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What are Keystone Habits? (5 Keystone Habits to Change Your Life)

A keystone habit is a routine practice that helps build the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. They address the source of problems that affect all aspects of our lives–difficulty focusing, a lack of energy, poor memory, a negative attitude, etc.

Adopting keystone habits will help you develop more positive habits by getting back to basics and improving the foundations of your life. Committing to keystone habits is the first step to taking on the big changes you would like to make in order to better yourself.

Too often we try and fix day-to-day problems, such as exhaustion or sadness, without addressing the broader problems keeping us from our goals.

For instance, if you’re having trouble retaining the information you need for work–despite having read through the material many times–maybe the problem isn’t that you haven’t studied hard enough. Maybe the problem is something more basic about your lifestyle that is keeping you from absorbing and retaining the information. Developing keystone habits can address such problems.

Here is a list of 5 keystone habits that you can work on to bring about the positive change you’d like to see:

1. Get a Full Night of Sleep

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Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we get enough done during the day, so we try and make up for it at night. Late nights catching up on work and other responsibilities can cut into sleep.

One of the most important things you should take from this list is how embracing this keystone habit can maximize productivity during the day—which means you can stop working late and break the vicious cycle.

What is a “good night’s sleep?”

The answer to this question varies depending on who’s asking, but generally the average adult needs 7 to 9 hours each night. It’s important to remember that you should be fairly consistent with your sleep schedule.

If you got your 8 hours of sleep by dozing off on Saturday morning and getting up late in the afternoon, you’re not creating a healthy habit (particularly if you work a 9 to 5). Similarly, a 4-hour nap during the day and 4 hours of sleep that night is not going to cut it if you want consistency.

Learn how much sleep is best for you personally, and then stick to a good schedule—even on weekends.

Bad sleep habits are self-perpetuating. If you lose sleep one night because you weren’t productive enough during the day, it’s going to negatively affect your productivity the following day.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

Sometimes, we are so used to insufficient rest, we don’t even realize how much sleep deprivation is holding us back. Sleep deprivation is more than just nodding off at your desk. It affects your ability to function in many ways that can’t be made up by giving yourself a boost with an energy drink.

So, let’s get an understanding of what you’re really losing when you lose sleep.

  • Memory

Sleep deprivation leads to memory problems. When you aren’t well rested, it is more difficult to create memories and to recall memories. Our memory is one the most vital tools in day-to-day functioning.

Memory is especially necessary at work. Whether it’s for your profession or any other undertaking, you should always be trying to improve at any task you put your mind to. When you’re deprived of sleep, you may find yourself having to relearn things and even forgetting things on your to-do list. All in all, you’ll only be working at a fraction of your potential.

  • Mood regulation

Another reason sleep is so important is how it can affect your mood. Sleep is necessary for controlling and regulating your emotions. When you’re sleep deprived, your autonomy over your moods can suffer. Little problems can trigger mood swings, and little problems are abundant when you’re not rested.

Feeling like you’re low on energy leads to feeling unproductive, which can be incredibly frustrating. It’s a slippery slope from there. It’s easy to take that frustration out on those around you or even yourself.

  • Weight gain

Sleep deprivation can also lead to significant weight gain. When you have more energy throughout the day, you’re more likely to engage in physical activities and burn calories.

Of course, being well rested isn’t going to make you feel like running a marathon all of the sudden, but even going for walks or doing anything that requires movement—as opposed to staying at home in front of the TV—can add up.

Being well rested will also boost your metabolism so you burn calories more easily.

  • Immune system

You’re much more vulnerable to illness when you’re sleep deprived. Sleep keeps your immune system in shape, but if you aren’t getting enough sleep, it will suffer. This makes it harder to fend off potential sickness and compromises the healing process of illnesses and even physical wounds.

All of these effects make sleep the best place to start. It is a fundamental keystone habit that will help make the rest of them more obtainable.

Of course, the point of committing to a keystone habit is that you ground a general goal (i.e. to have a  healthy sleep schedule) within a specific routine. So, find out exactly how much sleep you should be getting and set a reasonable bedtime.

Also, consider expanding on this keystone habit by limiting things that make getting to sleep difficult. For instance, if you’re prone to scrolling through social media when you can’t sleep, keep your phone out of arm’s length and read a physical book instead. Studies have shown that screen exposure before bed can be detrimental to sleep habits.

