5 keystone habits that can improve your life

Adopting positive habits is great, but not all habits are created equal

keystone habits can change your life

photo courtesy of Negative Space via Unsplash

Change your habits and you will change your life, but be mindful of the fact that not all habits are the same. Some have higher pay-offs than others.

It was Charles Duhigg, in his magnificent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business who turned me on to that concept, which he termed keystone habits.

As you may know, a keystone is the top-most stone in an arch. Remove the keystone and the other stones in the arch crumble inevitably to the ground.

Similarly, keystone habits form part of a web with other interlocked habits and thus influence them significantly, albeit indirectly. Adopt a positive keystone habit and you unleash “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” Duhigg explains.

This is a powerful insight and a potential game-changer for us, if we choose to apply it.

To get your juices flowing, here 5 keystone habits that I try to reinforce every day in order to set off positive chain reactions in my own life. I share them in the hope they may do the same for you:

1. Making the bed

Let’s ease into this keystone habit thing. Let’s start with a simple one. As soon as you get up, simply make the bed. That’s it!

This gives you a nice sense of accomplishment and sets a tone of discipline and accomplishment that will serve you well all day long.

I know this is a keystone habit because I’ve noticed it can positively impact my mood, gives me a nice jolt of motivation and a sense of accomplishment. And amazingly I am encountering less mess and clutter in my surroundings, and that’a a good thing!

2. Exercising daily

It’s pretty hard to be depressed, negative or close-minded when you’re out there jogging, playing a sport or hitting the gym. The human body was built for movement and when we allow ourselves to be sedentary our mental states, hormones, emotions and general state of health take a turn for the worse.

Consistently vigorous exercise, or even gentler but constant movement, not only helps your muscles, heart and lungs to function optimally, your brain’s neuro-chemistry is among the prime beneficiaries—boosting memory, concentration and cognitive abilities.

For all these reasons, exercising every day (throughout the day) is one of the most powerful keystone habits you can develop because it will make you healthy and give you a strong boost in many other areas of your life.

You don’t even have to get extreme. You can tell the boot camp instructor to take a hike and simply go for frequent brisk walks. Just get moving!

3. Tracking What You Eat

Yes, I like to eat. So much so, in fact, that I ballooned to a *voluptuous* 240 lbs. Being overweight in recent years not only predisposed me to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a truckload of other maladies, it also impacted my confidence and self-esteem to boot.

How’s that for a keystone habit working in reverse—working overtime to screw up many aspects of your life!

To fix it, I didn’t set out “to lose weight”. I simply adopted the habit of tracking all the calories I consumed each day.

That is all!

“Diet until you lose 40 lbs!” is just too daunting a goal or habit to undertake (I already mentioned that my self-esteem was not exactly at its peak). “Track the calories of everything you eat every day” sounded like a much more doable habit. So I did it. I ate what I wanted but I tracked it!

And guess what?

The act of observing my behavior made me more conscious about what I shoveled into my mouth. Soon, I was making smarter choices about what I ate. And not long thereafter, the weight started to come off.

Almost effortlessly!

I didn’t have to start training like a Navy Seal or do anything nutty of the sort. Combined with the habit of moving, this keystone habit has transformed my life.

And it turns out your body wants to be healthy. It knows how to do it, too. We just have to get out of our own way.

Adopting the keystone habit of keeping a food diary is powerful. I implore you to start right now!

Use pen and paper, the Notes app on your phone or a dedicated app like My Fitness Pal, which I currently use to maintain this habit.

You might be amazed at the results.

4. Planning the work before doing the work

Let’s be honest. Too often we act like professional fire fighters. Stuff happens at work and we simply react to it, sirens blaring. We focus on putting out fires, doing the work that shows up without trying to understand and control the flow, or getting clear and intentional about what we really should be focused on.

That’s why another powerful keystone habit is to plan the work you’re going to do before you do it!

Try it, but be warned: your productivity and results may skyrocket!

Sunday evening ask yourself: “What is my purpose for this coming work week?” Or, “What 3 to 5 BIG things do I need to get done?” In other words, “What are my top priorities for this week?”

But that’s not all.

Each evening you may want to practice setting the high-priority tasks for the next work day.

And you should go further.

You can calculate how long each of your high-priority tasks will take and then actually schedule each one on your calendar.

That way, if somebody asks for a meeting at 3pm you now have permission to say, “Sorry. I can’t. I have another commitment at that hour.”

That may give you the peace of mind of knowing that you are being productive, working on the things that truly matter because they will create the results you’re looking for. It takes away toxic stress and that nagging sense of uncertainty that we often feel when we behave like cute little hamsters; running hard on that treadmill but not getting ahead.

5. Reading books

Pardon me for sounding like a broken record but reading is a powerful keystone habit. That’s because feeding your mind fresh ideas and perspectives has a powerful effect on your life.

Getting out of your own head and absorbing the wisdom and experience of another can work magic for you.

Reading books allows me to be a wiser, more intelligent, creative and enlightened manager. And when I feel sluggish or I lack my usual motivation, reading a book lights a fire under my arse bigger than anything else I’ve tried (other than going for a run). It gives me the energy to get back out there and keep trying.

Reading also helps you tackle difficult problems because the insights you discover might hold the key to solving some of your real-world challenges. And actually finishing a book gives you a huge sense of accomplishment, which in turn gives you confidence and boosts your self-esteem and self-image.

You see, magic!

Try to develop a couple of these keystone habits in your life and you may be shocked by what happens next.