The Habit: Week-8 (Identify ONE Keystone Habit Related to your Goal)

Last week’s challenge was to identify one wildly important goal. This week our challenge is identifying ONE Keystone Habit related to your goal. You might be wondering, what is a Keystone Habit?

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes keystone habits as, “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”

A keystone habit is powerful because it causes us to modify our behavior in other areas of our life. Habits that foster discipline and impulse control are keystone habits. Discipline in one area of our life has been demonstrated to improve self-control in other areas.

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When we develop the habit of discipline, and we give ourselves more evidence to cultivate the belief that we are disciplined. Affirmations like, “I am disciplined,” must be supported by evidence if we are going to convince our inner cynic. The more evidence we provide through our actions, the more we reinforce our belief, the stronger that belief becomes. This positive reinforcing-feedback loop can alter our lives.

Self-control is like a muscle, which can be developed through regular use. Exercising self-control, discipline, becomes a habit. The habit of doing what we should and not falling prey to inner weakness is the greatest habit we can cultivate. Every successful person develops the habit of discipline related to their craft. 

Psychologists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng conducted a study in which participants stuck to a regular exercise routine. After two months, the participants performed better on other self-control tests. Outside the lab, there were unexpected benefits. The exercise habit leads to significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors such as less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; and fewer hours watching TV. [i]

Mark Muraven, Ph.D., at the University of Albany in New York, conducted a study in which participants practiced small acts of self-control for two weeks. Participants demonstrated significant improvements on a laboratory measure of self-control. His results were consistent with Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng’s self-control strength model that compared the development of self-control to the development of muscular strength through lifting weights.

Each time we exercise self-control, our capacity increases. He concluded that “the results suggest that by practicing small acts of self-control, overall self-control capacity can be increased. Put another way, it is possible to strengthen the self-control muscle through exercise, leading to better outcomes.”[ii]

If you have difficulty exercising discipline in one area, you can use this halo effect to your advantage by first developing self-control in another area. This approach will improve your chances of success. While it would be best to develop the most impactful habit, related to your wildly important goal, you might want to take this indirect approach. For example, if you want to lose body fat, the most impactful activity you could do, would be logging your food to create a caloric deficit on the MyFitnessPal app (Google or iTunes), but if you find controlling your eating is too difficult, you might begin with daily exercise.

Daily exercise will make you more mindful of what you are feeding your body as fuel, and it will build your self-control muscle. I believe exercise is an easier habit to develop because it doesn’t involve sacrificing foods we enjoy and exercise itself provides its own rewards.

Exercise releases endorphins that make us feel wonderful. Completing a tough workout provides us with a sense of accomplishment which makes us feel great about ourselves, boosts our confidence, and triggers the release of dopamine. When our dopamine system is activated, we are more positive, excited and eager to go after goals.

Eventually, you could develop the habit of controlling your food portion sizes. A portion of protein is roughly the size of your palm, a portion of carbohydrates is what will fit in your cupped hand, and a portion of fat is the size of your thumb. You can eat large amounts of vegetables since they have a low caloric density, and are rich in nutrients and fiber. As your discipline muscle strengthens, you might find logging your food isn’t as difficult as it once was.

This indirect spillover benefit is akin to the advice of training your legs to develop bigger arms. Compound exercises engage two or more different joints stimulating multiple muscle groups. They place much greater stress on the body than single joint arm training. This greater stress boosts our testosterone and growth hormone levels. Exercises like the squat and deadlift make our bodies more anabolic, by improving our hormone profile, which spills over into the development of other muscle groups, like the arms.[iii]

The most effective tool for developing a new habit is creating an action trigger. An action trigger is a specific time and place when you pre-decide you will execute a specific action. In the scenario we have been discussing, you could pre-decide that you are going to work out first thing every morning.

To make sleeping in harder, and conversely getting up easier, you could shape your environment by charging your phone in the bathroom. This will force you to get out of bed to turn it off. You could also layout your workout clothing the night before. This will save time, and make exercising that much easier in the morning.

Action triggers are akin to forming an instant habit because it eliminates the need to decide. It allows your mind to essentially operate on autopilot, like when you perform a behavior out of habit.

How effective are action triggers? Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist, at New York University that has pioneered research on the power of action triggers conducted a study involving student participation rates on an extra credit writing assignment.

Students had to write a paper describing how they spend Christmas Eve and submit the paper by December 26th. One group was required to create an action trigger for completing the assignment. For example, “I will write the paper, while sitting at the kitchen table, at 6:00 AM Christmas morning before everyone wakes up.” The participation rate for the group that did not create an action trigger was 33%, while the group that created a trigger had a remarkable 75% participation rate!

Your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to identify and cultivate ONE Keystone Habit. You might want to brainstorm all the various habits you could form. After you have created your list of possible habits, ask yourself:

  1. Which habit would be most impactful?
  2. Can I develop this habit directly or do I need to build-up to this habit indirectly?

If the answer to the second question is NO, look for the next most impactful habit, and repeat the series of questions until the answer is YES.

Until next week, good luck!

Success requires you develop the habit of discipline. Change your habits, change your life! 

Best wishes and Best Health!

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[i] Oaten M, and Cheng K, “Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise,” Br J Health Psychol. 2006 Nov; 11 (Pt 4):717-33.

[ii] Mark Muraven, Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance, J Exp Soc Psychol. 2010 Mar 1; 46(2): 465–468. doi:  10.1016/j.jesp.2009.12.011

[iii] ANTHONY J. YEUNG, Want Bigger Arms? Then Keep Doing Squats ,, December 6, 2016



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