What Are Keystone Habits and How Can They Change Your Life?

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a cup of coffee sitting next to open books of poetry with flowers nearby

We, humans, are creatures of habit. We have our daily routines we like to follow and little rituals to perform at a specific time or place, whether we realize it or not:

  • You might enjoy a cup of coffee at home before going to your office job, or maybe you prefer to grab it on the go if you’re not a morning person.
  • Perhaps you like to put on a specific playlist in your car on your way to work or take in all the natural sounds and noises of a city while on a bike.
  • In the evenings, some of us love chilling on a sofa, watching Netflix, ordering junk food, and drinking a glass of wine or a beer.
  • Others look forward to their bedtime routine that consists of journaling, reading a book, doing some gentle yoga, or taking a relaxing bath.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea – we are creatures of habit.

And if you find the right kind of habits to follow, magic happens. They lift you up, support your well-being, and help you grow as an individual. However, if you start engaging in unhealthy behaviors, chances are you might become prone to other poor choices that can deteriorate the quality of your life.

Whether good or bad, these keystone habits create a chain reaction that can literally revolutionize your life.

So, how can you harness their potential to your advantage?

What life would you like to build step by step with your keystone habits?

In this article, we take a deep dive into the waters of habit formation, the importance and benefits of maintaining them as well as share examples and practical tips on implementing them to introduce a long-term change in your life. Let’s get started!

What Are The Keystone Habits?

Charles Duhigg, the author of the bestseller “The Power of Habit,” explains how keystone habits create a momentum that leads to a chain reaction of various behaviors.

Much like a cascade waterfall, your keystone habits hold the power to grow in strength, resulting in either an upward or a downward spiral. If you take a closer look at your habits, I’m sure you can find many examples of how they tend to connect to one another and stay clumped together, for better or worse.

What do I mean by that?

For example:

  • When I start my day by making my bed, preparing a healthy breakfast, and reading a book or journaling in the morning is much easier.
  • However, if I don’t care to make my bed, eating chocolate cereal and scrolling through social media seems much more appealing.

Perhaps you’re still not sold on the opportunities that keystone habits present. If that’s your case, this next segment is dedicated to you:

The Benefits of Keystone Habits

An Added Meaning and Direction in Life

When we reflect on our lives, what usually comes to mind are the significant milestones like graduation day, a memorable summer holiday, a crazy trip abroad with your close friends, getting married, starting a family, or grieving the loss of a loved one.

Yet, actually, most of our lives are spent on mundane, boring, and repetitive activities. We get up each morning, go to work, and see a stack of emails to respond to and meetings to go to. Then, we come back to our house chores, family responsibilities, and never-ending to-do lists. Walking your dog, going to a doctor’s appointment, grocery shopping, doing laundry, cooking a dinner… Only to repeat it all over again. Day after day, week after week, and so on. But it doesn’t have to be all so gloomy and pessimistic.

Our keystone habits hold the power to imbue our monotonous routines with meaning, giving us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. They can act as:

  • an anchor, keeping us grounded in our core values and our mission,
  • a lighthouse, guiding us in the right direction, ensuring we stick to our long-term goals.

Your New Year’s resolution to become more fit is more than just going to the gym. It symbolizes your willingness to invest in your health and support your mental well-being. That habit can contribute to your life becoming more organized, coherent, and enjoyable as you build your sense of self-efficacy.

Investing in Your Future Self

If you have a healthy habit you enjoy doing, like a self-care routine of taking a relaxing bath and reading a book, it can create a chain reaction, motivating you to explore other ways to recharge and stay grounded.

It might give the initial spark that can light up a fire of energy and motivation to transform your lifestyle and your future. It can foster noticing what changes you’d like to introduce in your life and go for them, i.e.:

Small Steps Leading To Big Progress

If I had to pick the best thing about keystone habits, I think it would be how they can help you become the healthier, happier, more creative, or more productive version of yourself one day at a time.

Instead of feeling the weight of introducing a big change, you simply start your journey by implementing one new behavior that triggers other actions. And before you know it, everything falls into place and you organically want to switch up your routines and lifestyle.

Rather than getting intimidated or overwhelmed, keystone habits are tangible tasks that serve as building blocks contributing to significant progress.

Here’s a keystone habits list to get your creative juices flowing and inspire you to take action:

Keystone Habits Examples

Idea #1: Workout Routine

Doing sports regularly has been proven to:

  • support your physical and mental health,[1]
  • boost your mood and confidence,
  • decrease stress,
  • increase the quality of your sleep,
  • pump up your endorphins.

You can start with a low-impact workout, i.e., daily walking. Exercising regularly often leads to healthier dietary choices.[2]

Idea #2: Sharing Meals

This habit presents an excellent opportunity to learn how to cook certain dishes together with your family or friends. Sharing meals is the perfect example of how to sprinkle some magic into our monotonous routines.

It’s also a great way to check in with your loved ones at the end of the day, bond with them, and spend mindful, quality time together.

Idea #3: Daily Routines

Consistency is key when it comes to creating and maintaining new habits, so including your keystone habit in a daily routine can be highly beneficial.

Your morning routine is there to help you drag yourself out of bed and conquer the day when you don’t feel like it – simply making your bed or drinking a glass of water can make a difference.

Ending your day with micro habits like doing yoga or repeating positive affirmations can prepare you to sleep and add a sense of coherence to your life.

Idea #4: Meditating

Research shows[3] how beneficial mindfulness practices are for our mental health. Start your journey with a body scan, breathing exercises, and/or visual imagery.

Carving out time in your busy day to meditate might help you:

  • take a step back and observe your mind objectively,
  • ground yourself in the present moment,
  • respond rather than react to difficulties,
  • silence and calm your mind chatter,
  • rewind and recharge.

