How do you change your life?
As someone who’s intensely passionate about personal development, I think about this question often.
What I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the right question. Because when most of us ask this question, what we really want to know is this:
What specific lifestyle changes would have the greatest impact on my overall happiness levels?
Well, to answer this question accurately we must talk about keystone habits. This article will discuss keystone habits in more detail and how they can rapidly improve your life.
What are Keystone Habits?
Charles Duhigg was the first person to introduce the idea of keystone habits. In his all-time classic book, The Power of Habit, he writes the following:
“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 are habits with tremendous upside. Once solidified into your life, they unintentionally create a ripple which brings about several other positive changes.
Let’s suppose that you have a goal to get in better shape. In order to achieve this goal, you decide that you’re going to start exercising for twenty minutes per day. Assuming that you actually follow through on this intention, you’d probably lose a decent amount of weight after a few months.
However, is the number on the scale the only thing about your life that would be different?
- As you get in better shape, you’ll probably increase the difficulty of your workouts, which means you’ll be looking even more fit and lean.
- 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.
- Since you’re now less insecure about your weight, you may have more confidence when interacting with the opposite sex
See what’s going on here?
At no point did you set a goal to change your diet or improve your self-esteem. These changes just came about naturally due to your commitment to getting in better shape.
That’s the real power of keystone habits — once the first domino falls, others fall naturally.
How To Identify Keystone Habits
Now that we’ve talked about the powerful compound effect of keystone habits, let’s talk about how you can identify your own.
There’s a couple of different ways to go about this, so we’ll discuss two methods that will help you pinpoint the perfect habits for you to focus your energy on.
The first method you can use to identify potential keystone habits is called the Lookback Method.The lookback method requires you to analyze your past experiences and take note of the periods in your life when you felt your best.
We’ve all experienced certain periods in our life where we just seemed to feel more motivated and energized. During these periods, it’s likely that we were engaging in a collection of habits that set us up for success.
Think about these periods and see if you can find any common themes. In order to make this process easier, here’s a few self-reflection questions that you can ask yourself.
- Is there a specific daily ritual that was constant among each of these periods?
- Was there a particular lifestyle change that you were focused on?
- Were you on a consistent sleep schedule?
- Were you exercising?
- How often were you seeing your friends?
After some self-reflection, there’s a good chance that you’ll notice a pattern — there’s likely a collection of behaviors you were engaging in during these time periods.
If you are able to find some of these constant behaviors, that’s a good sign those behaviors are keystone habits.
The second method that you can use to identify your keystone habits is called The Biggest Demon Method.
For this method, you’re simply going to think about the demons and insecurities that wreak the most havoc on your emotional state.
We all have character flaws that we’d like to fix. But as you’re sitting here reading this article, there’s likely a few specific ones that require urgent attention because they’ve been sabotaging your life for years, or even decades.
And for whatever reason, you just can’t find a way to address them. This brings up an important principle about keystone habits, which is that they’re individual to you.
Duhigg talks about the versatility of keystone habits by saying, “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.”
You’re the only person who hears your internal dialogue all day. You’re the only person who knows what your biggest demons are, and you’re also the only person who’s capable of overcoming them.
So look at your life and think about the one thingthat torments you on a daily basis — the character flaw that you keep telling yourself that you’re going to fix.
Maybe it’s your weight. Maybe it’s your social skills. Maybe it’s your lack of deep personal relationships. Maybe it’s your addiction to binge-watching TV.
Whatever it is, identify it so that you give yourself a starting point to drill down on a highly impactful keystone habit.
Tying Your Keystone Habit Back To Your Daily Actions
Once you’ve used either of these methods to identify a potential keystone habit, now you have to tie this habit back to your daily actions.
For example, let’s assume that you implemented the biggest demon method and decided that you want to focus on building a more expansive social circle.
What would happen if you made a habit of texting one person from your social circle every single day?
Seems like a pretty minor change right? Well, let’s consider the potential ripple effects if you were to do this every day over the course of a few months.
- 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 likely receive more invites to social events.
- As you attend more social gatherings, you’re going to have more fun and meet more people.
- As you meet more people, your social skills will improve and your circle of friends will expand.
The list of ripple effects could go on forever, but the main point is this — one tiny habit can create a burst of momentum which leads to a plethora of positive changes.
