Why Keystone Habits Are Key


In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg shares Alcoa’s 1987 turnaround story.

The aluminum giant had recently selected Paul O’Neill as the new CEO. O’Neill made this surprising statement regarding his goals for the corporation: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”

A year later, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high.

The seemingly insignificant and unrelated push for worker safety led to record profits.

Why worker safety happened to be the driver that made an overall better organization is beyond this blog post. The important point is that we should do our best to identify that consistent habit in our own lives that we can leverage for maximum improvement in as many other areas as possible.

Worker safety was the keystone habit that drove all decisions and practices. Who knows how O’Neill identified worker safety as the key to drive all change, but he did and the results speak for themselves.

How to Identify Your Keystone Habits

One of the reasons for the Couch to Cave Challenge (click here to see what in the world I’m talking about) is to establish my own keystone habits.  I know that if I can get certain habits in place, then other results and habits almost naturally happen.

The fact is that I’m not sure if eating the Whole30 way will drive change or if walking 10,000 steps a day will help me make other healthy choices or if lifting weights will cause me to sleep better and be a generally more pleasant person.

That’s why I’m taking a month to give each of these related practices some time to take root.

There are two ways to identify keystone habits:

  1. You just admit that you already know what they are (even if you’re not doing them)
  2. You experiment

For instance, I know that if I get up in the morning and take a walk, my head clears, my appetite seems more intuitively healthy (whatever that means), my mood shifts.

If I write a few pages in the morning, I have the same experience. Grabbing 20 minutes or so of quiet time to write helps me spiritually and mentally.

How about you? What keystone habits help drive change in your life?

Keystone Habits and the 7 Key Areas of Life

The very point of identifying keystone habits is to avoid having to maintain too many practices.

I’ve had a bad habit of attempting too many… habits. I’d take each area of my life (spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, relational, financial, and career) and take on a keystone habit relative to it.

Treating so many habits as key is overwhelming and unsustainable. And it also misses the point of having one or two habits that drive all the others – that one habit that are, that is, as I heard Tim Ferriss say in a podcast recently, the ‘tip of the spear’ or the ‘lead domino.’

The point of identifying a keystone habit is that you can leverage the fewest practices for the maximum effect.

Let’s use a weightlifting metaphor.

Dead lifts and squats work out your whole body.

Those two movements work the same muscles as leg presses, leg curls, leg extensions, calf raises, back extensions, and any number of core exercises,. Furthermore, they plain make you stronger than piddling around with bicep curls and tricep extensions.

Who do you want to help you move the sleeper sofa? Guy who pushes squats, or guy who has an elegant hammer curl, barbell curl, and tri extension regimen?

Keystone habits are, in effect, dead lifts. Keystone habits are squats. You think you’re working your thighs, but you’re also strengthening your abs, your lower back, and a host of other little muscles that you don’t even realize you’re strengthening. Your tendons and ligaments also get into the action.

When you discover and practice keystone habits, your whole world improves. Sure, you have to make sure to tend to other minor habits, but you know that if you just do that one thing, then the rest of them become easier.

What, then, is your keystone habit?

What one thing, if you did it consistently, would rock the rest of your world?

What one thing would help bring your mental, spiritual, and physical health into order so you have the energy to pour into your most important relationships, career, and community?

Write it down. Commit to it. Find some other struggler and keep each other accountable.

If you’d like, create your own 30 day personal challenge (like I did with my Couch to Cave silliness).

Figure out your keystone habit. Take stock of how you’re wired. Give it a go.


I’d love to know if you agree or not…. Are there certain habits that help drive other practices or help improve other areas of your life? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 


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