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.
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.
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.
When it comes to great keystone habits in the physical domain, they all fall into two buckets:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 16 Everyday Habits of Highly Productive People
- How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit? Science Will Tell You
- 13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away
Featured photo credit: Bram Naus via unsplash.com