Habits create the foundation of our lives and shape who we are. They either lead us to success or detract us from it.
Some habits, however, are considered more important than others. They have the ability to start a chain reaction of other good habits. They influence other actions and routines such as how we sleep, eat, live, and think.
These habits are aptly called “keystone habits,” because they lock all the other habits in place.
It’s clear upon reflection that for me, exercise is my keystone habit.
I’ve noticed that following workouts, I eat more (I’m trying to gain muscle), eat healthier, sleep better, feel calmer, and am even more productive. Everything else seems to fall into place easier. On days where I don’t workout, or don’t exercise at all for multiple days in a row, I feel sluggish, eat terribly, and feel like my head is clouded with fog.
Part of this is likely due to the inherent positive benefits of exercise, but it’s also because I want to keep the positive momentum following a workout going. Knowing that I’ve done something to improve myself motivates me to continue pushing myself to activities that are beneficial.
It reminds me of what an Admiral Navy SEAL said about making your bed first thing in the morning at a recent commencement speech.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
Clearly, for SEALs, their keystone habit is making their beds. It goes to show that keystone habits don’t necessarily have to be some strenuous task that takes a lot of willpower. Like any habit, you just have to start small enough to get started.
So how do you figure out what your keystone habits are?
There are three characteristics of keystone habits:
1. Keystone habits provide numerous “small wins”
Small wins are exactly what they sound like: actions that lead to little senses of victory. This is exactly what making your bed is: a small win. Once a small win has been accomplished, you’re more likely to do another task that will reward you with a small win. As Duhigg says, “small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”
2. Keystone habits create new platforms that make other habits easier
Keystone habits prepare the soil from which other habits grow. Following a workout, you’re more likely to eat better because you’re more conscious of what you’re putting into your body. You want to feed your body the right nutrients so the next time you workout it’ll be easier. This is what creating a new platform means.
3. Keystone habits are contagious
Keystone habits are so powerful because they change our sense of self and our sense of what is possible. They make us want to do more, to achieve more small wins, because we’re being rewarded for our good efforts. And deep down, isn’t that what we all want? To do great work, achieve our goals, and live better lives.
It’s easy to look at everything we ought to change or improve in our lives and get overwhelmed. Well, just one keystone habit may be all that’s required.
Whether it’s cooking, cleaning, exercising, meditating, or making the bed every morning, finding your keystone habit and doing more of it is the first step to leading a better and more fulfilling life.