Unlock hidden potential with keystone habits.

“Habits are where our lives and careers and bodies are made.” –Seth Godin

In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg tells the story of Lisa Allen, a thirty-four year old woman who, in relatively short order, transformed herself from a drunk, overweight, out of work smoker hounded by collection agencies, into a thin, vibrant, gainfully employed, debt-free, marathon running master’s degree student.

We hear stories like this all the time. What makes Allen’s story unique is that she was also a subject of research at the National Institute of Health. They wanted to learn why and how she did it. What they discovered was that everything hinged on her habits.

According to research done at Duke University, more than 40 percent of the actions people take each day are unconscious habits. Things like: what we eat for lunch, the first thing we do when we get to work, what we do on-line, how we react to criticism, how often we exercise, what we watch on T.V., and what we say to our kids each night.

In 1892, William James said, “All our life, so far as it has form, is a mass of habits.” And it’s no less true today. That fast food hamburger you had for lunch is probably no big deal. Make it a habit, however, and you’re in trouble. Saving an extra twenty dollars this week isn’t going to put you in the penthouse. Make it a habit, however, and you’re on your way to financial security.

The crash diet doesn’t work. The all-nighter does little for long term memory. The emotional boost from that motivational speaker is fleeting. But if we admit it’s true there are no short cuts, and that our lives are a mass of habits—what then? What if we identify some changes we’d like to make to, say, our health, our finances, or our relationships—where do we start? Most of us would agree that it’s possible, with effort, to change our habits. But let’s be honest, considering changing our “our mass of habits” can be daunting.

Fortunately, according to Duhigg, making significant changes doesn’t require conscious reprograming of dozens of habits. Some habits matter more. They’re called “keystone habits,” and over time, changing just one can trigger a cascade that will ripple through every facet of a person’s life.

Exercise, even as little as once a week, is a keystone habit. There’s something about it that makes changing other lifestyle patterns easier.

“Typically, people who exercise start eating better and become more productive at work,” writes Duhigg. “They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.”

Research is also uncovering other keystone habits. Children from families that eat dinner together regularly get better grades, have more confidence and greater emotional control. People who make the bed every morning are better at sticking to a budget, are more productive and feel better about themselves. In the case of Lisa Allen, she claims, above all else, to have focused on quitting smoking.

Further, the concept of keystone habits also works for organizations. Duhigg tells the story of Paul O’Neill, who, in 1987 took over as CEO of the floundering Aluminum Company of America and immediately chose (much to the chagrin of investors) to focus on one very pedestrian corporate habit—safety. Not very glamorous. Over time, however, O’Neill’s obsessive focus on safety resulted in record profits, a market capitalization increase of $27 billion and the quintupling of the value of Alcoa’s stock.

You can’t order people to change,” said O’Neill. “That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

The influential English poet, John Dryden once said, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” Now that we better understand the power of keystone habits, those with ambition and patience can more easily remake both.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Find We Teach We Learn on Facebook and Twitter for daily tips on getting the most out of your brain. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org .

Image Credit: Ed Yourdon

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