What are keystone habits?

Charles Duhigg coined this term in his book The Power of Habits.  According to Duhigg, a keystone habit has power to to change your self image, that is, to make you see yourself in a different way.

Keystone habits move you closer to a goal and give you a sense of accomplishment.  They also enhance your ability to acquire other beneficial habits.  Before we discuss some examples, let's understand why this is an important topic to discuss. 

Why are they important?

Benefits of keystone habits include:

  • Making healthier eating choices
  • Procrastinating less
  • Keeping up with household chores
  • Reducing credit card use
  • Increased confidence
  • Higher grades in school
  • Better emotional control
  • Generally feeling better and being more productive

Examples of keystone habits, and why each one is useful

Getting up early

Belle Cooper, Tiago Forte, and Benjamin Franklin all credit being 'early to rise' for their success.  Pair it with the next one, and you have a great formula for productivity.

Planning your day the night before

Imagine you plan to take a trip on Saturday.  You don't start thinking about the details until Saturday morning, when you wake up and decide where to go, what to bring, and who to invite.  How much fun will the trip be?  Not much.  In the same way, we will accomplish little if we don't start the day with a plan.

Want another reason to plan the evening before?  The unfinished work of the day will be on your mind.  Your next day's work will be clear to you.  List everything you plan to do the following day, along with your motivation.  Do not count on yourself to recall either of those two things.

And go to bed on time.  Don't be night guy.

Regular exercise

Exercise has so many benefits. Countless studies support this.  If you exercise properly, you can add years to your life.  It helps you feel better and think more clearly, so you can accomplish more.  Additionally, it tends to make eating healthy easier.


When you practice writing, you learn how to structure your thoughts more coherently, to construct rational arguments, and to tell stories in a clear and insightful manner. You will also become a more insightful thinker as a result.

(Food) Journaling

Tracking what we eat makes us more mindful.  It's easier to spot unhealthy trends.  Journaling of any kind is beneficial in the same way.  In fact, keeping a future self journal is a great way to avoid a host of common regrets.

Eating family dinner

Duhigg contends that children from families who share dinner regularly tend to have better grades, more self-confidence, and better self-control.

Making your bed

Judy Dutton cites a survey of 68,000 people by Hunch.com that reveals 59 percent of respondents don't make their beds.  Of those, 62 percent consider themselves unhappy.  On the other hand, of those who make their beds, 71 percent consider themselves happy.  She adds, "Bed makers are also more likely to like their jobs, own a home, exercise regularly, and feel well rested, whereas non-bed-makers hate their jobs, rent apartments, avoid the gym, and wake up tired."

Navy SEAL and admiral William McRaven delivered a commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin in 2014.  Among other things, he advised the graduates to make their beds each morning.  Here are the reasons he gave:

  • You will have accomplished the first task of the day... By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.
  • Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
  • If by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

Practicing visualization

I'll quote myself here:

There is a giant body of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that visualization greatly increases the odds of success. 


This keystone habit can lead to greater mindfulness about nutrition and calorie intake since you are creating the meals you eat.  It is also a great foundation for socializing.  Speaking of which:


Relationships are beneficial to everyone (if you need convincing, go here).  Some people make it a habit to have some contact with a different friend every single day.


Reading is a very useful habit.  Studies show reading is a self-improvement tool in itself.Thanks to Stanislaw Pstrokonski for directing me to this paper: Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (1998). What Reading Does for the Mind. The American Educator, 22, 8-15. Note Table 1 on page 3. Compare the vocabulary used in TV shows and books.  The vocabulary in preschool books is more diverse than that found in most television shows.  No wonder the paper reports a correlation between time spent reading and accurate knowledge of the world.  There is, however, an inverse correlation when it comes to time spent watching television!  Most people recognize that reading non-fiction is beneficial, but reading fiction can also help the reader develop beneficial qualities.

The key to developing this habit:  Read something you enjoy.  And don't be afraid to stop reading a book you're not enjoying.  There's no obligation to finish a book you are reading for pleasure.

Other useful habits

Even Brushing your teeth can be a keystone habit.  You can also build other habits onto it, including flossing.  

Image from CharlesDuhigg.com: a flowchart for discovering ways to replace one habit with another

How to create a keystone habit

Whole books have been written on this subject, but the basic idea is fairly simple.  As the image above shows, every habit involves a cue, a reward, and a routine.

A cue is something in the environment that triggers the behavior.  The reward provides the motivation.  You can change a habit by simply associating the reward with a different behavior.  This will likely take time, which is why many people think a new habit takes 30 days (or some other arbitrary number) to form.  Actually, the time frame isn't fixed.  It will take the brain as long as it needs to associate the reward with the new behavior.  Logically, if the reward is big, it will require less time.

To build a habit:

  • Start small.  The behavior should be easy to do.  If you want to run regularly, for example, start the habit by placing your running shoes where you can see them. For the first few days, don't expect more of yourself than this.
  • Make sure the reward matters to you. 
  • Here's why replacing an old habit with a new one works: The existing habit assures you that you already crave the reward.  However, you may also be able to find something new to reward yourself with.
  • Make sure the reward quickly follows the behavior.  You are a human animal.
  • Identify the cue.  If you're starting from scratch, create one.  It could be an alarm on your phone.  It could be a sign on your bedroom door.  Be creative.
  • Remind yourself why you are forming this habit.  Be sure that your future self remains convinced.
  • Track your progress.  You could mark off days on a calendar.  You could move paperclips from one jar to another.
  • Establish a daily time and place for your new habit.  Schedule it for a time when you are likely to be rested and uninterrupted.
  • Create implementation intentions: When __Cue__, I will  __Behavior__, because __Reason__.

By all means, keep track of your efforts somewhere (keep a habit journal).  That way you'll be able to see how far you've come and celebrate your accomplishments!