3 ways to identify your “keystone habits”, habits that change everything

Takeaway: Keystone habits create a chain reaction; changing and rearranging your other habits as you integrate the habit into your life. They have 3 characteristics: they give you numerous small senses of victory; they serve as the soil from which other habits grow; and they give you energy and confidence to do more.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 6s.


One of my favorite ideas from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is the idea of a “keystone habit”. Keystone habits create a chain reaction; changing and rearranging your other habits as you integrate the habit into your life. According to Duhigg, “[k]eystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate”, and they “start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

How can you identify the keystone habits in your life? In a guest post for Lifehacker, Duhigg named three characteristics of keystone habits that you should look out for:

1. Keystone habits give you “numerous, small senses of victory”. Look out for habits and routines that provide you with a pattern of small wins. According to Duhigg, “small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves”, and these are “places where momentum can start to build”. Small wins “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince [you] that bigger achievements are within reach”.

2. Keystone habits are “the soil from which other habits [grow]”. Keystone habits aren’t just a new habit, like drinking water right after you wake up; they’re a platform off of which other habits can grow. For example, I work out every morning at 6 am. This started as a new habit, but over time my morning workout has spawned other productive habits, like drinking a pre-workout drink, eating an apple before the gym, stretching in the morning, and preparing a protein shake and a healthy breakfast afterwards. I’ve even recently started to define my three outcomes for the day while I’m on the treadmill in the morning.

3. Keystone habits give you energy and confidence to do more. I’m paraphrasing what Duhigg here, because the third characteristic of a keystone habit is a bit more nuanced. Duhigg recommends that you be mindful of “moments when excellence—or change, or perseverance, or some other virtue—seems to become contagious. Keystone habits are powerful because they change our sense of self and our sense of what is possible”. Keystone habits don’t simply stop providing you with energy and motivation after you finish up with your routine; they provide you with an infectious drive to be better and get done long after you’re done.

Some great examples of keystone habits from reddit users: cleaning, cooking, developing real relationships with partners/friends, and my personal favourite keystone habit suggestion: drinking a six-pack of Keystone every day after work. Haha!

Keystone habits have the power to rewire how you work, play, live, spend money, and communicate. Identifying which ones you have can set off a chain reaction that will make you much more productive, automatically.

Which keystone habits do you have? Which ones have you had in the past?

If you haven’t read it already, check out my interview with Charles Duhigg for how you can use habits to stick to your goals. The interview is 8m, 24s, but that’s time well spent in my opinion.

Dig this article?

If you want me to shoot you an email every time I publish a new post, sign up for my newsletter! I know most people are simply too busy to keep checking my site, which is why I created the list. There are no catches, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

(If newsletters aren’t your thing, I’m also on twitter, and you can subscribe to my site via RSS!)


  1. Great advice!

    One of my keystone habits is to do my most meaningful task for the day first thing when I start work. This way I make sure that every day is a productive one, even if I don’t get to do anything else (which occasionally happens).

    • I love that. Reminds me of a book I’m reading now called Eat That Frog, which talks about how you should do your most challenging task first thing in the morning, so everything else feels easy by comparison!

      • My idea is sort of similar but I got for the highest impact task, the one that is going to bring me the closest to my goals. Sometimes that is the hardest, but not always.

        Brian Tracy’s book is pretty good. I hope you enjoy it Chris.

        • I was given the task to read Eat that Frog from my coach. It has helped me well with my day job by silly putting the top 3 task down on a sticky at the end of the day for the next morning. Haven’t finished it all yet. watching the audio book on Youtube. Go Free.

  2. I’m intrigued by the idea that keystone habits give you energy and confidence. That’s not something I had really considered before. But that makes sense. If they can give you enough energy to keep going, the habit can be pretty powerful. I think one habit that does that for me is starting my day ticking off a few tasks I need to do. It makes me feel like I’m getting ahead of things. For some reason it makes me feel good to just get a few things done right away. Otherwise, I feel like I”m just procrastinating.

    • Awesome ritual! Seems to fit all of the criteria that Charles mentioned perfectly. I’ve gotten into the habit of taking on my biggest task first thing in the morning; probably has much the same effect, but just goes about it differently.

      • Do you find it easy to jump right into work straight after your workout and breakfast tackling your big project? Do you have a set work time schedule for the day as well. Also a point I ran across after reading micheal Hyatt and everyone about planning their times and days…. I ask you and other readers, how do you plan the “ideal” work or play day when your still financially committed to a day job that eats the first 8 hours?

        • I find it’s easiest when I have a bit of time to transition from working out to working. Every morning I get up at 5:30, hit the gym for 6, get home for 7:30 to eat a nice big breakfast, and then take between 8-9 to relax, ease into the day, shower/dress, and etc. I’ve found that the practice has helped me solidify my morning workout routine (since it serves as a reward for working out), and it also makes me put less pressure on myself at the beginning of the day, which I find makes me a lot more productive when it’s time to start working (this works especially well when I need to be creative a certain day).

          I think other folks will have to tackle your second question; I’m doing AYOP full-time for the year :) I think structure is key, though; having consistent, set times that you dedicate to your work and your side projects is key to getting them done well. Every week I start by scheduling my meals, gym time, meditation time, and sleep, and then fill in my schedule with personal and “work” commitments.

          Hope that helps man!

  3. I’m curious if the inverse would also be true? Are there such things as “negative” keystone habits which, when executed, propagate additional unwanted behaviors? Instinctively hitting the snooze button on the alarm comes to mind as a behavior pattern that would have a similar “ripple” effect. Which I suppose begs the question: to overcome this do you have to establish a new habit of getting up early (on time) or do you have to change the existing habit of hitting the snooze button? Are they the same thing?

    • If I had to wager a guess, I’d say yes, provided they meet the criteria above (they provide you with a series of small losses, spawn other bad habits, and demotivate you). I think in that case, you would be best served changing the old habit (since breaking habits is so difficult).

      I don’t have the scientific knowledge Charles would have on this, so I obviously only speak from the habits I’ve observed in my own life. That might have to be something I ask him about in a follow-up interview. :)

    • I read and enjoyed “The Power of Habit”, and the answer is yes. The author uses an example of a woman who had numerous destructive tendencies, the most obvious being the cigarette habit. Once she willed herself to cease smoking, other positive habits became easier to create. I highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s book.

Leave a Reply

Pin It on Pinterest

Productivity tips delivered right to your inbox!

When you sign up, every time I publish a brand new post, I'll shoot you off a link to it in an email.

Join 100,000 monthly readers and never miss a single post.

There are no catches, and you can unsubscribe at any time.