Keystone Habits

Developing habits is of extreme interest to me. I believe that if a person can develop positive habits that help push them towards their goals, then they will achieve those goals someday. The difficult part is deciding what habits are the right ones, and avoiding the destructive ones. It is important to be intentional with developing habits, however, most people don’t give any thought to which habits they want to develop. Until one day they become aware of some of the poor ones they have. By then it is too late. Poor habits can sneak up on a person. They develop over time without notice, then once a habit is developed it is extremely hard to change. It is critical to make an intentional decision regarding your habits.

Habits come in different forms. Good habits vs. bad habits. Important habits vs. unimportant habits. Productive habits vs. unproductive habits. There is one particular habit that can dictate how you manage all the rest. This type of habit can even change your life. It is a habit so important that once you internalize it, it will change your life.

Before I tell you this habit we need to go over how habits form in the brain. Two books when taken together can give us nearly the full picture. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. These books will give you a foundational understanding of how habits develop, how they can be changed or strengthened, and how to use them to reach your goals.

There are 3 steps involved in developing a habit.

  1. The Cue
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward

The cue is  a trigger that tells your brain to take an action. It is an automatic response you don’t even think about. Your body just starts to act. The routine is the action itself. It can be mental, physical, or emotional. Last is the reward. It tells your brain that the action taken was enjoyable and it should be taken again. This process forms all habits we have, good or bad. Your brain can not tell from a high level if the habit is good or bad. It is just automatic. We have to consciously determine if they are good or bad.

Let’s look at a real life example of this in action. I know we are all familiar with the automatic reach to our phones when we get a notification. It happens automatically when we hear the beep. Sometimes we end up with the phone in our hand without even knowing. The beep is the cue. Picking up the phone to look is the routine. Seeing what the notification is about is the reward. It happens so many times per day it is a habit for all of us to some degree.

The second concept we need to understand is how habits get so strong. For a deep analysis read The Talent Code mentioned above. I will give you a brief idea.

When we try something new we are not that great at it. To get better we need to practice. Repeated practice over and over helps develop our skills until we become proficient. The reason we get better is because the pathway in our brains that control that action gets used over and over. This use helps to stimulate the growth of myelin around the brain cells of those pathways. The more myelin the easier it is for us to do the task.

This process is how habits get so automatic. The cue, routine, and reward pathways for specific actions get used over and over, and promote more myelin around the cells. Before we realize it is a habit.

So, we know there are good habits and bad habits, but the one habit that will change your life is called a Keystone Habit.

A keystone habit is a habit that has the power to influence many other parts of your life. Once implemented and the habit is formed it can change your diet, your exercise routine, your job performance,  your relationships, whether you achieve your goals, and your motivation. They have the power to start changing your bad habits and help you to develop better habits. However, keystone habits are not the same for everyone, and they certainly are not easy to develop. The new pathways of the new habit are not wrapped in as much myelin as the established, possibly bad habit pathways. The brain tries to take the path of least resistance, the myelin path. So we have to fight against this situation.

Another article for reference was written by James Clear about keystone habits. You can see his perspective and story about his keystone habits.

My path to developing keystone habits started with an honest assessment of what I was currently doing and where I wanted to go. Once I figured out what my life goals were – which is no easy task in itself – I looked to see if the things I was doing in my life were moving me closer to those big goals. The good news was some things were moving me closer, however, somethings were not. I also realized there were actions I should have been doing that I didn’t do at all.

After that assessment I made the intentional decision to develop my personal keystone habits. I narrowed it down to 3 possibilities. Exercise, diet, or education. I thought if I could make one of these a consistent in my life other things would get easier and put me on track to reaching my goals.

I started with exercise. I knew that if I could make this a habit I would get fit, feel better about myself, and accomplish more on my daily and weekly to do list. I put it into place and things were going great. Then I had some major life changes that disrupted my pattern. I began to have children. While I love to exercise, and have done it fairly consistently throughout my life, it definitely changed when I had kids. My free time seemed to disappear. I need to reevaluate my keystone habit.

I have recently begun to research different ways of eating. I don’t use the word “diet” because diets always fail in the long term. I wanted to make a keystone habit and a lifestyle change that includes a way of eating that lasts a lifetime. I started looking a different ways of eating and how they affect the body. The one I settled on to try and implement is the Keto Diet. It was a way of eating that burns fat (which helps get me fit) and won’t feel like a sacrifice for me because I love all the foods the allows me to eat. To get started I researched online like everyone does, but then I went a bought a cookbook called Keto in 28. It gave me more than enough recipes to begin.

To develop the habit however, I knew I need to use the cue, routine, reward system. It also had to be repeated every day in a systematic way that I easily implement. I needed a great routine. So, in conjunction with the style of eating I developed a system of weigh-ins, a schedule, and intermittent fasting. The fasting restricts the timing of my calorie consumption not the amount of calories I eat. I only eat for 8 hours during the day. I picked from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm. This helps me to eliminate any slip ups I might have concerning overeating or eating the wrong foods (sugar and grain). If I was eating the starch loaded foods I wouldn’t be able to use the fasting strategy. My blood sugar would be too inconsistent and would make me feel terrible. So, if I want to continue the habit more easily I only eat Keto appropriate foods. Finally I bought a scale that measures body fat and muscle mass along with weight. I weigh in 2x per day and record the results. This is the reward. I can see my numbers changing in the right directions and it is thrilling.

I have been implementing this whole system for about 2 months now. The results are fantastic. I no longer get the intense hunger I used to feel. I also have been shredding my body fat. I believe these results are due to the way of eating and the fasting. The combination helps my body burn fat while keeping me feeling full to make the fasting easy. Having a schedule helps me avoid slip ups by taking away my decision making when I might have a bout of low willpower. Lastly, recording every weigh in keeps me accountable to myself and lets me see realtime results, the reward.

I know this is a keystone habit for me now because I wake up mostly refreshed (we have a baby who sometimes changes things up) and feel great all day long. After about 7 weeks I have lost almost 2% body fat, and nearly 15 lbs. I will update you again when I get to my goals.




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