Photo Courtesy: Celestine Chua

Photo Courtesy: Celestine Chua

Habits are the most powerful tool you have to make positive changes in your life – by programming your behavior. Keystone habits are a special class of habit that you can use to turbo-charge your willpower and more quickly reach your goals!

Take a moment and imagine your life without habits. Imagine having to decide whether to brush your teeth every morning, whether to make coffee, whether to have breakfast, whether to let the dog out, what time to go to work, which route to take, and which store to stop at on the way home. Habits allow us to perform all of those actions automatically while thinking about other things – the new project you are working on or your upcoming vacation. How many times have you driven to work without remembering stopping at the lights, making the turns, or anything else about the trip?

Habits allow our conscious mind to delegate. Without habits, we would have to consider every one of the hundreds of actions we take every single day. It would be like the CEO of a large company having to consider and confirm the action of every singe worker! It would be exhausting and it would leave precious little time to dream, to think strategically, or plan for the future.

Habits help us increase our willpower because decision-making drains our willpower. The more decisions you can delegate to habits, the more willpower you have to make the changes in your life that move you closer to your goals.

Keystone Habits

There is a special category of habits called Keystone habits. Keystone habits are especially powerful as they can help you to unlock hidden stores of willpower and accelerate the positive changes in your life.

Many of our habits develop unconsciously, and some may not be in our best interests. The power in Keystone habits lies in their ability to shine a light on many of our invisible (and potentially detrimental) habits, allowing us to take control and modify them. In Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” he provides a great example of people who are trying to lose weight, developing the habit of food journaling just one day per week.

By simply creating the habit of writing down everything that they ate during a single day and the time that they ate it, they gained visibility into many other habits: the mid-morning Cheetos, the afternoon ice-cream, or their shopping habits. They were able to see their eating habits more clearly and then slowly change them. The people who started the keystone habit of journaling in this National Institute of Health study, lost twice as much weight as those that did not!

The Power of Self-Knowledge

The power of most keystone habits lies in awareness. Awareness allows us to wipe the fog off our goggles and see ourselves more clearly. It’s that self-knowledge thing that philosophers have been writing about for ages. You can’t solve a problem until you can see it clearly and fully understand it, and when it comes to changing a habit you have to be able to see it clearly – to understand what triggers it and the reward that it brings.

The foundation habit of mindfulness, which is getting a lot of attention these days (by companies like Google and Intel for example), allows you to become more aware of your thought processes, emotions, and reactions and then become better at controlling them. Similarly the foundation habit of conscious breathing, which is an essential skill for improving health, performance, and emotional intelligence, is so effective because it allows you to become more aware of negative changes to your mind, body, and emotions and take appropriate action.

Small wins

Taking on too many changes at once is often a recipe for disaster. However these kinds of keystone habits don’t require a huge amount of willpower or dramatic changes. They actually help you to strengthen your willpower by providing “small wins.” Writing down the fact that you ate a maple bar at 10AM takes far less willpower then actually denying yourself that pastry. But that small act helps you to build your willpower and to slowly change your morning munchies habit.

So what are the keystone habits that can help move you forward? What “keystone” changes have you made and what were the results? I’d love to hear your thoughts!