your state of mind.

In order to help this process along, here are a few examples of questions that you can ask yourself:

  • What were you doing on a day to basis?
  • What time were you waking up?
  • How much were you sleeping?
  • What were your eating habits like?
  • Were you exercising?
  • Was there a particular habit/change you were focusing on?
  • How often were you seeing your friends?

 Repeat this process for every time period that you have listed. 

After performing this exercise, there’s a good chance that you’ll notice a pattern of consistency — there’s likely a common behavior or activity that you were engaging in during most of, if not all of these time periods.

Here’s a perfect example from my own life:

As I started going through my list, I noticed something funny. Waking up early was a constant factor across every single one of the periods of time that I had listed out.

It became clear that simply avoiding the snooze button and starting my day early was creating a ripple effect of positive actions in my life.

When I got up on time, I fell right into my morning routine of taking a cold shower and reading/meditating. 

If I took the easy way out and hit the snooze button, I would often skip my morning routine in order to make up for lost time.

Following a pre-set morning routine boosted my productivity and efficiency, which allowed me greater freedom with my time later in the day

All it took was a bit of self-reflection, but I discovered that one split-second decision in the morning was having a drastic impact on the rest of my day.

That’s how to perform the self-awareness method, now let’s talk about the biggest demon method.


The Biggest Demon Method

This method is a bit easier, however I recommend doing both. Because if you find a behavior that shows up in both methods, you’ll know you’ve found a winner. 

For method two, you’re simply going to list out daily habits that represent a significant change in your identity, which is one of the key characteristics of a keystone habit.

As Duhigg writes in the book:  

“The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self-image. Basically anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.”

I’ve got a good feeling that as you’re sitting here reading this, there’s something you just can’t get off your back. There’s a part of your life that you haven’t fixed — despite endless mental chatter that has tried to force you into action.

You’re walking around with it every day. And you know that eventually, you’re going to have to act on it. I don’t know what your specific demon is, but I certainly know what it feels like to have one.

I know what it feels like to have that one thing that torments you on a daily basis. That one thing you keep telling yourself that you’re going to take action to fix, but never do.

Maybe it’s your weight. Maybe it’s your social skills. Maybe it’s your lack of deep personal relationships.

Whatever it is, identify it and write it down. Once you’ve identified your biggest demon, you’ve given yourself a starting point to drill down on your keystone habit.

If you find yourself struggling with this, write down a few ideas and then ask yourself this question: “What’s the one thing I could fix about my life that would contribute the most to my overall happiness and fulfillment?”

Once you’ve got your biggest demon locked in, now think of a few daily habits that would help you face it. For example, let’s say you’ve been neglecting expanding your social circle for years, and you’ve decided to finally change that.

What if you decided that you were going to send a quick text checking in on someone you know once per day? 

This may seem like a minor change with very little tangible impact. But let’s consider the potential ripple effects here.

If you text someone you know every day, then there’s a good chance they will text back and you guys will engage in a conversation. If you’re having conversations with someone you know every day, you’ll probably get asked to a few more social events than usual. When you go to more social events, two things are going to happen — you’re going to have more fun and meet more people. The more people you meet, the bigger your social circle grows.

You probably see where this is going by now…

The goal with picking a keystone habit is to choose a tiny habit that represents a drastic shift in your identity. 

Understanding this idea is crucial – tiny action, drastic shift.

Texting a friend every morning is a tiny habit that doesn’t take too much effort. It’s not like you’re forcing yourself to go approach ten strangers per day.

But if you’re not a social person to begin with, this action signifies a drastic shift in your identity. As you repeat this micro habit daily, the compound effect kicks in and the unintended consequences start to play out.

Once you’ve gotten a few potential micro habits written down, don’t overthink it. Just pick one that feels right to you.

As long as it helps you face your biggest demon, it’s a net positive for you. Get the easy part over with so you can start focusing on the hard part – taking action.


What Are The Best Keystone Habits?

Performing both of these methods should give you a keystone habit to start with. 

However, if you’re still drawing a blank, I’ve got you covered.

These behaviors can act as keystone habits for just about anybody. So if you’re still looking for a place to start, here’s a list of keystone habits that you can start taking action on.


#1 – Exercise

Easy one here, as exercise is one of the single-greatest things you can do for your body and mind.

