What Is A Keystone Habit (and why are they so important)?

I could see my eldest dog doing her business about 100 feet away under the shade of a huge oak tree.

I get really frustrated with dog owners who don’t pick up after their hounds.

As such I’d set off sprinting trying to ensure I got there before she’d finished and I’d never be able to find it.

The next thing I know is I’m lying on my back staring up at the tree and barely able to breath.

My entire right side was shooting with pain as I tried to get the air into my lungs that was expelled by hitting the ground so hard,

After a couple of minutes my breathing started to return to normal and the sheer shock of something so unexpected dissipated.

My side was still hurting even though I thought I’d landed squarely on my back, but I seemed to be okay otherwise.

Then I started to get up and realized I wasn’t okay at all.

The moment I put any weight on my left leg I was in agony.

A Slow Road To Recovery


That was almost 2-years ago and the net result was some bruised ribs, but much worse, a high ankle sprain.

High ankle sprains are no fun as they can take a long time to heal and for the most part, rest is all you can do.

It was to be another 6-months before it had healed properly.

Prior to that day I’d been going to the gym regularly for as long as I could remember and For a 53-year-old dude I was pretty fit.

Things then started to change as I rather eagerly embraced my forced sedentary lifestyle.

Instead of going to the gym to work out or do yoga, I’d grab a book, some snacks and maybe a beer and go and sit outside and read.

It’s blindingly obvious what happens when you exchange working out for drinking and eating.

You put on weight.

And that’s exactly what I did.

My weight which hadn’t changed by more than a pound or two in 35 years started to creep up.

What Is A Keystone Habit?

The gym to me is a keystone habit, and a very important one.

A keystone in a structure is the central piece of an archway which all the other blocks of stone rely on to hold everything in place.

The keystone takes all the weight.

Similarly in self development and coaching, it’s a habit that impacts positively on other habits.

The term (also sometimes referred to as a cornerstone habit) was originally coined by Charles Duhigg in the rather excellent book ‘The Power of Habit’ (al)

Keystone habits can be crucial in making it easier for you help your clients implement lasting change.

When I work out I eat better and rarely touch alcohol.

The feeling of all those lovely beta-endorphins racing around my body is enough that I don’t feel the need to eat a pizza or have a beer.

It’s easy when a client comes to us to deal with all their issues at face value, but sometimes one change is all that is needed to start the dominoes falling.

If you have a client who wants to quit smoking and lose weight you can of course get them to commit to leaving the evil weed alone and ask them to calorie count every meal.

That could work, but it probably won’t offer lasting change and it will be a joyless experience for them.

But if you got them to commit to running a 10k race in 6-months time then the natural progression is to quit behaviors that are likely to scupper that promise.

And in no way do keystone habits have to be limited to health and wellness, you can get really creative with them.

Get Creative!

If you have a client who hates her job you could implement a keystone habit of filling in a gratitude journal.

If you get her to list at least one positive thing that went well, no matter how small, from the day at work you will almost certainly start to see a shift in her outlook.

Or if that isn’t greeted with enthusiasm you can suggest meditation every morning before leaving for the office so she can work on fostering equanimity.

Neither mean she has to stay in the job, but isn’t it better she hate it slightly less as she looks for a better one?

Helping clients install new more beneficial habits can be tough, especially if you’re working on numerous ones.

But if you can dig around a little and find a habit that on its own will naturally impact others, then that’s half the battle and they will think you’re super smart – which of course you are.

I’m embarrassed to say it’s taken until very recently for me to get back into my gym routine, but now I’m going again everything else is slotting back into place.

What’s your keystone habit? And if you don’t have one, can you think of one that would propel you to make other awesome changes? I’d love to hear in the comments.



  1. I tend to agree with you Tim, mine is definitely the gym. We recently moved into a nicer digs with a fully equipped gym as our next door neighbor.

    My goal is to crush it…started in 1 month and now at a setback due to fighting a nasty cold and flu.

    All that said thanks again for another great post.

    • Tim Brownson

      Getting a cold often forces people off track as we revert to comfort food and doing very little, but I’m sorry you’ll be up and running again soon.

  2. Zane Dickey

    My keystone habit is to run with my friends each morning starting at 05:15am. it is fantastic because not only do we run for 50 minutes we discuss podcasts or articles we have read and talk the entire run. We are often back home before others are up. On the weekends we go for a longer run and include more people and often have a brunch afterward in which all the runners bring something to contribute. From our runs we now email each other articles for discussion ahead of our runs and we have become quite close. So, we become fit and more knowledgeable at the same time. It is fantastic and something I look forward to each morning. The other advantage to this keystone habit is we feel like we have accomplished something very positive to start the day.