What Are Keystone Habits?
In Chapter Four of his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses keystone habits, or “The Ballad of Paul O’Neill–Which Habits Matter Most.”
What Paul O’Neill Teaches Us about Keystone Habits
Investors and employees alike were shocked when Paul O’Neill shared this in his speech of acceptance as the new CEO of Alcoa:
“I want to talk to you about worker safety. Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”
Some people thought perhaps he had a touch of dementia. Investors called their clients and advised them to sell their stock immediately. (Those who did so would later realize that was some pretty bad advice. What O’Neill was doing was introducing a keystone habit.)
“O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
As the company focused on safety, employees and investors were amazed at the other areas of change, as well. Alcoa eventually rose to new heights in production, employee satisfaction, and in their portfolios, as well.
Though the term keystone habit is highlighted in The Power of Habit, it is certainly a theme that exists in many personal improvement books. In The Happiness Project, when Gretchen Rubin set about to pursue 12 areas of change that she thought would make her a happier person, she started out by choosing an area of change that she thought would flow into the other areas of her life and remaning goals. (For her, it was energy, which involved changes in her exercise, sleep, and organizational habits.)
I also noticed this theme again as I read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where just focusing on 7 highly important habits will likely flow into countless other aspects of life.
Essentially, keystone habits are habits that create a chain-reaction in habit formation and make it easier to add new and related beneficial habits. They are the habits that matter most. For a good number of people, exercise is a keystone habit.
In Real Life
It’s likely that you’ve noticed keystone habits at work. Know someone who lost 50 lbs., started eating more healthily, and got organized within a short period of time? Maybe you thought they just “got lucky.” Maybe they did. But another option to consider would be that maybe as they saw changes take place in one area, they were energized and motivated to pursue change in other areas, as well. Sometimes these changes take place consciously, while other times change in one area naturally flows into other areas.
Looking for Your Keystone Habit
Sometimes, it’s easy to see hundreds of areas in our life that need change. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, whether looking at life as a forest (“I need to change my diet, exercise, and organization, and…”) or at a tree (“My house is a total mess, but I can’t do anything because I don’t even know where to start.”)
In Simplicity Parenting, the authors addresses this sense of overwhelm in the example when a parent realized his/her life is totally out of balance, but doesn’t even know where to start. In this case, they suggest getting rid of physical clutter and allowing the mental clarity provided by a clean space to continue to motivate them to get rid of excess in every other area of life. As clarity improves, families can then see through the fog and see many of the other areas that need to brought back into balance. But it was getting rid of material, physical clutter that gets the ball rolling.
In identifying potential keystone habits, we can ask several questions:
- What is one specific area of change I need to make that has an attainable, realistic goal?
- What other areas of change are related to this goal?
- Will change in this habit make it easier or harder to make changes in other habit areas?
- Will it be exciting to me if I actually see change in this area?
Again, for many people, successfully implementing exercise as a habit allows change in dietary habits (if you’re working hard physically, why put yourself at a disadvantage by undermining what exercise is doing in your body), sleep habits (this is often from a purely biological perspective, as exercise helps control potentially out-of-whack hormones and realign the body’s rhythms), and even financial management habits.
Sometimes, exercise and diet habit change works in the reverse. I recently watched the “documentary” Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. In it, the Australian host, Joe, has a rare skin condition and is slightly overweight. He realizes the urgency of his problem, and travels across the U.S. drinking only juice for over 60 days and attempting to convince others to do the same. During his travels, he connected with a man, Phil, who had the same condition, worked as a truck driver, and was borderline morbidly obese. Joe returns to Australia, healthier than ever before and having lost a lot of weight. Several weeks later a desperate Phil contacts Phil for help. He agrees to do the diet for 10 days. It works, and he is thrilled. He requests to continue it for 30 days. As he does, he loses weight, gains energy, and then begins to exercise. The documentary is worth watching if for nothing other than his stunning life transformation. Soon he is convincing others to do the same, pursuing being a better family father to his previously estranged children (he was embarrassed by his weight), and continuing his healthy dietary habits and exercise regine. So for Phil (and Joe), diet change was the chain-reaction habit they needed to get them going. (This is not saying this validates every aspect the film, but the keystone habit theme is certainly evident in both Joe and Phil’s lives.)
For others, getting a house organized, keeping a closet decluttered, or folding the laundry immediately can result in surprising results in other areas, as well. (Ever notice how sometimes after you’ve cleaned your bedroom, how it’s a lot easier to hang up the sweater you wore for just 30-minutes instead of just throwing it on the floor?)
Putting It into Practice
Even if you don’t feel like you know what area of change would help improve multiple areas, there’s always somewhere to start. Yet, it’s important that you also make your goals realistic and allow yourself time for change. For instance, if your goal is better dietary health, but you currently eat ice cream every night and soda at every meal, how about this: instead of vowing never to eat sugar again, perhaps it would be wiser to say no sweets during the week, but allow yourself liberty to eat them on weekends and holidays.
Focus on just one area of change at a time, and commit to stick with it. Other areas might change at the same time, but keep your focus on your big-picture habit change. If it’s just not working, evaluate and move on if needed. And, as I’m learning from a phrase I picked up from The Happiness Project, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (I.e., don’t let perfectionism keep you from making change where you can. Doing it perfectly doesn’t need to be the goal at first (if that’s not attainable); making the change does.)