It’s been scientifically proven that people who exercise eat healthier, sleep better, smoke less, and are more productive at work. 

But aside from the research-backed benefits, working out just feels good. It forces you to develop self-discipline, which is a skill that translates into other areas of your life..

I find that the days where I workout end up being my most productive.

However, if I cheat myself and decide to skip out on the gym, that feeling of guilt tends to linger throughout the day.

Remember, you need to start small in order to solidify habit into your life. If you make it too difficult, you won’t show up everyday.

Want to walk for an hour per day? Start with 100 steps per day.

Want to lift weights for an hour each day? Start with 1 set.

Build up your confidence and willpower first. Worry about challenging yourself later.


exercising as one of the keystone habits


#2 — Meditation

It seems like our mind is always thinking about something.

Some of these thoughts are useful, but a majority of them aren’t. 

It’s like an email inbox with 15,000 unread emails. Mostly crap, with a few golden nuggets.

When our mind wanders, it tends to be for one of two reasons — to imagine a better future or to ruminate over past experiences.

And while imagining a better future is certainly more helpful than reliving past failures, neither of them are grounded in the present moment.

Daily meditation is the best way to practice mindfulness and reduce your mental chatter. Meditation is about accepting the fact that your mind will wander, while also accepting the fact that you don’t have to follow its lead.

With enough practice, you can tune out the useless background noise and simply be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing.

After months of practice, research has shown that your focus will improve, as will your mental clarity. People also report feeling a decrease in stress after practicing meditation consistently.

When you’re able to fully engage in whatever you’re doing without letting your mind get in the way, the quality of your life improves greatly.


#3 — Sleep

It’s still amazing to me how little people care about their eight hours per night.

Sleep allows your body and mind to recharge after a long day of making decisions.

Without adequate sleep, your brain cannot function properly. This can impair your abilities to concentrate, process memories, and think clearly and rationally.

Similar to how keystone habits have a positive ripple effect on your day/life, lack of sleep goes the other way.

Additionally, sleep is when your brain starts forming new connections. So by not prioritizing sleep, you’re actually making it harder to learn new things.

The message here is pretty clear — get 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Your body and mind will thank you for it later.


#4 — Keeping A Food Journal

In 2009, the National Institute of Health published a study that looked at a unique approach to weight loss — keeping a food journal.

They put together a group of 1600 people and asked them to concentrate on writing down everything they ate at least once per week.

Although difficult at first, eventually the participants started catching on. As time progressed, many of the participants had made food journaling a daily habit.

Once this habit was solidified, interesting things started to happen. 

People began to recognize their own eating patterns and started keeping healthy snacks around for when they got hungry.

Others used the journal to plan future meals. And when dinner rolled around, they ate these meals instead of opting to mindlessly snack on the first thing that caught their eye in the pantry.

The main takeaway from the study is this — the researchers didn’t tell the study participants to develop any of these behaviors.

The food journal provided a structure that allowed supplementary positive behaviors to flourish naturally.

Six months into the study, people who kept a daily food journal had lost twice as much weight as everybody else.


#5 — Doing Your Hardest Thing First Every Morning

When you look at your to-do list, there’s usually 1-2 things on there that should take priority over everything else.

Yet, when most people sit down to work every morning, they avoid these high-priority tasks like the plague — and instead opt to work on tasks that require minimal effort.

As humans, we’re wired to take the easy road. The problem with the easy road is that it never pays well.

High-performers get important things done in the morning.

And when you complete high-priority tasks before anything else, it sets a tone for the rest of the day. 

You’re playing to win the day, and you’re willing to embrace the discomfort that comes along making that decision.


Final Thoughts

Not all habits are created equal. 

Keystone habits are simply a way for you to leverage your time and get most of your behavior change efforts.

Once you figure out your keystone habits, you’re on the path towards radical change. 

Once you make your keystone habits daily practice, it’s only a matter of time before drastic identity shifts take place.

But here’s the key — don’t bite off more than you can chew.

When you set unrealistic targets, you are setting yourself up for failure. 

Don’t ever underestimate the power of consistency.

Start small. Master the art of being consistent and showing up. And once you’ve solidified something as a habit, you’ll feel like you have to do it no matter how you feel.

That’s how champions are built.

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