Keystone Habits: 7 Small Changes That Create Big Results

If you could accomplish one big goal or create one new habit in the next year, what would it be?

What important aspirations do you have to improve your life, your career, or your health?

For me, it's to continue writing and publishing more books on Kindle.

Also, I'd like to lose some weight and increase my running speed and distance.

Big goals can feel overwhelming, especially when they're physically or mentally taxing and require a lot of time to complete.

If you think about losing 20 pounds, for example, you know you have weeks or months of dieting and exercise ahead of you. Just beginning the goal drains your energy when you think about the sacrifices and hard work ahead of you.

In my Sticky Habits Course, I teach students to break these big goals into small, manageable habits — and then to begin their habit work with very small increments of time (only 5 minutes in the first week). By starting small and increasing your time slowly, your odds of creating a sustainable habit are dramatically improved.

There are many other skills involved in successfully creating a new habit, but today I want to talk about the importance of some keystone habits.

What are keystone habits?

Keystone habits are foundational behaviors that you can build on to create a cluster of good habits. Once you establish these core habits you will see a domino effect that will start a cascade of new and positive changes in your life.

This phenomenon is real and was first outlined by bestselling author Charles Duhigg who wrote The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business.

In his book, Duhigg discusses the concept of keystone habits to your life to actually streamline all of the other goals you want to achieve.

Keystone habits are big or small changes that make success in many aspects of life far easier, regardless of the circumstances you face.

These habits unlock a cascade of other positive behavior changes with far less effort than establishing a single habit from the ground up. If you have big goals you want to achieve or even small habits you are considering, first consider tackling some keystone habits to simplify your endeavors.

What if you work on a particular small, positive change and suddenly you find yourself making other positive life changes?

Here are 7 keystone habits that create big results:

How can keystone habits help you succeed with habit formation?

1. Exercise habit

Exercise is an obvious keystone habit, but it's good to know research backs this up. A landmark study has shown that exercise facilitates the desire to make a variety of other positive changes like eating better, being more productive, smoking less, spending less, and feeling less stressed.

And it doesn't have to be much exercise. Even as little as once a week is enough to kickstart these other changes.

However, a better way to approach the exercise habit is starting with just 5 minutes a day, every day, until the habit is established.

woman writing in journal keystone habits

2. Food journaling

Taking just a few minutes to write down everything you've eaten during the day has many unexpected positive consequences.

You begin to notice patterns in your eating and see with clarity exactly how much you're eating. In studies, those who journaled their food intake began to eat less, make healthier choices, and begin a weight loss program.

Related: 12 Steps To Better Yourself Every Month This Year

3. Eating family dinners

Some keystone habits have a positive effect on the habits of your family members. Eating family meals has been shown to give children a leg up with homework skills, better grades, confidence, and emotional control.

4. Making your bed

Do you make your bed in the morning? If not this very brief and simple habit has been correlated to more productivity, a sense of well-being, and budgeting skills.

5. Visualization

Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who is the most decorated Olympian in history with 19 Olympic medals, credits his focus and success on the power of visualizing a perfect swim before he jumps in the pool. Says Phelps in a 2012 interview with The Telegraph, “Now I have gotten back into the rhythm of it, of seeing what I want to see, seeing what I don’t want to see, seeing what I possibly could see.

Related: 6 Keys To Unlock Your Growth Mindset

I’m trying to picture it all, everything I possibly can so that I’m ready for anything that happens.”  Visualization has been shown to support increased performance in all areas of your life when applied to the desired outcome.

6. Positive thinking

Actively changing your mindset to view your life and circumstances from a negative to a positive point of view creates an attitude of confidence and energy that promotes many other positive habits.

If you practice the habit of positive thinking, even when you don't feel positive, you will eventually change your mood and outlook — and this impacts your desire to perform a variety of other behaviors that improve your life.

beautiful woman smiling while holding her head with both her hands keystone habits

7. Plan your day the night before

When you get in the habit of planning your goals and priorities for the following day, you commit to specific actions that are productive and positive. When you write down these daily goals, you are far more likely to complete them.

These are certainly not the only keystone habits that impact positive change. In fact, you can probably think of many behaviors in your life that impacted a waterfall of new behaviors.

When you're ready to undertake a big goal or a new habit, consider choosing a keystone habit first. Once you accomplish this keystone habit, you may find you easily and naturally follow suit with the original goal. You'll expend far less mental energy and have several habits and goals under your belt as a result.

Related: How to Make Good Habits Stick: 7 Secrets From Research

Did you find this keystone habits list helpful?

Would you like to help others learn about creating new habits?

Would you be willing to send out some love to your friends and family? Please share this post on your preferred social media platform.

Barrie Davenport

Barrie is a certified life coach and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. She has been a featured writer for The Huffington Post, Maria Shriver, and Zen Habits. She is the creator of six popular self-improvement courses. She writes books on relationship skills, emotional abuse, mindfulness, and more.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 7 comments

Hi there
Absolutely loved all of your tips. The one about exercise motivating you to make other positive changes was particularly interesting to me. One of my biggest pieces of advice to people who ask my thoughts on improving their lives is making stress management a top priority. When we feel good, we want to make decisions that keep us feeling good; the changes we need to make don’t seem so hard, or we don’t seem as resistant to them because we have a stronger desire to get whatever lies on the other other side of these choices. The idea of breaking things down into smaller bits is important. When something seems too big, we make that interesting decision to do absolutely nothing. And smaller goals allow for a steady stream of progress, which is a huge motivator. Thanks for sharing!


Wow! The bed making thing…guess my mom really did know what she was talking about! And oh yes, the family that eats together, ritual, routine, daily we ate dinner together and sometimes breakfast. Yep mom, smart, smart, smart.


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