What is your keystone habit?

Photo credit: Flickr

Photo credit: Flickr

By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor

Picking a habit

One glaring issue people have with making positive lifestyle changes is determining which change to make. Especially if you have made the decision to focus on only one goal at a time (as you should), there comes a time when resistance sets in and takes the form of doubting whether this is the wisest investment of your goal-setting mental resources.

The irony is, of course, that this stems from the natural inability to force new habits, rather than some amazing ability on your part to determine the opportunity costs of abandoning other goals for this one. In fact, this is often the excuse we use when justifying caving in on some habit change. We convince ourselves that devoting this much time to continued education classes is taking away from our performance at work, or that focusing solely on eating more fruits and vegetables might not be as important as focusing on getting our healthy fats.

Preface: “Uniphobia”

Now, before I continue, I want to make something clear. Sticking to one goal does not necessitate totally abandoning other responsibilities. I call this [admittedly understandable] fear “uniphobia.”

While working on your “one thing,” there will obviously still be other responsibilities that must be tended to. Just because you are not focusing on every single goal you had in mind does not mean they will be deteriorating. Rather, they will be in a state of maintenance.

What you will see happens, if you are able to stick to your habit, is that those other areas of your life will still be there once your habit is ingrained. And they will be happy that you stopped half-assing efforts to improve them and can now give them the TLC they need – excuse my odd anthropomorphization.

Rather than spend this week freaking out about your fiber intake and then drop that at a moment’s notice to start hammering in proper supplementation protocols, you could be telling yourself, “You know what, supplementation can wait; let me first work on upping my fiber intake.”

At any given moment, there are a million and one things vying for your attention. It is not your ability to constantly pick the “right one” that will yield success but rather your ability to pick one and give it your undivided attention and energy.

Introducing the “keystone habit”

This is where the “keystone habit” comes into play. This concept originates from Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit.” Because it is understandable that most people aiming to form good habits, especially those “habit novices” to which this is all Greek, will have a laundry list of big changes they want to make, there is an initial cause for “paralysis by analysis” that needs to be addressed.

The keystone habit denotes a specific habit that has far-reaching benefits beyond its anticipated, more immediate payoff. For example, yes, exercise is a great way to get in shape and build some muscle, but upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that it does so much more than just that.

-It forces you into a social setting, if that is an issue for you.

-It can help you get better sleep.

-It facilitates all sorts of positive metabolic adaptations it would take me an entire semester to cover in a series.

-It has meditative qualities, believe it or not.

-It is an amazing outlet for pent up emotions, whether it be anger or even elation.

As you can see, by picking the sole habit change of “exercise” to devote your time to, you are not necessarily causing other areas of your life you wish to improve to decay. In fact, this one habit is actually helping them blossom.

Finding your keystone habit

I first want you to make a list of no more than five life changes you want/need to make. If you cannot boil it down to only five, start knocking off items that are not essential or are not time-sensitive. For example, if getting eight hours of sleep a night has some immediately noticeable, important effect (i.e. you will be well-rested for your grad school interview at the end of the week), you may want to keep that one on your final short list.

Now, start brainstorming habits that will leak into all of these changes you have highlighted. This may well end up being one of the changes itself. Some common keystone habits (these may or may not be applicable to you; use them only as ideas for habits that might impact all the items on your short list):

-Meditation (after two years of [usually] consistent daily meditative practice, I am coming to realize this one is absolutely essential to me and my goals)





Back to the exercise example

Re-read the exercise example I gave and the extra benefits it confers. Now imagine somebody has just written their short list as:

-Improve social life

-Get more/better sleep

-Build muscle

-Become more mindful

-Manage my emotions

Clearly, this individual would be wise to pick exercise as their keystone habit (not to say a better choice does not exist), as it would not only take on the “build muscle” goal directly but also the other four goals. Said person might devote eight weeks to ingraining an exercise routine as habit and may find that most of those other areas are no longer issue areas, thereby eliminating the need to devote four more [theoretical] eight-week blocks to working on them.

Just pick one and go

As my advisor told me when I was battling the overthinking/overanalyzing aspect of habit formation myself, “perfect” really is the enemy of “good.” Whatever you end up picking, after granting yourself a week of preparation (this is an extremely valuable tip I got from Leo Babauta) – in which you determine the logistics of consistently completing your habit – you owe it to yourself to stop analyzing and just go. Put the petal to the metal and do not look back.

To be sure, I still want you to be mindful in your practice, noticing and acknowledging the body’s natural resistance to change, accepting the ride for both its ups and downs. But at the same time, you cannot afford to ruminate on any worries that you might be better off sticking to another habit.

Now, go forth and conquer that habit!


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Author: Ari Snaevarsson

Ari Snaevarsson '17 is a Health Sciences major and Religious Studies minor, and he is the Features Editor of The Gettysburgian. He competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting and has an immense passion for dissecting the habit psychology at play in people's dieting attempts. Outside of reading and bedroom DJ-ing, he has previously maintained a health/fitness blog that also followed nutrition news, No Fluff Strength.

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