Habit Building Strategy

Anchor Habits: How to Establish a Strong Foundation for Building New Habits

A step by step guide to creating an environment in which habits can flourish and grow.

Leslie Brooks
Dec 28, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by LUM3N on Unsplash

hat if I told you that one positive habit could change your life? What if one habit could be the catapult that launches you to success in other areas of your life? What if one habit could be the key to unlocking a winning mindset that can take you wherever you want to go?

Well, it’s true. It could, it can, and it will if you know how to choose the right habit, make it the right size, and implement it in the right way.

That’s what I’m going to show you today. But first, I’ll share how this worked both in the business world and my own life.


The anchor habits strategy of Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa

Wikipedia Public Domain Photo, Dept of the Treasury

Paul O’Neill was brought on as CEO of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) during a very tough time in company history. They were suffering from serious financial losses.

When Paul was introduced to a group of investors and analysts in October 1987 as the new CEO of Alcoa, they expected to hear him talk about things like revenue and expenses, debt ratios and earnings before interest, tax depreciation, and amortization. Instead, this is what he told the Wall Street group…

“I want to talk to you about worker safety.”

Meeting attendees began asking the standard questions for meetings like these. Questions about things like inventories and capital ratios.

O’Neill’s response was…

“I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

from the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

O’Neill was establishing safety as the company’s anchor habit. This habit would be the foundation upon which all other company improvements would be built.

It was a perfect place to start as it was something that everyone could get behind from the front line employees on up. Focusing on quality protected employees by keeping them safe and trickled down positive effects on the quality of the work done and the products produced.

The organization maintained its focus on safety over O’Neill’s tenure. Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost workdays to injury per 100 workers to 0.2. By 2012, the rate had fallen to 0.125.

Establishing the anchor habit of safety also led to Alcoa quintupling it’s revenue by the time O’Neill retired 13 years later.

Anchor habits build more than just businesses. You can multiply your own results with a solid anchor habit too.

Here’s how I did this in my own life.


My personal journey with establishing an anchor habit.

I’ve practiced meditation off and on for the last 10 years. In the beginning, I struggled with consistency, but eventually, it became a natural and regular part of my morning routine.

I do it for the same reasons that safety made a difference for the employees at ALCOA. It’s important for my wellbeing. It helps me to survive and thrive through challenging times.

This is the exact mix you want for an anchor habit. It has to feel necessary so that it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll do it every day. Now that it’s a well-established habit, not doing it feels weird like walking out the door without brushing my teeth.

How to find your anchor habit.

Here's the good news…

Your anchor habit already exists. You’re already doing it. It’s a well-established part of your routine and it’s probably automatic.

It’s typically a habit you believe is vital, otherwise, you wouldn’t make a point of doing it daily. No one has to remind or motivate you to do it. You just do day after day.

You may already know what your anchor habit is. If so, great! You can skip the three steps coming up and move on to the “Building Phase” section below.

If you aren’t sure, I’m about to show you how to find it. It’s going to take a few days and a little tracking, but what you’ll discover is well worth the time you’ll spend.

Step One — Set up your tracking system.

For the next seven days, I want you to record your routines. You can use your own system or create a simple spreadsheet like the one below.

It divides your day into three segments.

  1. Morning routine
  2. Afternoon routine
  3. Evening routine

You can segment your day out further if you want to track with a higher level of detail. For example, your morning might be broken down like this.

  1. Early morning
  2. Mid-morning
  3. Late morning

Or maybe you’ll divide it into pre commute and post commute activities. How you slice it is up to you.

Step 2 — Fill in your tracker daily for the next 7 days.

I’ve done this with “X” in my example above.

It’s important to track a full week including weekends. You want to see how your weekend habits differ from your weekday ones and which habits stick no matter what day of the week it is.

I know that paying this level of attention to your daily activities may feel like a pain at first. Just remember, you’re only tracking for one week. The benefit of what you learn from this will far outweigh whatever annoyance you might feel from a week of tracking.

Step 3 — Analyze your data.

Look for patterns in your days. What are you doing over and over again? Highlight the repeated habits so they stand out in your tracker. (see the yellow highlighted rows in the example above)

Some habits are weekday only habits. They are tied to work, school, ETC. But the ones you do all seven days of the week are core to your being. So if you want to take it a step further and really get a strong anchor to build from, look for habits that you did consistently for all seven days. Habits like these are the ones you do these no matter what. These are strong candidates for anchor habits since they are daily and already well established. (see the green highlighted rows in the example above)


Building phase

Now that you have found your anchor habit, you can attach a new one to it and start building on the foundation and stability of your anchor. Here are a few things to remember that will help you build smarter and not overwhelm your anchor with more weight than it can bear.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Step 1 — Start small.

Your anchor may be strong but it’s only accustomed to carrying its own weight. You won’t know how much extra it can handle until you try something out.

Whatever new habit you choose, downsize it so you can test the strength of your anchor first. Here’s an example from my life that goes back even further than my meditation habit.

When I decided I wanted to be consistent with meditating in the morning, I used brushing my teeth as my anchor habit.

I tried practicing for 20-minute sessions but was struggling badly with it. I became frustrated with my inability to sit still and relax. That set a negative tone for the start of my day. This was the exact opposite of what I was going for. So I tried scaling back my session time instead.

I took my daily goal down to 5 minutes. I figured I could always fit that into my morning routine. I thought could maintain a decent amount of focus for that period of time too.

Step 2 — Be flexible

Even small habits may need room for margin from time to time. There were days when I felt like I could only spare a minute, so I meditated for a minute. There were also times when I needed more than five minutes so I meditated for longer.

In both cases, two things are true.

  1. I maintained consistency in my practice by meditating each morning.
  2. I gave myself what I needed and what I was able to do at that time.

Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthed by an increase in the number of repeated acts. — Mortimer J. Adler

Over the years, I've seen returns on my investment in much the same way that Paul O’Neill did with Alcoa. I too have quintupled my returns over the last several years of building core wellness habits.

My meditation habit led to consistency and wins in other areas of my life. Here are just a few things that my practice opened doors for.

  1. I built a consistent workout habit.
  2. I made small changes to my diet and my family’s diet.
  3. I made time for morning prayer and reflection using my meditation practice as an anchor habit.
  4. I do a few sets of push-ups each morning after prayer and meditation. (more anchor habits)
  5. I read one piece of inspirational, motivational or educational content daily. These things spark ideas and inspire topics for my writing and coaching activities.

Put it all together…

You already have the foundation you need to form and develop new habits. It lies somewhere in your existing habits. Maybe you already know what your anchor is and you can start right away. Maybe you’ll need some time to get familiar with your patterns so you can identify your anchor habit. Either way, your starting point is right there waiting to be discovered.

Once you know where to begin, start small. Monitor your performance. Scale-up when you are ready or scale back if that’s what you need to do to stay on track.

Consistency is the ultimate goal. Once you’ve achieved it and maintained it over time, your new habit will become automatic. Then you can move on to build your next habit for well being and watch the results multiply before your eyes.


The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Leslie Brooks

Written by

Coach/Behavior Change Specialist. Learn how to be habitually healthy with simple solutions you can use today. https://www.lesliebrooks.com/free-ebook

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

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