We all have a multitude of good habits and bad habits in our lives. However, some habits have a cascading effect on other habits. Essentially, some habits positively reinforce all of the other habits in our lives.
Over the past few years since I read this book, I’ve tried to identify the keystone habits in my life. They have appeared most noticeably when frequent travel for work disrupts my normal daily routines.
However, being stuck at home for most of the year during the pandemic has allowed me to more precisely identify these keystone habits and how each of them influences the other habits in my life.
More importantly, I can now see exactly how the combination of these keystone habits positively affects my overall mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing.
When I’m able to maintain all of these keystone habits, my life runs quite smoothly. However, when one or more of them are in decline, they all begin to fall apart and my overall wellbeing begins to suffer.
So, to help you discover the keystone habits in your life, here are the 8 keystone habits that I’ve identified in my own life:
To put it simply, I used to be an “idiot on autopilot”. I would mindlessly go about my day consuming a bunch of “junk food” for my mind. Over the years, this pattern of mindless behavior has probably been the biggest source of dissatisfaction in my life.
Now, I start each day with a morning meditation session. I typically meditate for 30 minutes before I begin my day. I practice Vipassana meditation using both biofeedback and neurofeedback to monitor my meditation sessions. This helps me to see how my mind and body are changing over time.
Practicing meditation has several benefits in my life. It helps me to maintain equanimity in the face of cravings and aversions. It helps me to manage my stress, increase my focus, and be more empathetic. It also helps me to be mindful of my other daily habits — both the good ones and the bad ones.
In my 20s and 30s, it was safe to say that I was a “junk-food junkie”. I consumed the Standard American Diet of fast food, processed carbohydrates, and lots of sugar. I was overweight, unmotivated, I felt tired all the time, and I was developing a whole host of preventable health conditions.
So in my mid-30s, I began to learn more about diet and nutrition. Then I ran experiments with my diet to see what worked well and what didn’t. Today, I eat a whole-food / ketogenic diet with intermittent fasting. I consume very little processed sugar, I avoid processed carbohydrates, and I don’t drink liquid calories.
Food is the fuel for your body and your brain. If you don’t have the right fuel for your body and mind, you won’t have the motivation or energy you need to maintain all of the other healthy habits in your life.
I spend most of my workday sitting in front of a computer, I spend most of my evenings relaxing in a recliner, and I spend all night sleeping in a bed. As you can imagine, it can be very easy to fall into a trap of becoming lethargic when so much of our daily lives involve sitting, reclining, and laying down.
So, I try to exercise for 30 minutes or more each weekday. I typically alternate every day between cycling, elliptical, swimming, weight-lifting, and yoga. On weekends, I go for long bike rides to spend time outdoors. I also walk between 4 to 8 km (i.e. 2.5 to 5 mi) each day during my daily walks.
Exercise obviously keeps me physically healthy. However, it also seems to have a pretty big impact on both my mental and emotional health as well. If I’m feeling sluggish or unmotivated, simply doing 15 minutes (or more) of aerobic exercise is the quickest way I know to start feeling more motivated.
I’m a recovering workaholic. If left unchecked, I will continuously work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, non-stop, even skipping meals. However, in 2014, I learned my lesson about the dangers of workplace burnout the hard way. As a result, I now take a mandatory 15-minute break every 2 hours during my workday.
During my breaks, I get off of my computer, go for a walk around my neighborhood, and take a drink of water to stay hydrated. I don’t use this time to check my phone, surf the internet, check social media, or read the news. Instead, I try to minimize my screen time during my breaks.
If I don’t take these regular breaks away from the computer, I will almost certainly end up getting a migraine. In addition, without these regular breaks, I will eventually start to feel like I’m burning out — a dangerous situation that makes it more difficult to maintain my other good habits.
I used to check the news and social media several times a day. However, a few years ago, I discovered that daily consumption of news and social media was making my mind much more easily distracted. In addition, I felt like I was becoming more anxious and uneasy the more news and social media I consumed.
So, as an experiment, I took a month off from both news and social media. I was surprised by how much more focused and less easily distracted I was. In addition, I became much less anxious about the state of the world — especially regarding things that were ultimately outside of my control.
Today, I try to limit my exposure to mainstream news and social media. I have a curated news feed for science and technology news. In addition, I have one-on-one conversations with my friends and family to learn about the important events happening in our world.
This change alone has had a tremendous effect on my overall mental well-being.
Having a constant barrage of notifications appears to have a significant impact on my mental health. It makes it more difficult for me to stay focused. In addition, I begin to crave some notifications and feel aversion to others. Surprisingly, most of these notifications provide me with little to no actual benefit.
So, I intentionally disable almost all notifications on my computer, smartphone, and smartwatch. I operate in Do Not Disturb mode most of the day. In addition, I put my smartphone in Airplane Mode every night before I go to sleep. I don’t let my technology program my habits via Pavalovian conditioning.
I find that this strategy provides me with solid blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on deep work. In addition, I don’t seem to crave all those little social-media pings like I used to. I also check my phone far less often as a result. Being less distracted all day long makes it much easier to stay focused and maintain good habits.
Over the years, I’ve had a tendency to say “yes” to too many things. This has led me to overcommit on numerous occasions. Having multiple conflicting deadlines is my kryptonite. I can juggle one, two, or three balls very well, but throw in a fourth ball and I will drop them all every time.
So, I’ve had to learn how to get really good at saying “no” to a lot of people and opportunities. It’s tough to say no to a good opportunity, but it’s far worse to fail due to overcommitment or to miss out on a great opportunity because you don’t have the bandwidth. If it’s not a “hell yeah!” then it’s a “no”.
Overcommitment creates significant stress for me which leads me to cope with that stress by adopting bad habits. This stress also makes it more difficult for me to get a good night’s sleep. In addition, overcommitment forces me to reprioritize my time away from my other good habits — a lose-lose situation
One of the sure signs that I’m falling behind on one of my daily habits is that I have a desire to stay up late and surf the TV channels or the internet. It feels like a general aversion to the idea of going to bed. I just want to stay up a little bit later and consume just a bit more “junk food” for my brain — instead of going to sleep.
So, each night, I try to maintain good sleep hygiene. I try to go to bed at roughly the same time each night. I try to get enough sleep so that I am able to wake up most days without needing an alarm clock. I also try to create a sleeping environment without distractions so I can sleep deeply and recover each day.
I also do a digital wind-down each night before bedtime. I try to avoid staring at any computer screens or smartphone a few hours before bedtime. In addition, I avoid consuming any news or social media before bedtime. I also use a blue-light filter on my computer screens to help my circadian rhythm.
If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you won’t have the mental or physical stamina to maintain your other keystone habits. Much like dominos, when one falls, the others aren’t far behind. Lack of sleep is often the first domino for many people.
Learning how to maintain good habits and avoid bad habits is one of the keys to living a happy, productive, and successful life. Discovering which habits are your keystone habits makes this learning process much easier. So, I recommend that you learn how to identify the keystone habits in your own life.
However, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. So, I recommend that you track your daily habits using digital well-being software and wearable devices. Then learn how to analyze the data for your daily habits by taking one of my introductory courses on data science.