2. Exercise at Least 20 Minutes Each Day

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Exercise is the next keystone habit you should make an effort to work into your daily routine. It’s no secret that exercise is good for your physical health, but you may not be aware of just how much it can influence your overall quality of life.

While we know exercise is a healthy habit to have, remember that you should be able to build off of a keystone habit, making them a foundation for further growth. So let’s take a look at how routine exercise can contribute to that groundwork.

Stress and anxiety reduction

The power of exercise in treating such disorders as anxiety, ADHD, and depression is well documented. Mental health issues can be terribly debilitating when it comes to performing even the most simple tasks in your daily routine. They can even make it difficult to start your day at all—often minimizing the motivation to get out of bed in the morning.

According to Mathew Stults-Kolehmainen, a Yale stress center kinesiologist, stress can cause harm to the brain. However, exercise raises your heart rate—which can actually repair that damage.

Exercise makes you smarter

Routine exercise can benefit your cognitive functioning by increasing your analytic, learning, and memory skills.

Many of us have a gene that is responsible for a particular protein which is linked to such heightened mental capacity. This protein, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), contributes to memory function, a Dartmouth College study found.

It’s important to note, the subjects of the study weren’t doing some arduous daily training routine. They were merely committed to a “moderately paced walking session,” once a day for four weeks.

This goes to show how powerful even carving out a little bit of your day to get physical exercise can be in creating more healthy habits.

Even if you don’t have this particular gene, exercise can help keep your brain in tip-top shape. The Harvard Medical School finds that exercise can “reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation…” and can prompt chemicals to be released into the brain that benefits “the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”

Promotes positivity

Regular exercise can do wonders for your general outlook on life. More and more doctors have taken to urging their patients who suffer from major depressive disorder to get a frequent work out as part of their treatment. This is based on many studies that have found exercise to not only treat the symptoms of depression but to prevent the threat of relapse in a patient.

Negativity is often a matter of what we focus on. Sometimes, the bad overshadows the good. It’s so easy to dwell on negative feelings like fear and self-criticism.

Spells of depression can make us susceptible to forming bad habits that only keep us down, like being anti-social and inactive. In contrast, when you can keep a positive, optimistic outlook, you’re more susceptible to developing productive habits.

Exercise helps your mental well-being by strengthening your brain’s ventral prefrontal cortex.

This is the part of the brain tasked with processing negative feelings and evaluating potential threats. It’s here that our negativity can clog up our thinking, so to speak. Routine exercise has been found to activate this part of the brain, to better process these negative feelings so that you can also focus on the positive.

3. Make Healthy Eating Choices

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It’s no surprise that regulating what you put in your body is important to a healthier lifestyle.

The old saying “you are what you eat,” is spot on. What we eat and drink is literally what becomes the fuel to power us physically, and mentally throughout the day. If you treat your body right, it will reward you with the resources for a happy, productive lifestyle.

Here is why you should adopt a keystone habit with the goal of a healthier diet:

You’ll have more energy

Sometimes after eating too much unhealthy food, I go into the dreaded “food coma” and I just want to stay on the couch and not move. But a good meal doesn’t have to be draining. In fact, a good meal can power you up, without compromising on taste.

Whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, fruit, and vegetables are all essential components of a healthy diet. Surely, that leaves the possibilities wide open for all kinds of delicious meals and snacks that won’t compromise your health.

Consider making meal planning a part of your keystone habit. We often make unhealthy food choices out of convenience. For instance, when you’re out for the day and end up at a drive-thru for a cheap bite.

Keeps you physically healthy

Nothing slows down motivation like falling ill. Like sleep and exercise, a healthy diet helps build up your immune system so that you can stay healthy.

Veggies and nuts are a great source of vitamin E, which boosts your immune system. While this is beneficial in the here-and-now, vitamin E may also keep you healthy in the long run. It helps ward off some cancers, heart disease, and blood clots.

We won’t go into every single food that is good for your health, but be on the lookout for foods and drinks containing vitamin C, vitamin D, and carotenoids. These also strengthen your immune system—and a healthy you is a happy, productive you.

4. Do at Least One Thing for Yourself Every Day

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The keystone habit approach to personal growth is about more than just how well you operate day-to-day. It’s about how you feel about yourself.