Texting a friend every day doesn’t doesn’t require much effort. However, it still represents a drastic shift in your identity, and that’s why it’s such a powerful agent of change.
After a period of sustained consistency, eventually the compound effect kicks in and unintentional benefits come to fruition.
What Are The Best Keystone Habits?
Both of the methods described above should give you a keystone habit to focus your energy on.
However, if you’re still struggling to pinpoint a specific behavior, there are certain habits that are widely considered to be the best keystone habits for just about anybody.
Let’s discuss a few of these top notch habits now.
Exercise is perhaps the single greatest habit that you can build to improve your body and mind.
Study after study has shown that people who exercise regularly tend to sleep better, handle stress more effectively, have more energy, and improve their mood.
Putting aside the research-backed benefits, working out just feels good. Developing a daily workout habit requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, which can ripple out 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 the gym, then that small error tends to lead to other bad decisions throughout the day.
Remember, you need to start small in order to solidify a new habit into your life. If you start off aiming too high, you’ll never be consistent enough to see real progress.
- 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.
- Want to do 100 pushups and squats per day? Start 5 pushups and 5 squats
Build up your confidence and willpower first, then worry about challenging yourself later.
Related: Link Between Fitness and Success
It seems like our mind is always thinking about something. Some of these thoughts are useful, but a majority of them aren’t.
Our brain is like an email inbox with 15,000 unread emails — mostly junk with a few golden nuggets sprinkled in.
Daily meditation reduces the endless mental chatter that shifts our attention away from the present moment. It teaches you that your mind is going to wander whether you like it or not, but that you don’t always have to follow its lead.
With enough practice, you can develop the highly important skill of being fully engaged in whatever you’re doing. Your focus and mental clarity will improve as you begin to fully immerse yourself in your daily experiences.
The act of being present is a meta-skill, and it’s one that can be applied to almost every single situation that you encounter in life.
It’s amazing how little we seem to care about sleep considering how important it is for our brain.
Without adequate sleep, your brain cannot function properly. Lack of sleep can impair your ability to concentrate, process memories, and think clearly and rationally.
Additionally, your brain starts forming new connections while you sleep. So by not prioritizing sleep, you’re actually making it harder to learn new skills and develop new habits.
Good keystone habits create a positive ripple effect which impacts several areas of your life. Lack of sleep produces the same ripple effect but in the complete opposite direction.
So if you’re looking for an easy keystone habit to jumpstart the rest of your life, getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night may be a good place to start.
4. Keeping A Food Journal
In 2009, Kaiser Permanente 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 on a daily basis. As the study 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. When dinner rolled around, they ate these meals instead of mindlessly snacking on the first thing that caught their eye in the pantry.
Overall, the study found that those who kept a daily food journal lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.
What’s even more intriguing about this study is that the researchers didn’t tell the participants to develop any of the supplementary behaviors described above. Keeping a food journal simply acted as a springboard for these behaviors to flourish naturally.
5. Doing Your Hardest Thing First Every Morning
When you look at your to-do list, there’s usually one or two things on there that should take priority over everything else.
Yet when many of us sit down to start working, we avoid these high-priority tasks like the plague. Instead, we tend to opt for the quick wins and knock out the low hanging fruit to build some positive momentum.
While this principle sounds good in theory, the truth is that starting with low effort tasks makes it easier to put off the more important stuff.
High-performers get important things done in the morning because they know that’s when their energy and motivation are at peak levels. And when you start your day by knocking out high-priority tasks, you’re setting the tone for the rest of the day.
Leverage this powerful keystone habit if you’re looking to take control of your time and make massive progress towards your most ambitious goals.
Related: Link Between Willpower and Success
We’re often told that any new habit that builds momentum is a good thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this philosophy, but you’re limiting your potential if you choose to adopt it.
The truth about behavior change is that not all habits are created equal. Keystone habits offer a way to get more out of the time that you invest into changing your life.
Figuring out your keystone habits is step one. Once you’ve done that, you’re on the path towards radical change.
Once these new keystone habits become a daily practice, it’s only a matter of time before you start to experience a drastic shift in your identity.
PS – If you enjoyed this post on keystone habits, then you’ll likely enjoy these other supporting resources to help you build the habits that will help you change your life:
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