What are Your Keystone Habits?

    Are you a creature of habit, of carefully […]


What are Your Keystone Habits?


  • Are you a creature of habit, of carefully crafted rituals and routines meant to help you function at your best?
  • When those habits are not as achievable as usual, do you feel like a fish out of water, struggling to breathe?
  • Does this situation often make you feel stuck and frustrated?

I personally answer “yes” to all three questions – this was quite evident to me this summer as I turned away from work and my flexible days and regular habits of self care, toward my family and adventures together.   I had to work hard to move out of that stuck-ness and frustration so I could more fully enjoy our adventures.

If you have read any of my other posts about managing energy not time, you will know I am a big fan of (often small) habits and rituals that create a strong structure for well being.  However, I also love going on adventures, exploring new places, having unstructured time, especially with my family.

My experience this summer, combined with reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (see this excellent review of the book by my friend and former classmate Lisa Sansom), caused me to reflect on the following question:

When we are out of our normal routine (say, because we are travelling or because we are focusing more on other things or people, like caring for children or aging parents, or because work has become super crazy busy, or all of the above), what habits are essential to keep in place to feel good and function well?  Or to put it more simply in a metaphor, when we are “away”, what habits do we need to make sure to pack?

Of course the answer to this question will be unique to all of us.   Duhigg’s book can help considerably with our answers by offering us a model for habits and ideas as to how to shift habits.  (I recommend you watch this short video about his Cue – Routine – Reward model.)  His central argument is that habits can be changed if we understand how they work.  His book gives us much insight into how habits work, for people and for organizations and societies.

In addition to the habit model Duhigg presents, what most excites me in  The Power of Habit is the concept of “keystone habits”, and I think you will be interested in this idea too.  Basically a keystone habit is one which, when you follow it,  helps you to follow other habits as well.   Keystone habits offer “small wins”.  (I love this idea: small steps that can lead to huge ripple effects!)  (See this excerpt from the book for more).   For example, Duhigg cites research showing that, for people trying to lose weight, daily journaling about what they ate turned out to be a keystone habit.  (You may know how important I think journaling is – see my journal page for more and how you can join me in journaling.)

Exercise can also be a keystone habit, having a “spill over” effect into other areas of your life. (p.109)   This is definitely true for me – I made this observation last year without knowing of the concept of the keystone habit, in this post Take Your Exercise!

Here is  another powerful keystone habit example, from the Prologue of the book: Duhigg tells the story of Lisa who, by quitting smoking, taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life as well.  She replaced smoking with jogging and that in turn changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on.

A keystone habit for a family might be regular family dinners or weekly family meetings.  A keystone habit for a spouses or partners might be a regular date night.  Anyway, I think you probably have the idea by now.  (Another powerful book that addresses this topic of small wins and steps is The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success, by Jeff Olson. I am grateful to my coach Sabrina Schleicher of Tap the Potential Coaching for sending me this book as a present out of the blue!)

I am trying to keep this post relatively short so I can get out and play in these last days of summer holidays…So, for now, I invite you to consider, in addition to my initial question above:

  • What habits do you have are essential to you being at your best?
  • What are the keystone habits in your life?  (This can be tricky to answer.)
  • What habits would you like to change?

I would love to hear your questions and insights on this and then I can blog about it some more.  I think this is a really important topic and there are so many other directions we could go with it.

Author: Milisa Burns

Milisa Burns is a certified professional coach, former lawyer and married mother of three, with her own website: www.milisaburns.com.

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