In architecture, the keystone is the final wedge-shaped stone put into place at the very top of an arch. It locks all of the other stones into position and allows the arch to bear weight. Without the keystone, the whole thing falls apart.
This concept of a “keystone” is incredibly important in architecture, but it also applies to our personal life as well.
In our daily lives, keystone habits create a cascade of other actions and feelings, both positive and negative. Often times, the keystone habit is just the first domino that knocks over all the others.
For example, when I workout, I eat healthier during the day. I also drink less alcohol. Working out creates a mental narrative (“I’m a healthy person”) that impacts other choices I make. Similarly, if you’ve ever heard someone say, “I only smoke when I drink,” you’ve heard about keystone habits. The drinking, in this case, is the catalyst that cascades into other actions.
The important thing to understand is we can harness this concept of keystone habits to improve our health and maintain motivation over the long haul.
How Keystone Habits Work
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg tells the story of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Before a big race, Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman would whisper, “Get the videotape ready.” The “videotape” in this case referred to a mental exercise Phelps practiced regularly. It was a mental visualization of a perfect race, and it helped Phelps to get in the right headspace before competition.
The videotape was a keystone habit that set in motion a number of other actions and feelings. Phelps couldn’t control many things about the competition environment, but he could fall back on a routine of “watching the videotape,” which was the same for every single race.
Keystone habits work for this exact reason; they kickstart a routine that creates the desired end result. They’re a small domino that starts the cascade. The single small win makes it easier for the next small win and so forth.
Why This is Important (And What to Do Next)
One of my favorite lines from Disney’s Frozen II comes from Olaf:
We’re calling this ‘controlling what you can when things feel out of control.’Olaf, Frozen II
Words of wisdom! Often times, things do feel out of control. Traffic makes us late for a meeting. Someone else fails to deliver their part of a project. COVID-19 spreads across the globe wreaking havoc and putting a pause button on normal life. These things are all out of our control.
Keystone habits are 100% in our control.
We just need to identify the keystone habits that lead us to the results we want and then put them into place. This creates some control and consistency when everything feels out of control.
For example, here are a few keystone habits I practice daily:
- When I’m waiting for coffee to brew, I drink a full glass of water. It’s the first “healthy” choice I make that reaffirms that I’m the type of person that makes healthy choices.
- At noon, my wife and I workout together either in our basement or outside. When I work out, I eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol, and sleep better. It’s the pinnacle of a keystone habit for me personally.
- When I’m done with work for the day, I write done the top things I need to accomplish for the following day and plan out when I’m going to do them. This way, when I start work the following day, I feel prepared.
Particularly right now with COVID-19 upending routines, flipping schedules, and wreaking overall havoc, it’s critical to have those keystone habits in place to help guide your actions.
As a next step, identify 2-3 keystone habits for you. As James Clear asks, “What are you doing when everything falls into place?”
Identify those things and do them more often (or every single day).