New Year, New Habits

Happy New Year!

I have been thinking and writing about habits over the last two weeks.

I wrote a piece for Medium called 8 Essential Books for Creating New Habits.

There is great advice in all of those books, but the one piece that stuck with me was Charles Duhigg’s description of “keystone habits”.

In this interview with Harvard Business Review, Duhigg describes the effect of keystone habits:

“Some habits seem to have a disproportionate influence. When a keystone habit starts changing, it seems to set off a chain reaction that changes other habits.

And in a lot of people’s lives a keystone habit is exercise. When they start exercising, they start using their credit cards less. They start procrastinating less. They do their dishes earlier. Something about exercise makes other habits more malleable.”

I like this topic of keystone habits because of the asymmetry. What are a small set of things that we can do that can have a big effect on our lives?

In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes some examples from the research:

“Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence. Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold. [p109]”

Duhigg says keystone habits do three things:

1. Keystone habits create small wins.

“Wins are the molecules of results. They’re the proof of progress. Some wins are big, some are small – all wins are motivators.” -John Kotter

In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg says you should build small wins into your process for creating new habits. Fogg says habits depend on ability (or maybe our perceived ability) to do the new behavior. To start a habit find the smallest thing you could do—complete one pushup, floss a single tooth, read one page. Do the smallest thing for the first couple days and even after you add more to a new habit, always make sure to complete the smallest thing each day. Get the small win.

2. Keynote habits create new structures

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg tells the story of a study run by The National Institute of Health in 2009 that looked at weight loss. The researchers wanted to take a different approach to the problem. Their idea for participants to write down everything they ate. After six months, the results were clear. Those who kept daily food logs lost twice as much weight as everyone else. Food journaling gave everyone the ability to see patterns they were previously invisible. For some, it was the foods they ate. For others, it was when and how often they were snacking. The keystone habit of writing things down created new ways for people to think about their eating.

3. Keystone habits help you make tough decisions

Last year, I took on a project to write a write a 25,000 word book with a client. Writing was not foreign to me, but the scope of the project and the definitive timeline created some new challenges for me. I needed to consistently produce writing each day to meet a deadline.

The best thing I did early on was to track my daily word count. This gave me good visibility to how much work I was producing over time and how it matched up to various project deadlines. Within two weeks, I could see that I needed to make some significant changes, and committed to create a daily habit of writing helped make all of the tough decisions that followed.

I found needed to produce a consistent word count each day, too much daily variability in my word count created even more variability in the following days. And that required moving writing to first thing in the mornings, right after the kids were off the school. All my calls and meetings moved to the afternoons. I wrote until I had the word count. Some mornings that was by 9:30am, other days I was still writing at 3pm. Each of those decisions to change my routine was made easier by my deliberate habit of daily writing.


Now, there is no magic set of keystone habits. Duhigg says a search for them can be tricky.

For me, meditation has been a keynote habit over the last ten years. Similar to my writing habit, I found I needed to make it a routine. I get up an hour earlier than I used to and the first thing I do after I get out of bed is meditate. I have a place in the house, a cushion to sit on and a timer that runs for 30 minutes. As a habit, meditation lets you see each day what your mind is doing and how quickly it shifts between thoughts. Seeing that malleability gives me more flexibility in how I meet all aspects of my life.

It’s interesting that the idea of self-reflection shows up in many of these keynote habits. Dinnertime conversation and spending budgets let us see the effects of our decisions in a different way. Tracking the foods we eat or journaling about the gratitude we feel draws us into introspection about our lives. Actively noticing and deliberately analyzing the daily run of quick, borderline unconscious actions uncovers a set of patterns that can be used to inform and reinforce the new habits we want to create.

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