Keystone Habits: 10 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?

You may not realize it, but there are certain habits that may be unrelated to your goal that help ensure you succeed at reaching it.

These are called keystone habits, and they can be life-changing.

As you know, 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.

However, if you can break these big goals into small, manageable habits and begin with very small increments of time, your goals won't feel so daunting.

By starting small and increasing your time slowly, your odds of creating a sustainable habit are dramatically improved.

But there's another tool you can use to support your goals and make it easier to create any habit you want to. That tool is a keystone habit.

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 chain reaction that leads to new and positive changes in your life and helps you reach bigger goals.

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 using keystone habits to 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 inspire and motivate you. They unlock a cascade of other positive behavior changes using far less effort than you would if you established 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 — and improve your life.

So you might wonder, “What are the best keystone habits?” We've outlined a keystone habit list to help you figure that out.

10 Keystone Habits That Get Big Results

1. Regular 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.

woman writing in journal keystone habits

And it doesn't have to do 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 five minutes a day, every day, until the habit is established.

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.

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.

Family dinners also improve relationship communication between family members and help children build the habits of participating in family chores.

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.

In his book, Make Your Bed, Admiral William H. McRaven, shares life lessons he had learned during his Navy Seal trainingHe stresses the importance of creating routines beginning with the keystone habit of making your bed.

If you can accomplish this one habit first thing in the morning, you'll find you're inspired to stick to other habits throughout your day.

5. Practicing 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.

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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. According to an article in Scientific American,

In fact, visualizing movement changes how our brain networks are organized, creating more connections among different regions. It stimulates brain regions involved in rehearsal of movement, such as the putamen located in the forebrain, priming the brain and body for action so that we move more effectively.

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.

7. Planning 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.

Keep a journal or notebook beside your bed, and before you go to sleep, write down your goals and plans for the next day. Try to get specific about exactly the actions you'll take and when you want to take them.

Establishing this routine makes it much more likely that you'll follow through the next day.

8. Creating a Daily Accountability System

Another essential keystone habit is developing and maintaining accountability for any other habits you're trying to establish.

Whether it's exercise, meditation, writing, or any of the keystone habits listed here, your efforts will be easier if you report on them daily.

When you're accountable to a group or another person, you are far more likely to follow through and be motivated to start other habits.

You can use a social media group, a friend, or a family member to keep you accountable to your daily habit goals. Just be sure they are people who won't easily let you off the hook if you neglect your habit work.

9. Brushing and Flossing Your Teeth

Like making your bed, taking care of your teeth in the morning is another keystone habit that sets your day off on a positive note.

It also inspires you to practice other self-care habits like taking care of your skin, grooming your nails, and drinking water regularly.

Tooth brushing is often used as a trigger habit or cue to remind you to begin a new habit you might be developing because it's such a common habit. However, only 30% of the population flosses regularly. So brushing your teeth could be the perfect keystone habit to inspire and remind you to floss.

10. Morning Mindful Meditation

Establishing a habit of starting your day with a morning meditation can cultivate a sense of calm that lasts all day.

Research shows that meditation can improve memory, reduce stress, and increase productivity and motivation to achieve your daily goals. Start with 10-15 minutes each morning, and experiment with different meditation techniques to find what works best for you.

Are you ready to develop some keystone habits?

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.

Final thoughts

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.

7 thoughts on “Keystone Habits: 10 Small Changes That Create Big Results”

  1. 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!

  2. 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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