Identify your keystone habits

Small things like taking a hot and cold shower, keeping a food journal, or making a must-do list the night before might create a domino effect of positive changes in your life and career


Eating together improves communication among family members
Eating together improves communication among family members

Do you sometimes wonder how some people manage to get so much done?

Run successful businesses, keep getting promotions at work, spend time with their families, workout, manage their health, and even find that “me” time.

Their secret sauce: leveraging the power of keystone habits.

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through a person’s life. “These are keystone habits and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. “Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything,” he writes. What are these habits? They could be anything: exercise, eating dinners together, making your bed every morning, even hot and cold showers.

For Phil Dumontet, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Dashed, a US-based restaurant delivery service, contrast showers (hot/cold showers) have been a daily routine since he was a child. “I end every shower with a cold-hot-cold cycle (30 seconds of cold, 30 seconds of hot, 30 seconds of cold). This makes me feel refreshed, versus ending the shower on hot water (which makes me sleepy),” he says.

Duhigg writes in The Power Of Habit that habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns. Alcoa, one of the US’ largest aluminium manufacturing companies, became the top performer in the Dow Jones soon after the October 1987 speech by its then CEO Paul O’Neill, who changed a single pattern among his employees—how they approached worker safety.

Dutch paint maker AkzoNobel’s director of finance operations Partha Sarathi Basu says his keystone habit is planning. “Not a single day is spent without proper planning, which helps me dedicate each day to my body, mind and soul. I usually dedicate the morning to health, starting the day with exercise. During the day, I dedicate my time to my mind at work. The evenings are generally dedicated to soul…reading, writing, spending time with family and friends. Planning for every task is done on my to-do list app, which helps me monitor and move from one activity to another within specified time frames,” he says.

A 2009 study, “Family Mealtimes: Worth The Effort?”, published in the journal Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition, says that eating a meal with your family “has a significant impact on family communication and functioning, the development of healthy eating patterns in children, and improved literacy and school performance…”

“It’s not that a family meal…causes better grades. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” writes Duhigg in The Power Of Habit.

Want to identify your life-changing keystone habits? Focus on these three characteristics:

u Keystone habits provide “small wins”. These are tiny victories on a daily basis, like waking up exactly when the alarm sounds instead of hitting the snooze button or going for a 15-minute run every day. Added over time, this will convince you that bigger achievements are within reach, leading to transformative changes.

“Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favour another small win,” writes American psychologist Karl Weick in “Small Wins: Redefining The Scale Of Social Problems”, published in the American Psychologist journal in 1984.

u Keystone habits create a base that helps build other positive habits easily. “I’m a night owl, and can find it hard to get started in the morning. I’ve found that going for a walk before I begin to work is a great way to kick-start my body (and my brain). A simple walk makes me feel more energetic in the mornings and helps me finish work earlier,” says Henneke Duistermaat, business writing coach and founder of Enchanting Marketing, a UK-based company that teaches business copywriting.

u Keystone habits make positive change contagious. They change our sense of self, what we think is possible and make us want to achieve more small wins.

“Recently, I’ve formed a new keystone habit of exercising while I work. I bought this portable elliptical machine that I use for an hour or two, with my laptop propped up on a box on top of a table. It helps me on so many levels: It prevents me from feeling restless while working so many hours online, it ensures I get a decent amount of exercise each day and it gives me an increased sense of pride in what I’ve accomplished since I am simultaneously working out and working on my to-do list,” says Lori Deschene, founder of self-development blog Tiny Buddha, who is based in Los Angeles, US.

In 2008, a group of US researchers published a study that used the power of keeping a food journal (which acted as a keystone habit) to bring about weight loss. The study, “Weight Loss During The Intensive Intervention Phase Of The Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial”, was published in the American Journal Of Preventive Medicine.

The participants were asked to jot down everything they ate at least one day per week. Initially, people forgot to carry the journals or ate a meal but forgot to note it. Over time, however, it became a habit with most of the participants and then something unexpected happened. The participants started looking at their entries and replacing unhealthy eating routines with healthier patterns. If someone noticed that they ate a snack at 10am, they started carrying a fruit as mid-morning munchie. Others started using the journal to plan future meals and stuck to the healthier options they had jotted down. The researchers had not suggested any of these behaviours, they had simply asked participants to write what they ate. But this keystone habit—keeping a food journal—created a platform that helped build other habits.

The research notes that “behavioural measures (for example, diet records and physical activity) accounted for most of the weight-loss variation”.

Can a keystone habit improve your productivity, even if you cannot wake up early in the morning?

It does for Mike Vardy, CEO and president of Productivityist, a Canada-based productivity firm. “My keystone habit is beginning every day the night before with a regular evening routine. My evening routine is critical in shaping my days, and by outlining my Three Absolutes on a sheet of paper and placing it upside down on my closed laptop, I guide my ‘future’ self to a better start to the day”.

Despite Vardy not being a morning person, he says, “Having this routine in place sets me up for success and keeps me moving forward in the right direction in work and in life”.

Even a tiny activity like taking a walk or writing down what you eat can have life-altering effect. So, identify the behaviour patterns that are already your keystone habits and soon being successful will become second nature to you.

Joy Ghose is the co-founder of FreeMind PitStop, a New Delhi-based productivity coaching firm.

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