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Last Updated on November 26, 2020

How to Find the Best Keystone Habits to Change Your Life

How to Find the Best Keystone Habits to Change Your Life
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When a young CEO stepped in at the helm of a dying giant, his first task was to figure out what needed to be done to save the company. After he spent some time researching the company and the market situation, he came up with a simple plan around some keystone habits, which he introduced to the shareholders in his first speech as the CEO.

He spoke just about one single thing—safety. Everyone in the room thought he was crazy, and some people jumped the soon-to-be-dead ship.

15 years later, he not only salvaged the giant, but made it one of the strongest steel and metal companies in the world, and made a global name of himself in the process.

The company is Alcoa, and the guy was Paul O’Neill.

But the story matters to us for one thing only, and that is the relentless focus he had on safety and security in his company. Paul O’Neill said that his employees deserved to leave work the same way they arrived at it—unharmed.

It was this radical focus on a single habit in the company that led to other positive changes, which ultimately made the company great. A single focus on a single habit which had a massive ripple effect.

This is known as a keystone habit.

The Importance of Keystone Habits

A keystone habit is a habit that has the biggest ripple effect in your life, which means that by implementing it, you will create positive effects in every area of your life.

It’s quite easy to spot the keystone habits that make your life miserable.

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Take overeating as an example. If you weigh 400 pounds, you’re bedridden and your physical health massively declines. You can’t function individually, so you need help to even do the basic things like going to the toilet or walking up the stairs. Your career and social life will likely suffer if you struggle to get out of the house.

As a formerly overweight person, I know how horrible this all is.

This is just one example of how a keystone habit creates a ripple effect that creates change in every aspect of their lives. This is why it’s so important to open our eyes and make sure that we use the power of the keystone habits for bettering our life.

Why Less Is More

A keystone habit is about one thing you do to radically improve your life. A lot of people would, at this point, ask what are the best keystone habits to implement in their lives.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Everyone is specific and has different things going on for them in their lives, so claiming something is always superior to something else would simply be irresponsible.

With that said, every keystone habit can be situated into one of the following four quadrants:

It’s either a physical habit, intellectual habit, emotional habit, or a spiritual habit.

Any keystone habit I have ever encountered that changed the life of someone has fallen under these 4 categories.

The trick is recognizing what kind of habit would benefit your life the best at this moment. Asking what the best keystone habit is has the same effect as asking what the best book in the world is—it depends on who you ask and what your current life situation is.

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If you’re struggling with the meaning of life and want to find hope in this crazy world we live in, I would point you to a great book which recently came out called Everything is F*cked by Mark Mason. If you were a struggling parent of a 10-year old kid who just found out the perils of the internet, I would point you to a security app.

However, just because everything is relative, it doesn’t mean that some things aren’t better than other things. War and Peace will always be a great book no matter if it currently befits you to read it. And the same thing can be applied to keystone habits, so let’s see what kind of keystone habits fall into the great category.

Great Keystone Habits

I have already mentioned how all keystone habits fall into one of the four categories: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

If you already have a keystone habit that you have implemented for quite a while now, and you think it’s no longer working, you are probably right. We need certain things at certain times of development, but we need to let them go later on to grow to new levels.

Use the habits to better your life, but don’t worship any one of them for your entire life.

Physical

When it comes to great keystone habits in the physical domain, they all fall into two buckets:

  • Exercise
  • Food

These two are the pinnacle of the physical domain when it comes to keystone habits. I don’t even have to tell you all the ways exercise helps you in your life[1].

From better hormonal regulation, to energy levels, to looking better, to feeling more confident, to increasing your lifespan and the quality of your life, a positive habit of exercising regularly is one whose effects you will feel in both your mind and body[2].

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Exercise as a Keystone Habit

    When it comes to food, it’s literally the building block of your life’s energy. If you eat garbage, you will feel like garbage—garbage in, garbage out. And your energy levels are one of the most important factors you need to regulate in your life if you want to achieve anything.

    None of your dreams will ever come true if you cultivate unhealthy eating habits, which makes you drowsy and lifeless no matter how much ambition you have. If you really want to improve your health, put down the ice cream and start adding in whole, nutritious foods to your diet.

    Intellectual

    There are many great intellectual keystone habits we can pursue, but I will just name a couple of them that most people will find relevant:

    • Reading books
    • Writing (columns, articles, personal blog, or diary)
    • Learning new languages
    • Learning a new skill set (copywriting, coaching, cooking, etc.)
    • Teaching your skillset or your life experiences

    All of these have their own benefits and can massively improve your life and the life of people around you. When you set goals to learn a new language, for example, you don’t just learn that language; you learn a completely new way of thinking and form unique connections in your mind[3].

    Emotional

    This is a difficult one because, for one, it’s really hard to measure it in any quantitative way. You can’t just call your wife every single day and think that by doing just that, you are a good husband, for example.

    I wrote about the problems of measuring emotional habits before, and I won’t go in-depth about it here, but I will just mention that measuring these kinds of habits requires your subjective analyses. It’s like giving yourself a daily score of 1-10 on the question of “Did I do my best to be a great husband today?”

    The keystone habits of the emotional domain are one of the most complex and difficult ones to pull off because they require most people to change things they do in relation to other people.

    If you want to be more sincere and honest in your emotional responses, that means that you will have to make some people angry by doing that. It can be a difficult conversation you need to have with your spouse or with your friends, maybe a disagreement with your peers and colleagues, or a deep, honest look within yourself about your actions and mistakes.

    Emotional domain keystone habits improve your life at any stage, but since they make us do uncomfortable things, they are the last ones we pursue.

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    Some of the examples would be:

    • Telling yourself that you are the only one who is responsible for your emotions and keeping that standard
    • Calling out passive-aggressiveness in people
    • Speaking your mind even though you know it will bring disagreement
    • Dealing with your own problems first before pointing fingers
    • Asking for feedback constantly, both positive and negative
    • Deciding to be vulnerable even though it means risking being hurt

    The things I wrote above are probably the most difficult things you can ask someone to do, but they are also the most rewarding things you can do in your life. If you want to achieve greatness, you need to be willing to dare greatly.

    Spiritual

    The keystone habits of the spiritual domain are our connection with things that have a higher purpose than just ourselves. This is the place where feel the connection with our communities, with “higher beings,” or with God or nature.

    The spiritual domain is the strongest as a guiding force in life, and some of the keystone habits of this domain include:

    • Finding your life’s purpose
    • Living your vision of life
    • Sacrificing yourself for the achievement of something bigger than you
    • Nurturing your inner voice and connection with the world around you

    To some readers, this might seem like woo-woo, but I can assure that it isn’t. This is about the spiritual dimension of every individual, and if you disregard it, you will annulate a part of you, which will become a problem.

    The Western world currently faces a major spiritual crisis where people feel disconnected with anything in their lives that has a higher purpose than themselves. That’s why people are miserable even though they lead an “objectively” rich life where they appear to have everything but still feel like happiness is not in their lives.

    The Bottom Line

    Keystone habits are amazing life tools, but they’re tricky as there is no right one for everybody. You’ll have to do some self-reflection to figure out which area of your life could benefit most from a keystone habit and then implement it. As the famous adage goes:

    “Knowing and not doing is the same as not knowing.”

    More About Habits

    Featured photo credit: Bram Naus via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    More by this author

    Bruno Boksic

    An expert in habit building

    13 Things to Put on Your Daily Checklist for Boosted Productivity How to Build a Good Bedtime Routine That Makes Your Morning Easier What Is a Routine? 9 Ways to Define a Routine That Works 12 Changes to Make When You Feel a Lack of Energy and Motivation 11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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