Self-care and self-appreciation are important to living a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes we get so caught up in our stressful lives that we don’t take the time to reward ourselves for the hard work. But there is nothing self-centered about taking just a little bit of your day to do something for yourself.

This could be any number of things, depending on what works for you. Have a favorite snack, listen to a podcast, read a short story, visit with a friend–whatever gives you a moment to take the load off.

You can even incorporate another keystone habit into this one. For instance, if you wanted to listen to a podcast, go for a brisk walk. If you want to watch a TV show, watch it while preparing your planned meals.

This keystone habit is especially important to those with hobbies. If you’re a musician, painter, dancer, etc., you can’t let the stress of your busy life diminish one of your passions. Your interests are part of your identity. Your identity is part of what makes you the individual that you are.

So, make that time. And if you don’t have a hobby, you may want to take this time out of your day to learn something new.

5. Be Social

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Humans are social creatures. We need communication for our own well-being. But sometimes nerves overcome our instinct to communicate. Becoming more comfortable with holding a conversation—even with those you don’t know—is a great exercise for strengthening your confidence (and can help you kill it at networking events).

A good way to put this keystone habit to practice might be to initiate a conversation with at least one stranger a day. This will help you break through the nervous feeling of first impressions. Your competence in communication will translate to other social situations–such as job interviews, dates, and important meetings.

Using rejection to your advantage

Sure, every now and then you may be met with a cold reaction from someone who isn’t interested in talking with a stranger. But even these circumstances can be thought of as a lesson in dealing with rejection.

Sometimes, the fear of potential rejection can dictate our lives. But without taking chances when rejection is a possibility, we’d never make any progress. Becoming comfortable with rejection can be the key to self-acceptance, for some.

Communication skills are essential to interpersonal relationships

Exercises that promote communication skills can have valuable benefits to the important relationships in your life, whether the relationship is romantic, family, professional, or friendly.

Often, our problems with others are the result of misunderstandings. When the views or wants of one party aren’t fully expressed or made clear—or when you’re too uncomfortable to speak your mind—you’re limiting how much of the issue can truly be addressed.

The other party can only see the tip of the iceberg.

Keystone Habits Work Together

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Remember, each keystone habit is a piece of the same puzzle–they generally make other keystone habits easier to pursue. So if any seem difficult, you can work on the things that seem achievable, and you may be surprised what follows.

Here are a few examples:

Exercise leads to better sleep

Exercise is excellent at promoting a good night’s sleep. Routine exercise can help prevent disorders like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, which wreak havoc on quality sleep. It can also tire you out and relieve stress, leading to quality sleep.

For me, regular exercise is probably the most important keystone habit. As I’ve committed to and developed a habit of regular exercise, other habits, like sleep and healthier eating, have come much more easily. In part, this is because my exercise goals can’t be achieved without adequate sleep and nutrition. Hence, keystone habits like exercise naturally spill over into improving other areas of our lives.

Eating healthy leads to better exercise results

Committing to healthy eating habits can boost your motivation so that you keep up with your exercise routine. This has also been true for me. Eating protein prompts muscle growth, and even helps repair muscles that were stressed in your workout.

Carbohydrates can benefit your stamina in a workout session, as well as speed up your post-workout recovery process.

There are many other vitamins and minerals that will maximize your potential when you exercise. And of course, lots of water will keep you hydrated and awake throughout the day.

As I’ve committed to eating in a way that supports my exercise goals, I see the results in the gym and my daily life.

All the keystone habits can help with self-esteem

As we’ve seen, being well rested, exercising regularly, and eating healthy foods are all beneficial to your mood. Our productivity is far more dependent on our will to get things done than we realize. We may think we can muddle through our sleepiness or fatigue to get a task done, and often that’s the case. However, “done” doesn’t mean “done well.”

No amount of coffee or shots of 5 Hour Energy are going to make up for the cognitive assets which each keystone habit promotes.

You may be awake, but these habits foster better memory, more acute focus, and thinking capacity. Artificial stimulation can give you the energy, but not the tools.

Conclusion

This is only a brief list of keystone habits, but you should consider where you already have strengths and weaknesses so you can prioritize the habits that will best produce results for you. You may even consider brainstorming a keystone habit that addresses a particular area in which you feel inadequate.

When you invest keystone habits them, you invest in every facet of your life. They are the foundation on which you can build a better you.

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