How to Build a Better Life By Forming Keystone Habits

Keystone Habits: Jon Santiago at the Great Wall of China

In April 2018, two friends and I visited one of the pinnacle displays of human engineering and design.

The Great Wall of China.

We explored Mutianyu, one of the Wall’s best preserved sections. Spring lagged late during our visit, so winter greeted us instead. Soft powder from snow that fell the night before covered the granite bricks. The Wall seemed to wind endlessly through the hills thanks to a snowy mist that fogged our view. But about halfway through our visit, there was one small problem.

I was winded.

Linda and Mike didn’t notice, but the hike was demanding for me. I was huffing and puffing with each step. As my breathing grew heavier, I wondered,  “Was I THAT out of shape?”

The answer was yes. I knew it was time to improve my health. But, to do that required massive change. I needed to overhaul my entire approach to diet and fitness.

When I had gotten in shape before, I focused only on results. Reaching a certain weight was good enough for me, and I didn’t consider the process. Developing strong habits around eating and exercise was never a priority. And because of that, real change never lasted.

This time had to be different. This time, forming better habits mattered.

Habit building is hard because progress isn’t a straight line. Instead, the journey has peaks and valleys that last longer and shorter than we assume. I was fortunate, though, to already have one building block that would help.

A keystone habit.

In this article, you’ll learn what keystone habits are and why they matter. You’ll also discover how to identify them in your own life. And finally, I’ll cover the steps you need to follow to form keystone habits yourself plus examples of my own.

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    What Are Keystone Habits and Why Do They Matter?

    Keystone habits are the foundation for other healthy habits to thrive. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that they create a chain reaction. And as a result, keystone habits foster the success of other habits. When we have keystone habits in place, other parts of our lives can flourish

    “It’s like making five good decisions for the price of one.”

    Lifehacker on Keystone Habits

    Keystone habits kickstart a process that can alter our lives over time. If radical transformation is what we seek, building keystone habits is where we must start.

    How Can We Identify Keystone Habits?

    Duhigg notes there are three basic characteristics all keystone habits share.

    1. Keystone Habits Produce Little Victories.

    According to Duhigg, there’s significant research backing this. Small wins help in a psychological way. Achieving them convinces us that more success is right around the corner. Keystone habits cultivate tiny senses of victory.

    2. Keystone Habits Create New Platforms.

    Keystone habits are jumpoff points for other good habits to emerge. When we develop them, new and better routines blossom as a result. Think of a keystone habit like the foundation of a building. With a strong one, that building can last.

    3. Keystone Habits Cultivate a Culture of Contagious Excellence.

    Duhigg states they’re found during moments of monumental change. And as a result, these instances of transformation spread across other parts of our lives. Keystone habits transform our sense of self and belief in what’s possible. They build around an idea that we’re capable of overcoming our problems.

    How to Beat Bad Habits and Build Good Ones

    There isn’t one, specific way to develop the right habits. Since we’re all different, many solutions exist.

    This means that building keystone habits varies case-by-case. But when reshaping our habits, there are some general steps that we can follow. Here’s how Duhigg outlines them in The Power of Habit.

    Step 1: Determine the Routine

    Simple neurological loops are central to every habit. They consist of the following:

    • Cue
    • Routine
    • Reward

    So, it’s important to distinguish what makes our own loops. When we do, we have a better chance of replacing bad habits with good ones.

    Step 2: Experiment With Rewards

    Duhigg notes that rewards please our cravings that drive our behavior. To figure out our cravings, experiment with different rewards over a set period of time.

    This doesn’t mean we pressure ourselves into immediate change. The keyword in this step is experiment. We should look at this part of the process as a test where we collect clues about our habits.

    After testing each reward, Duhigg recommends taking notes on our feelings that follow. Writing the first three thoughts that come to mind will do. This is important because it forces us into a state of mindfulness about our actions.

    Also, Duhigg advises to set a 15-minute timer following each reward experiment. When it goes off, review whether the desire to please a craving persists.

    Step 3: Distinguish the Cue

    Since there are many variables involved in our behaviors, cues aren’t easy to determine. To do so with success, it’s important to categorize our behaviors ahead of time.

    Duhigg discovered research that finds all cues fall under five categories:

    • Location
    • Time
    • Emotional State
    • People
    • An Immediate Preceding Action

    When examining our habits, there are corresponding questions we can ask.

    • Where were we when the behavior happened?
    • Did the behavior occur at a specific time?
    • What feelings did we have when the behavior happened?
    • Were there other people around?
    • What event came before our urge to seek reward?

    Our answers to these questions will distinguish the cue for our habit.

    Step 4: Create Our Plan and Execute

    We can start the process of shifting our behavior when finished with steps 1-3. Changing our habits requires developing a plan centered around making better choices.

    It’s best to keep things simple. In my experience, simple execution is more likely to lead to long, lasting change. Doing too much too soon has often led me to overwhelm. When that has happened, I’ve quit rather than persisted.

    Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. Habit transformation comes through time and effort. So, create a plan that you can commit to for the long haul.

