Keystone Habits: Or How To Adopt 100 Good Habits With Just 1 Habit

“I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” That’s what Paul O’Neill first said to the biggest investors at a ballroom dinner as a newly announced CEO of Alcoa corporation. Everyone was utterly confused. “What about profits?” Scared that this man is crazy. Nearly everyone in the room that night sold their stocks. It turned out to be a huge mistake. Thanks to O’Neill’s leadership, Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high just a few years later.

Apparently, Paul O’Neill knew what he was doing. Instead of trying to fix a little bit of something here. And a little bit of something there. By attacking one specific human habit – a keystone habit. Later, he was able to see how the company he operated blossomed.

At first, prioritizing worker safety didn’t look like much. Of course, people should work in a safe environment. But this was the 1980s. Back then – and I’m quite confident that these days the same is true – investors didn’t care much about what happened in the company unless it brings money into their pocket.

But the growth occurred precisely because of this focus on safety. By bringing the injury rates down. There weren’t injuries. And since there weren’t injuries. No one was missing from work because of accidents. Thus, higher production and eventually higher profits.

Reportedly, the injury rate fell so low that years would go by without a single employee being harmed. The company’s market value increased from $3 billion in 1986 to $27.53 billion in 2000.1

The success of Alcoa is based on the idea of keystone habits.

Instead of ordering people to change – something that is impossible. O’Neill focused on fixing one thing. One specific behavior. However, the underlying idea was that this one thing will have the power to cause a chain reaction. A flow of positive after-effects driving the organization forward.

It turned out to be correct.

Safety workspace means fewer injuries. Fewer missed workdays. Happier employees. Better productivity. Higher profits.

Understanding keystone habits will allow you to destroy self-imposed barriers so you can reach new heights in different areas of your life. It will help you, with just embracing one habit, lead to positive outcomes that can be generated by over 100 habits.

Yes, it’s something like a superpower.

And I bet you already possess some keystone habits and practice them daily.

If you’re not sure. Read below to understand what keystone habits are. How you can nurture them. And what additional you can add to your daily life to strengthen your mind and spirit.

What Are Keystone Habits?

First introduced in one of the best books on habits – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The idea of keystone habits is quite simple.

Keystone habits are daily routines that cause a ripple effect and have the power to change other areas of your life that are unrelated to the habit itself. Plainly, one positive behavior leads to a pool of positive activities that drastically improve your overall existence – i.e., you start to not hate your life.

To better paint the picture, let’s look at these examples of keystone habits:

  • Exercising: Physical exercises lead to a better mood. Higher productivity. Desire to eat healthily. Better metabolism and overall better sleeping habits.
  • Reading: Reading books allows you to slow down. You spend less time scavenging for likes on social media. More time thinking about important problems to solve. Reading makes you a lifelong learner, which, in turn, can increase the likelihood of earning more money.
  • Saving: Being mindful of how much you spend will reduce the crap in your house. You’ll spend less time organizing your apartment. You’ll worry less about what can happen if you lose your job – because you have savings. You won’t buy things you don’t need, and you can use the saved amount to invest.

The concept of keystone habits fits very well with the concept of throwing a pebble in a lake. When a stone drops in a pod, the ripples formed – called transverse waves – slowly but surely go around the lake itself.

reading-books-keystone-habit
A good-to-have keystone habit is reading books. The more you read. The more benefits you unlock.

Basically, by doing one good thing you unintentionally start to do other good things. This process transmits to other areas of your life and eventually, you start to like your life.

How cool is that?

How Do Keystone Habits Work?

The aren’t a lot of keystone habits science papers. But the framework of how they work is rather simple.

Sadly, some make it sound so simple and make it look like keystone habits are another productivity hack that was designed by modern gurus.

One (bad) example of how keystone habits work is the idea that if you make your bed. This will motivate you to make it to the Moon!

Yes, read this quote and tell me what you think:

“ 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.” Naval Admiral William McRaven

I consider such statements borderline useless.

