The Keystone Habit: A Catalyst for Lifestyle Changes

Thierry Meier
The Essentialist
Published in
6 min readJun 30, 2015


When O’Neill spoke to Alcoa’s shareholders for the first time, he put everyone in shock and awe.

Alcoa is till date the global leader in light weight metal manufacturing. Back in 1987 however, times were tough. It was time for a new leadership to make the company shine again. They appointed a man with the name of Paul O’Neill as new Chief Executive Officer.

Everyone expected him to introduce plans to cut costs and maximise profitability. But O’Neill knew better. He announced that he will focus on worker safety to to turn Alcoa around. The room was quiet. No one understood. Investors were furious.

Little did the shareholders know, that this was the best decision possible. He argued that worker safety is the keystone habit to Alcoa’s organisational change. Employees at Alcoa handle enormous machines and hot metals. Thus, safety impacts various key metrics. By increasing worker safety, he would foster an environment for creating habits of excellence.

Charles Duhigg discusses the idea of keystone habits in his book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” further:

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organisation. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them in to powerful levers. (..) The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

It is clearly demonstrated how much impact one habit can have. But, it is not always easy to uncover potential keystone habits.

Identifying Keystone Habits

Identifying keystone habits requires self-reflection and self-awareness. Scratching the surface won’t do the trick.

Root-cause analysis are a tool for getting to the bottom of problems. Toyota Motor Company has a procedure in place that they call the “Five Whys”. The Japanese car manufacturer uses it to improve quality by identifying the true causes of problems. Don Norman sums up this procedure in his book The Design of Everyday Things well:

Basically, it means that when searching for the reason, even after you have found one, do not stop. Ask why that was the case. And then ask why again. Keep asking until you have uncovered the true underlying causes. Does it take exactly five? No, but calling the procedure “Five Whys” emphasises the need to keep going even after a reason has been found.

Let’s go through an example. You get home from work and find yourself with a pack of Doritos in front of the TV. Now might be a good time to start asking why this happens. This is how it might look like:

Why am I sitting in front of the TV with a pack of Doritos?
Because I am bored.

Why am I bored in the first place?
Because I am tired and have no energy to do anything else. Not being able to do anything interesting in that state, I get bored and sit in front of the TV.

But, why am I so tired after I come home?
Good question. Maybe because I do not sleep enough. Or maybe the box of doughnuts kill my energy levels. Or maybe because I don’t work out.

Those are some valid reasons. But you could actually even go one step further.

Why don’t I get enough sleep?
Let’s see. I take my laptop and mobile phone to bed every evening. Then, I browse all those interesting sites that keep me up. And once I want to sleep, my brain is rushing 100 miles an hour.

It could be that taking your laptop to bed is the real reason that spawns other destructive habits. Often it is the small decisions we make that have an enormous impact on our life. Find the root cause of your destructive behaviour and you might stumble upon keystone habits.

Impact of Keystone Habits

My favourite example to showcase the effects of keystone habit is physical exercise. Starting to work out regularly years back was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The ripple effect is enormous.

Exercise is a habit that does impact your whole life. Working out makes you receptive for other healthy lifestyle choices. People that start exercising often pick up healthy eating habits, starting to sleep more and prioritise their lives better as Charles Duhigg furthermore points out:

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.

Keystone habits have a spill-over effect on other areas of your life. Keystone habits often come with a lot of obvious benefits such as weight loss, muscle gain and health. But many minor benefits go unnoticed. In the case of exercise, minor benefits include better sleep, increased motivation, higher longevity, increased productivity, increased happiness, better life balance, more confidence, minimises stress and more.

Keystone habits trigger many good habits and various benefits. Those are the habits you want to focus on first before you move to others.

Keystone Habits Everyone Should Try

Keystone habits can vary from person to person. But there are some that work for almost everyone. If you do not find any keystone habits on your own, starting with one of these is smart.

Following a healthy diet
Adopting a healthy diet has major and minor benefits. Your energy levels will be more stable. You will be more productive. You will feel better and you will learn to eat and live more consciously. I don’t think it is necessary to go in to more details here. By the way, I consider Paleo to be a good take on healthy nutrition. It makes sense.

Adding the habit of reading might be the single best thing you could do. It literally makes you a better person in every way. Warren Buffet makes reading responsible for his success and constant improvements. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street Blog wrote a good piece on Mental Models. Those are mostly acquired by reading. Reading makes you understand and solve things better.

It is safe to say that Meditation does to your brain what exercise does to your body. I found Sit Like a Buddha and 10% Happier to be good primers on this matter. Dan Harris’ talk for “Talks at Google” is interesting too.

Learning how to read a book
This one is highly underrated. A year ago, I picked up a book called „How To Read A Book“ . I figured, if I learn how to read a book today, I can profit from this knowledge for every book to come. It also taught me how to write and explain better.

Practicing Gratitude
Being consciously grateful for what and with whom you get to live is powerful. You will become more compassionate and direct more affection towards people around you. Focusing more on what you already have will keep you grounded and present.

Easy, tiger. One habit at a time.

After reading this you might feel enthusiastic enough that you want to implement a couple of those habits at the same time. Easy, tiger. Slow and steady wins the race. Try to focus on one habit at a time and start small. This will ensure that you have plenty of small-wins along the way until the habit is internalised.

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Thierry Meier
The Essentialist

Product Designer. Digital Nomad. Creator of @betterdaysapp. Follow me on Twitter @thierrymeier_.