The Importance of Keystone Habits

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores the idea of keystone habits.

Keystone habits are good habits which, when practiced, tend to lead to other good habits, often unintentionally. For example, in a study that was done on weight loss, participants were asked to keep a food journal, where they tracked what they ate throughout the day. It was found that “those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories”.

Interestingly enough, the habit of tracking food consumption led to the habit of eating less, most likely due to newfound awareness of one’s eating habits.

An important characteristic of many keystone habits is that they are often habits which depend on tracking and quantifying something that you are trying to improve on. It’s not hard to see how the above study could also be extended to other habits, another example being that of a graduate student who stopped her nail-biting habit in large part by recording each time she bit her nails.

Here are some keystone habits that I personally practice myself in my own life, that I feel have the greatest impact:

Journaling

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I personally keep a journal that I write in regularly, at least once a week. I have a dedicated journal where I write about what is going on in my life at the moment, and my thoughts and feelings on it all. I find it helps me to organize my thoughts better. Many times, it serves as a cathartic release for me. As a bonus, it serves as a record of my thoughts at a given time, and I enjoy reading back on past entries, and seeing how much I’ve changed since then.

There are of course many benefits of journaling. These benefits include improved physiological and mental well-being, improved mindfulness and happiness, and improved focus, memory and cognitive ability, among many other benefits.

Exercise

Death to Stock

This may seem like an obvious one, but there are many more benefits of exercising than people realize:

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why…’Exercise spills over,’ said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. ‘There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.’” (p. 109)

You can read my post on making exercise a habit for a good approach to building this habit.

Reading

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In my opinion, reading is one of the best habits that I have developed in my life. Although I have always been a bookworm from a very young age, as I grew older I found I had less and less time to read. By the end of high school I was only reading books assigned to me from school. Fortunately, I was able to reignite this habit, and made reading a habit once more.

Among the many obvious benefits of reading more books, reading has been shown to improve one’s happiness and mental well-being, and better one’s empathy.

Conclusion

It is always a good idea to pick only one habit to work on at a time. There will time to develop other habits, but if you try to do too many habits at a time, you will end up doing none of them. These keystones habits will inevitably lead to other good habits anyways, so it’s a good idea not to get too greedy in the beginning.

Footnotes

Keeping A Food Diary Doubles Diet Weight Loss, Study Suggests

Three Habits You Can Break or Create Today

Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing

The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning

The Power of Habit: Keystone Habits

Can Reading Make You Happier?