I believe that people who are motivated to fix their bed in the morning are already somehow successful, happy, fulfilled, rational – call it whatever you like. Their success wasn’t caused by the bed-making exercise. It was a reaction to their awareness that if you want something done, you should do it yourself.

Making your bed can’t be considered enough-motivating to make you a millionaire. Enough to be considered a keystone habit.

Instead, what we can call a keystone habit is reading books.

Bear with me for a moment as I lay out how reading books can transform your life.

These are just some of the benefits of reading books:

  • Reading books relaxes you and makes you a bit more patient – and a lot more patient over time.
  • You start to get the concept that good things take time.
  • You don’t rush stuff. You think before you act.
  • You learn from the mistakes of others. You relate the stories you found in books to your own problems. You start to handle your problems better.
  • Based on the contents of the book, you create an arsenal of action items – things you can do – when there is a problem.
  • Reading adds to your library of words. You are able to express yourself better. This allows you to clearly communicate your thoughts. Thus, others can see what you mean.
  • Reading books changes how you generally think. You become a critical thinker. Better thinker. Long-term thinker.

From the above. The best thing. The thing that makes reading an essential routine for every individual looking to rise above the surrounding mediocrity is how reading affects your thinking. In short, it betters it.

And when you think better, you act better.

For a person who has not yet changed how he thinks. The act of making a bed only feels like… making a bed.

Conversely, a person who looks at life through sober glasses. He knows that making his bed isn’t going to align the world to his liking. And yet, he knows that this is something he has to do. A small step forward to the peak of the mountain of tasks awaiting.

What Are Some Examples of Keystone Habits?

In the sense of keystone habits, we can reuse the famous concept of finding the one decision that removes 100 decisions.

If we shape it to fit the idea of keystone habits, the final version is going to be: Finding that one habit that leads to 100 positive outcomes.

Keystone habits that I believe are unmistakably good and don’t need further elaboration are:

  • Physical activities: I mean, who doesn’t know that exercising leads to a lot of good stuff?
  • Reading books: I already mentioned the benefits of this act.

Besides these two, keystone habits from my personal life that have significantly improved other areas are the following three:

1. Tracking Expenses

I’m tracking my finances for more than 10 years now (See more in my post about my messy analog note-taking system). I don’t use apps. I don’t use a sophisticated AI-powered tool that reads my mind and notes down how much I’ve spent or how much I intend to spend. I have a simple notebook where I note down these three things:

  • How much money do I earn.
  • How much money I spend.
  • How much money I invest.

At first glance, this doesn’t look like much. But the benefits unfold as you keep doing this habit.

I know precisely how much money I have and I know where my money goes. This is helpful for various reasons:

  • There are no surprise charges.
  • You see where your money goes.
  • You can better manage your future expenses.
  • You start to set financial goals.
  • You are less likely to spend stuff on things you don’t need. In fact, personally, I reached a state where I know that getting things won’t make me happier. They are just objects that can improve my mood for a while. It’s much better to focus on making a living doing what you love instead of working something just to fill your apartment with stuff that you’ll lose interest in a week from now.

Basically, every time you write down your expenses. You are being conscious of how much money is coming out of your bank account. This allows you to catch yourself. Spot if most of your income is going out for stupid stuff. Thus, prevent yourself from future emotional purchases.

After all, why be so wasteful with the money you worked so hard to earn?

2. Waking Up Early

When people say that they don’t have time to immerse themselves in activities that are good for them – think exercising, reading books, acquiring new skills. I don’t think that they truly realize the concept of time in the modern world.

Nobody has time. The world is organized in such a way to rob you from the hours of your day. That a modern world constant. And you have even less time as you grow older. Or at least when you become a parent.

Before my son was born. I used to wake up around 06:00, or 06:30 in the morning to write and exercise.

When my son was born?

I had to move that an hour earlier.

These days, I wake up at 04:50.

To be honest. I don’t want to wake up that early. If there was an option, I’d surely cuddle with my pillow, allow my body to lie on the moderately soft mattress for a bit longer. But as it often happens, you can’t have everything your way. You have to make some sacrifices.

