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The Power of Keystone Habits

Updated on November 9, 2014

Understanding Keystone Habits

You may have heard the term keystone before. The keystone in an architectural arch refers to the centermost stone that helps to lock and hold all other stones in place. And, although its the centermost stone that locks all others into their configuration, it bears the least amount of weight.

Similar to its architectural counterpart, a keystone habit is a core habit that helps in the support and formation of other good habits around it. While forming a keystone habit doesn't require any more or less work than any other good habit, it holds the most significance.

Since keystone habits help to support the formation of other good habits, understanding and leveraging these all-important habits should be at the forefront of any good-habit-development routine.

But, before we jump into the formation process, let's take a good look at just what keystone habits really are, where they come from, and why they're so beneficial.

Characteristics of Keystone Habits

In a highly-popularized book, called The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains that keystone habits are the gateway to good habit development. In particular, they create a chain-reaction, allowing other good habits to form, while changing and re-arranging existing habits to help adopt to the new keystone habit.

In effect, there are three particular characteristics that help to describe a keystone habit:

#1 - Keystone habits offer "Numerous, small senses of victory."

According to Charles Duhigg, habits that offer wins and small senses of victory help to light a path towards other good habit development. Keystone habits have enormous influence on the overall development of good habit routines because they help to leverage patterns that convince us that we're able to reach the bigger achievements. In essence, keystone habits help to build momentum when attempting to develop any good habit routine.

#2 - Keystone habits act as the "Soil from which other [good] habits [form]."

Just as a plant needs the soil to provide it sustenance to grow, keystone habits act as the soil from which other good habits can form. They provide the nutrients and the platform for growth and maturation, effectively boosting our capability to bring forth other good habits almost effortlessly. For example, the keystone habit of expense journaling provides a number of benefits. It acts as the soil from which other good financial habits grow. Once you can see your expenses, you unwittingly adjust your spending behavior, pay down your debt, and look for ways to increase your income.

#3 - Keystone habits provide you both energy and confidence to do more

The simple act of forming a keystone habit provides both the energy and confidence to do more. This spurs us by offering greater momentum in our habit development pursuits. In effect, other good habits become contagious once the keystone habit takes old, giving us that boost in energy and confidence we need to form those other habits. The infectious nature of this energy and confidence extends to long after the keystone habit has been performed, providing these sources throughout the day as the mind seeks other ways it can leverage the development of more good habits.

How to Form Keystone Habits

Forming keystone habits is no different than the habit-formation process for non-keystone habits. They take the same amount of effort, but extend the greatest amount of benefit. But, like any other habit, in order to form keystone habits, you have to ensure that you give it enough time to stick.

In a study published in the European Journal of Psychology in October 2010, researchers concluded that in order for a habit to stick it takes 18 to 254 days of repeated behavior. On average, they found that the habit-formation process takes approximately 66 days.

Considering this statistic, it's going to take you anywhere from 2 to 3 months to form a habit. Like the strands of a thick mooring line that anchors a ship to a dock, each day is likened to a single strand of the rope. The more consecutive days there are, the stronger the habit-rope becomes.

As the months pass by, the habit becomes more deeply embedded in the neural pathways of the mind. When it takes hold, you'll find that it's difficult to go a day without actually conducting the habit. In fact, at times, you'll find yourself conducting the keystone habit without even realizing it. This is when you know a habit is part of your subconscious mind.

But to get to that level, we have to exert a great deal of conscious effort over an extended period of time. It doesn't happen overnight. Over the days, weeks, and months required in the habit-formation process, it's easy to get sidetracked and distracted.

Without the proper organization, it's easy to lose sight of the goal of habit formation. We need constant daily reminders and structure for the behaviors to form into a habit before it becomes autonomous.

So, in order to form your keystone habit, you first have to do three things:

#1 - Identify the Cue - The cue to any habit is a time or event in the day that signifies that the mind should initiate the "Habit Loop," a term coined by Duhigg. So, this can be at 6am, when the alarm goes off, or after you get out of the shower. The cue is entirely up to you. Decide on a time or event and write it down.

#2 - Describe the Routine - In the center of the habit loop resides the routine itself. The routine is the behavior or set of beahviors that we would carry out, which we would hope to become habitual. For example, we all have Internet-browsing routines, driving-to-work routines, eating routines, and so on. Describe the behavior that you want to make habitual.

#3 - Define an End - Every habit loop has a clearly defined ending. That ending can be a reward, which could even be the simple satisfaction of completing the habit. Or, it could just be a point that comes in time or space. For example, if the keystone habit is to run every morning at 6am, define a time or length that would signify the completion of that run. 30 minute? 2 miles? You decide.

