Wednesday 25 April 2018

Start small: Strong 'keystone habits' are the foundation of success


You can make positive changes such as joining a gym
You can make positive changes such as joining a gym

When we think of overcoming an entrenched habit and changing our lifestyle, it isn't long before our thoughts turn to lengthy to-do lists and complicated plans of action.

Bin this, buy that, call him, ask her... the list is often endless and the tasks insurmountable.

Yet what if we stopped lining up our goals like dominoes and instead trusted in the domino effect that occurs when we focus on just one goal at a time?

This is one of the many simple yet powerful ideas proposed in Charles Duhigg's best-selling book, The Power of Habit.

Instead of writing up yet another to-do list - eat clean, join gym, start meditating - Duhigg says we should identify what he calls "keystone habits" instead.

A keystone habit is the seed from which other positive changes grow; a catalyst that initiates a chain reaction. "The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns," explains Duhigg, before illustrating the ripple effect of regular exercise.

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and become more productive at work," he writes. "They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

We know by now that willpower is a finite resource, and trying to implement multiple habits at once invariably leads to failure. Yet adopting one strong keystone habit doesn't require extra willpower, even though it can yield exponential growth.

Change begets change, both organically and mechanically. One small lifestyle shift will naturally reveal the path to another. Meanwhile, the small victory motivates us to actively initiate more changes.

Adds Duhigg: "Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach."

So how do you change the habit of a lifetime? Perhaps it's as simple as not thinking about it in such monolithic terms. When we start small, the insurmountable becomes accomplishable, and the goal that seems way off in the distance comes into direct view.

Our culture of instant gratification promises us that we can make a meal in 10 minutes, transform our body in seven days and learn any language in a month. The truth is that real results accrue like compound interest. They require patience, time and, most importantly, the foundation of a keystone habit.

Of course, it's easier to identify the keystone habits that trigger a chain reaction of negative behaviour: The mid-week after-work drinks that lead to skipping the gym, overeating the following day and feeling overwhelmed with job responsibilities. The sleep-in that leads to missing the bus, turning up late to a meeting and an overall feeling of impending doom.

Positive keystone habits are less obvious - and often deceptively simple. In fact, we generally only realise their importance when they are removed from our daily routines.

Duhigg gives the unlikely example of making your bed in the morning. It takes less than a minute but, according to the author, it is "correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being and stronger skills at sticking with a budget."

We think change has to be big and bold and dramatic, yet research proves that it's the small, incremental changes that lead to big, long-term results.

People who want to become healthier often sign up with dietitians and personal trainers and invest in all manner of vitamins and supplements. Perhaps they should just start drinking a pint of water before bed and upon waking, and notice where it leads. People who want to stop procrastinating often write up elaborate, colour-coded to-do lists. Perhaps they should just implement David Allen's Two-Minute Rule: If it takes less than two minutes, do it right now.

It's also helpful to identify the keystone habits of some of the most successful people you know: Hobbyists tend to have an excellent work-life balance; networkers have a strong support system. Early risers are generally better at managing their time just as daily meditators are better at handling stress.

If you have difficulty cultivating a keystone habit, you could always break the goal down into even smaller, more manageable, parts. The Fogg Method, developed by BJ Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, advocates thinking small - really small - to get results.

Fogg believes "success momentum" is built when goals are specific and easy. Instead of a 30-minute workout, he recommends that people do just one push-up instead. Needless to say, one push-up generally becomes two and two becomes 10. The 'success momentum' spurs a person on while the victory of a small win keeps them motivated.

The beauty of keystone habits is that they inherently trust in the process. Rather than micromanaging every detail of your life in order to change your ways, why not plant the right seed and watch it grow instead?

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