You have to make time for the things you want in your life.

When I’m walking up early, I make time for exercising, writing, reading, and thinking. In that specific order.

I personally think that waking up early is one of the best keystone habits because it gives you one of the most precious things: Time for yourself. There is hardly anything that can happen in the morning to ruin your morning. Since everybody is still sleeping. There is nobody to interrupt you. It’s so blissful.

I know. I know.

Waking up early actually means waking up early!

It means less sleep. Possibly feeling lifeless for the majority of the morning. But when done right. And more importantly – when done repeatedly. You start to adjust.

You’re no longer a walking undead craving for your bed. Eventually, your brain starts to wake up with your body and they start to work in unison.

3. Persistence

I’m not really sure whether persistence falls into the habits bucket. We can have a debate about whether this is a state of mind or a routine. But it’s kind of both. And it’s something like a loop.

You are persistent and that’s why you convince yourself to exercise (for example) and you keep convincing yourself to exercise because you are persistent.

If you look at persistence from a different angle. We can see that it’s the foundation of every habit.

You can’t repeatedly wake up early, invest, work out, write, or do what you are legally addicted to if you are not at least somehow persistent.

Persistence is the major keystone habit.

It’s the stone that holds the whole construction of positive habits strong.

One big rock and 3 smaller rocks on top presenting how persistence is a major keystone habit

And if you want to keep performing your list of good habits daily – which will potentially lead to destroying your list of bad habits. You have to rely on this behavior all the time.

Because, you know, good habits are so fragile.

It takes just one comment. Just one unintended thought to go off the rails.

For example, a friend will say to you: “Come on. Let’s have another drink. Don’t be so boring.” Yeah, one drink might look like one drink, but it can easily demolish your next day.

Or, for example, you might tell yourself that: “I’m saving enough money. I can afford to buy a new car.” Which can lead to the so-called Diderot Effect – buying also new rims, new tires, more money for insurance, etc.

To keep going. You have to actually keep going.

And this happens when you continuously show up.

And you continuously show up because you are persistent.

How Do I Find My Keystone Habits?

Paul O’Neill wanted to turn – and he did – Alcoa into the safest company in the world. That’s a major achievement for a company that’s dealing with metals.

In this sense, to find your keystone habits. To add routines that have the potential to turn your life upside down – in a good way. You can follow the footsteps of Mr. O’Neill and tap into his mindset when he was joining Alcoa. You can…

Think about the one thing you want to be known for. The thing that you want to be proud of. Think about only one thing. Then, consider what type of daily activities you should do that will lead you to this desired state.

Personally, I want to be recognized for my writing abilities. So, one of my keystone habits is writing. Writing inspires me to read more books. It motivates me to try different types of writing. And, as I put my ideas on paper, my thinking clarifies.

Eventually, the habit of writing leads to a bunch of positive outcomes that weren’t imaginable at first.

Some Closing Thoughts

The idea of keystone habits is quite related to the concept of identity-based habits.

By performing one specific type of behavior. You convince yourself that you are a certain person. Therefore, you become more focused on staying that person.

I can’t be absolutely sure. But I’m quite confident that the whole staff of Alcoa – while trying to turn the company in one of the safest companies in the world. Became more continuous while they were performing their duties. This was a result of the overall goal of safety.

Similarly, while I was initially just considering myself as a website owner. The more content I produced – i.e., wrote stuff. The closer I got to the persona of a writer. Now, I can say that I’m a writer who owns a website.

Lastly, I wanted to say that keystone habits provide a soil from which other habits – and good behavior in general – flourish.

You build one good behavior and then you start habit-stacking – adding extra favorable actions into your life.

It’s really a question of adopting one keystone habit and fully embracing it. I’m positive that if practiced, it will contribute positively to a lot of other areas of your life.

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Footnotes:

  1. Alcoa. (2022, August 26). In Wikipedia. On the web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoa
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