The Power of Keystone Habits
All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” -William James
The importance of habits and how to change them has been obsessing me for the last few months. I’ve read 8 or 9 books on the science of habit change and I wrote this post for r/disciplined and r/psychonaut, which were well received. (Thank you all by the way.)
I’ve amassed an overwhelming amount of notes and have been trying to chisel them down to the essential. We are drowning in information and I don’t want to add to the noise. Luckily, habits do not seem to be exempt from Pareto’s Principle. Scientists who study habits and how to change them have found there are “Keystone Habits.” These are habits that when an individual acquires them, their “cup runneth over,” meaning, once they establish a keystone habit, many other areas of their lives begin to improve.
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” -F.M. Alexander
The science journalist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, John Tierney, summarizes the results of a Australian Keystone Habit study;
“Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life. They smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol. They kept their homes cleaner. They washed dishes instead of leaving them stacked in the sink, and did their work and chores instead of watching television or hanging out with friends. They ate less junk food, replacing their bad eating habits with healthier ones.”
Gary Keller, author of the Bestseller, The One Thing, summarized the same study;
“Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng have even found evidence of a halo effect around habit creation. In their studies; students who successfully acquired one positive habit reported less stress; less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; fewer hours watching TV; and even fewer dirty dishes. Sustain the discipline long enough on one habit, and not only does it become easier, but so do other things as well. It’s why those with the right habits seem to do better than others. They’re doing the most important thing regularly and, as result, everything else is easier.”
Finding the Fundamental Five
Once discovering and being convinced they exist, I kept reading these habit books intent on finding common keystone habits. There are definitely a handful of research-supported keystone habits, but what I found beautiful is how adaptive humans are.
We are myth making animals. Any habit change can be a keystone habit if the individual creates a powerful enough story around the habit (and this has some interesting implications), but here are the five I found to be well supported and seemingly universal;
- Daily Pages/Journal Writing
Skeptic Disclaimer: The amount of space it would take to scientifically justify each of these 5 would take up quite a few lengthy posts by themselves (and I haven’t organized my notes well enough yet lol), that I hope you’ll take my word for it, but I encourage the curious to search for themselves and I’m confident you’ll come to similar conclusions.
If I had to pick which of these five habits is the most important, I’d choose diet, but the amount of work and personalization required to tackle that habit is beyond the scope of this current post. The next two that I think tie for second place are both very easy, cheap, and simple to implement. The two are Meditation and the Daily Pages.
For this post I’ll offer the simple science of habit change as it applies to meditation.
Implementing a Keystone Habit; Meditation
Habit change is remarkably easy when you understand how to approach it.
- Focus on a single habit change at a time: Meditation
- Make the habit change simple, small, and measurable. I will meditate for at least 5 minutes every day.
- Create Implementation Intention. (If situation y, I will perform behavior z) Before I start my work, I will meditate.
- Monitor your progress. I will mark a large red X on my calendar each day I meditate.
It really is that easy. Only focus on one new habit at a time. Make the habit measurable and small (you can always do more.) And monitor! Hold yourself accountable.
I’ve tried to meditate regularly 4 or 5 times in the last 6 years and never got past a week. I failed because I tried doing too much too soon and didn’t monitor. Using the simple science of habit change, I’ve meditated all but 9 times in the last 2 months. It isn’t perfect but it is by far the most consistent I have ever been.
This habit change science is changing my life and I want to share it. If you want a more in-depth instruction on how to use the science of habit change to acquire some habit other than meditation, read this.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “nothing haunts the child more than the ghost’s of the parents”. Our habits are our ghosts. They are the unconscious, automatic zombie-like behaviors that get us through our days. I currently don’t have children, but I think we owe our future children a parent and a role model who has done the work to exorcise as many of their ghosts as they could, and replaced them with loving, supportive, and compassionate guardian spirits.
The fundamental five are only stepping stones to the more abstract but equally impactful psychic habits we have, but this is where to start.
“Our spiritualities will be found not in what we profess but in where our energies are most invested most hours of most days.” -James Hollis