Idea #5: Journaling

This keystone habit is way more than just writing about your day in a notebook.

Journaling is a therapeutic practice of:

  • reflecting on the significance of your life events,
  • putting your thoughts and emotions into words,
  • deepening the relationship with yourself.

The more consistently you engage in this habit, the higher your chances of noticing your tendencies or unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving, which you might wish to change.

Idea #6: Scheduling Leisure Activities

We often use our calendars to block time for professional activities, appointments, or family responsibilities.

Try scheduling fun things ahead of time. I invite you to prioritize a rich, balanced life, not only productivity and busyness.

Chances are that regularly meeting with your friends, going on weekend getaways, or having a weekly solo date will positively influence your life, reminding you of your priorities outside of your role at your job or in your family.

5 Strategies to Successfully Implement Keystone Habits

We all know that habits are not created overnight. They require time, energy, effort, and a lot of willpower. We also know that life is not always picture-perfect. No matter how well we plan our day, there will be some setbacks to deal with, expectations to adjust, and failures to learn from.

With all these difficulties and things that are entirely out of your control, you can always take charge of your attitude and decide what kind of system you want to build to maintain your keystone habits:

1. Work on your self-discipline muscle

Sixty-six. That’s the average number of days it takes to integrate a new habit into your routines.[4]

It’s not a week or even a month. It simply takes time. And our New Year’s resolutions or ambitious long-term goals often don’t take into account what to do after the initial motivation dwindles down. That’s where building a solid fundament of self-discipline comes in handy.

"Nobody wants to tell you why discipline is so important. Discipline is the strongest form of self-love. It is ignoring current pleasures for bigger rewards to come. It's loving yourself enough to give yourself everything you've ever wanted." - Unknown

Self-discipline is the art of showing up every day and doing your job, whether that is starting your business, progressing with a big project at work, learning a new language, or coming to the gym.

It’s also the choice to invest in your future self and, rather than shaming yourself for not doing enough, become your own cheerleader who will push you to the finish line with kindness and compassion.

2. Focus on a process, not the outcome.

When we fixate on the end goal, we miss out on all the exciting things we come across along the way. And if you want to change your life with keystone habits, it’s best to appreciate the journey, cultivate greater patience, and drop unrealistic expectations.

That is not to say that having big dreams or milestones you’d like to achieve is wrong. Ambitious long-term goals are like a North Star that reminds you of the bigger picture and the life you wish to experience.

The point is to figure out how to enjoy the process of getting there, as it does not have to be filled with frustration, disappointment, and self-inflicted pressure. You can do so by shifting your perspective and directing your attention to designing a healthy lifestyle to help you grow and flourish.

For example, there’s a difference between:

  • wanting to lose weight vs wanting to build up your strength and stamina,
  • not eating junk food anymore vs learning how to cook nutritious, balanced meals,
  • reading 15 books this year vs spending 30 minutes to read each day.
“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”   - Steve Jobs

3. Break your goals down

Sometimes, it can be a bit challenging to wrap your head around the details of an ambitious goal.

Let’s say you want to run a marathon in a year, but you’re not necessarily a sporty person. Rather than give up on this project and rid yourself of the opportunity to try at least, remember that you can always zoom in on the details. What do I mean by that?

Focusing on the end goal one year from now is quite abstract, especially if being fit or being a runner is yet to be a part of your identity. A good idea in such a situation is to break your big goal down into tangible, bite-sized chunks, aka Action Steps.

These small tasks you can complete daily remove the intimidation or self-doubt and replace it with:

  • self-efficacy,
  • a boost of confidence,
  • a sense of accomplishment from actually making progress.

4. Schedule your habit

Since your motivation, willpower, and energy are finite resources, it’s essential to protect them and use them sustainably.

Instead of depending on the sheer power of your good intentions, ensure performing your keystone habit by scheduling it ahead of time. If there are clear rules, such as a specific time, place, or deadline linked to a task at hand, we’re all much more likely to avoid procrastinating and get it done.

This solution also removes decision fatigue. You no longer have to spend your finite resources on choosing whether to do the workout in the morning, during lunch break, or in the evening after work. The schedule keeps it all crystal clear. Your only job is to follow it.

5. Optimize your environment

Last but not least – the space in which you function has a significant impact on your choices, actions, and thoughts:

  • Just think about your productivity levels when you have all notifications turned on vs when you enable the “do not disturb” mode on your devices.
  • What about as you are winding down for bed when your phone is within your reach vs when it’s charging on the other side of your bedroom?
  • When are you more likely to follow through with your plan to work out in the morning: when your outfit and running shoes are prepared the night before OR when you have a messy room with different clothes lying around?
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system.   — James Clear

If you’d like to learn how to cook properly, stop buying premade foods or unhealthy snacks and change your route home so that you don’t pass junk food restaurants after a long day at work.

You can also use different items to serve you as visual cues, reminding you of your commitment to the keystone habit of your choice. If it’s doing yoga before going to bed, roll out your mat in the morning and place it in a central spot in your house so you can’t miss it.

Takeaway

Applying the concept of keystone habits in your daily life sure is fantastic, but what’s even better is experiencing this snowball effect of wanting to become a better version of yourself on your own skin in the long term.

If you sometimes feel trapped by the humdrum of daily reality, keystone habits can liberate you and imbue your life with a renewed sense of clarity, direction, and excitement!

Start by picking an activity and show up for yourself daily. Oh, and don’t forget to give it a real shot and trust the process.

References:

  1. https://appliedsportpsych.org/resources/health-fitness-resources/psychological-benefits-of-exercise/
  2. https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-why-more-exercise-makes-you-crave-a-healthier-diet
  3. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2021/06/mindfulness-your-health
  4. https://jamesclear.com/new-habit

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