After you've gotten organized, the next step is to stick to the schedule. Ensure that you repeat the behavior day-in and day-out if you want to make the keystone habit stick. If you get discouraged or miss a day, ensure that you get right back on it.

The longer you go by not doing the behavior, the harder it will be to start back up again. For example, skipping or forgetting one day is okay, because it's easy to start back up again the day after. But missing, two, three, four, or even more days makes it more difficult.

Stick to the routine and take it day-by-day. If you have to, set alarms on your smartphone or through some other method that can remind you to do the behavior every single day.

Keystone Habits List

So, now that we know a little bit about keystone habits and the habit-formation process, let's look at a list that helps to paint a clearer picture for us on just what these core habits look like.

Remember, keystone habits provide numerous senses of small victories, act as the soil for other good habits to form from, and infectiously provide the energy and confidence to achieve more. When you're searching for a good keystone habit, they must meet this criteria.

Here's a list of five major keystone habits that you could implement into your life right now:

#1 - Active Goal Setting

The keystone habit of active goal setting involves setting goals every morning on what you want to accomplish in the day. Now, active goal setting can only come after you've set some long-term goals. If you've never set long-term goals before in your life, then now is the time to do so.

But, assuming that you've set some long-term goals in the past, setting active goals every single morning allows you to organize your day and determine just what needs to be done. This keystone habit sees the formation of other good productivity and goal-related habits.

When you actively set goals every morning, and you're able to accomplish those goals in the day, it provides numerous small senses of victories for you, acting as the soil for other goal-relate and productivity habits to grow from, and infectiously gives you the energy and confidence to achieve more.

In your morning goal-setting sessions, write out what you hope to achieve in that day, and clearly define your most important tasks (MITs). Focus on the MITs at the outset of your day, and watch your productivity explode.

#2 - Daily Learning

Pick something that you want to learn, either a topic, a new skill, a language, or anything else, and engage in that every morning for 30 minutes. If you say that you don't have 30 minutes in the morning, then it's time to wake up earlier.

Daily learning is a keystone habit because it helps to create a visceral shift in the mind. That shift sees us going from a mind that's so worried about everything that needs to be done, to a mind focused on learning, growing, and maturing.

Whether you use video tutorials, newspapers, magazines, or even take a course online, the daily learning keystone habit will help to bring on so many other good habits. When you learn something new every single day, it provides you with that small sense of victory, and helps to bring on other positive educational habits.

#3 - Expense Journaling

The keystone habit of expense journaling involves meticulously plotting down all of your expenses in the day for at least the next 90 days. Whether you spend $5 on a cup of coffee, or 50 cents on a pack of gum, you must catalog that expense.

When we catalog our expenses, it allows us to get a more objective-view of our financial lives. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Beware of small expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship." Because, Franklin knew just how small little expenses could add up over time if we weren't careful.

The expense journaling keystone habit will help you to see the bigger picture, and unwittingly reorganizing your other habits to support this new habit. You'll spend less, save more, and this single keystone habit will be infectious in the attraction of other good financial habits.

#4 - 30 Minutes of Exercise

We all know the benefits of exercise. Beyond just the physical health benefit, there's also a mental and emotional benefit as well. Exercise decreases blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, increases metabolism, and regulates weight, but it also helps provide clarity to our minds, and boosts our moods.

The benefits of exercise are numerous. And, just 30 minutes of exercise each and every day is a keystone habit because it gives you that small sense of victory. It also makes you more conscious of the foods or drinks that enter your body on a daily basis.

In the beginning, this keystone habit will be hard to develop. Like others, there's an uphill battle here. But, over the course of the weeks and months, it gets easier. This is probably one of the most important keystone habits that you could develop.

#5 - Daily Gratitude

The last, but certainly not least, keystone habit is daily gratitude. When we're grateful on a daily basis, we shift the mind from a state of lack to a state of abundance. Even when we don't have something to be grateful for, we can always find something if we truly search.

For example, even if we have numerous problems, gratitude helps to open the door to seeing possibilities rather than obstacles. We can appreciate the intellect in our mind, the loving friends or family around us, or the fact that we're six feet above ground. Regardless of what we're suffering through, there are always others who've been through the same experiences, or possibly worse.

This keystone habit involves spending 5, 10, or 15 minutes each morning writing out what we have to be grateful for. It provides a small win by sending a powerful signal to the mind that sheds light on the positives rather than the negatives.


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