    So, What’s My Keystone Habit?

    While drafting this post, I narrowed down two habits that I thought were both keystone. Yet something occurred to me while I wrote: one of those habits seemed more integral than the other. In fact, I wasn’t sure if the other would exist if I hadn’t developed this one habit first.

    That one habit, you’re likely wondering, is a daily mindfulness practice.

    Why I Practice Mindfulness

    I’d long been hearing about the benefits of practicing mindfulness, but didn’t try it myself until late 2016. I was nearing the end of my first long-term trip, a seven-and-a-half month journey around Europe.

    Traveling heightened my senses and made me realize how unaware I was living my life before. As I prepared to go home, I didn’t want to fall into the same trap of a mindless lifestyle. Instead, I wanted to hone that sense of presence I felt from travel into a habit.

    There are two components that constitute this keystone habit: meditation and journaling.

    Meditation has allowed me to distance myself from my thoughts. It’s taught me to separate what happens in my head from reality. Journaling, meanwhile, accomplishes something similar. It permits a moment of reflection about the day before. Putting my thoughts on paper is cathartic, and sometimes new ideas come as a result.

    I once heard anxiety described as worry about the future and depression as worry about the past. The daily practice of mindfulness helps me stay in the moment. I’m far from enlightenment, but I inch closer to it every day I practice mindfulness.

    How I Developed My Mindfulness Practice

    I’m not perfect, but I rarely forget to meditate or journal. That’s because they’re the first two things I do every morning.


    When I first experimented with meditation, I turned to technology. I tested a few smartphone apps, like Calm and Insight Timer, but I ultimately settled on Headspace.

    Why? There was something comforting about the voice of Andy Puddicombe, Headspace’s CEO. Unlike others, Puddicombe, who guided the meditations, brought me to a state of calm. I also liked that Headspace had helpful programs for beginners like me. Its guided meditations teach you how to approach life with better resolve.

    I started small the first few weeks. Sitting for five minutes while thoughts came and went was enough of a victory at first. As I became comfortable, I increased the time I meditated to an average of 15 to 20 minutes.

    That was my standard for a while. As of late, I’ve challenged myself to meditate for at least an hour a day. I’ve also moved away from guided meditations, defying myself to sit in total silence instead.


    To journal, I use old-school tools; not my phone, nor my computer. Pen and paper are enough to do the job.

    I’ve experimented with a couple different methods. Morning Pages, detailed by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, is one technique I’ve tried. If you’re unfamiliar with them, Morning Pages are three pages of longhand freewriting. There’s no format or structure; you write whatever comes to mind. For the sake of time, my routine has morphed from that into a five-minute version instead.

    I also write a gratitude list in which I list three things I’m thankful for from the previous day. Sometimes I may jot the name of a friend or write about the comfort of my bed. There aren’t any limits to what I say. The only rule is that I practice awareness during the exercise.

    There are two more components to my journaling routine. First is writing an affirmation and the second is noting a single goal for the day.

    Writing affirmations seemed corny at first, but I’ve found that it actually helps. If you think about it, we’re our own worst critics. No one berates you more than that little voice inside your head. Throughout the day, you swim in a sea of criticism that’s constructed by your mind. Writing one positive thing about yourself daily is the least you can do.

    How My Mindfulness Practice Has Yielded Another Habit

    Remember, the last two characteristics of keystone habits?

    • They create new platforms for other habits to develop.
    • They cultivate a culture of contagious excellence.

    As I mentioned earlier, I have another habit that I can thank my mindfulness practice for.

    About a month after my visit to the Great Wall, I started to change my approach to exercise. I had moved on to Colombia, where I signed up to a gym and hired a personal trainer to hold me accountable.

    I’m not a gym rat, but these days I exercise more than I ever have before. Working out is now routine in large part due to my mindfulness practice. There are two things I’ve learned from my keystone habit that I’ve applied to how I exercise.

    First is consistency. The daily practice of mindfulness showed me that benefits compound over time. The same can be said about regular exercise. I didn’t expect to transform my health in a single workout. Instead, I felt confident it would change over time if I stayed consistent.

    The second lesson is focus. Practicing mindfulness helped me narrow my attention to one thing at a time, like my breath. I’ve applied this same approach to fitness. Instead of thinking about the whole workout, I place my attention on each individual rep. Before I know it, my exercise session is over and I can move on to the rest of my day.

    A Final Note on Keystone Habits

    Reading this article might leave you with an impression that I’ve got everything figured out. Far from it. Like everyone else, there are so many things I’ve yet to learn.

    We often associate keystone habits with successful people. But we shouldn’t assume that those habits were the cause of their success. To believe cause, and not correlation, will only lead to disappointment.

    So, don’t start meditating or making your bed with the expectation of becoming rich. Life has too many variables involved. Do those things because they bring order. Do those things because they’re the end themselves.

    The value of keystone habits is in the process. Learning to enjoy that process is enough of a win. What comes after that is just a pleasant bonus.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.