One of the most useful ideas I’ve come across in regard to making changes is the notion of “keystone habits.” This idea is outlined par excellence in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A keystone habit is one that sets change in motion an initiates the creation of other habits. It’s a starter habit that creates a shift in energy both emotionally and mentally, and sets in motion a domino effect that results in much greater change than was initially intended.
Very often, keystone habits are not those that tackle a goal head on. Rather they focus on some specific activity that will ultimately lead to other changes and actions to meet the goal.
Carla had a problem with spending, and as a result had high credit card debt. She was able to keep up with her payments, but she was making no headway on reducing her debt, and in fact was creating more. She had tried “spending less,” but found it difficult to say no when the whim hit her to buy clothes or dine out. It was too easy to flip out the credit card.
Nothing changed until she decided to develop a single habit, which was to write down everything she spent for a month. She would carry around a little notebook in her purse, and whenever she spent anything, even a few dollars for coffee, she would write it down. There was no requirement to curb her spending or stop using her credit cards. All that was required was to just write down every expenditure.
It was hard at first, and she missed days at a time, but still she was able to amass a good deal of information. She finally made it through an entire month’s cycle.
She found that as she wrote her expenditures down, she became much more conscious of what she was spending. By the second month in the process, she was automatically curbing some of her spending without trying.
She hadn’t realized how much she spent on buying coffee in a month or eating lunches out, or buying stuff at the drugstore. She found all sorts of expenditures that she decided weren’t all that necessary.
It became sort of a game to find other ways of enjoying herself without spending. She began to really like being more frugal and took pleasure in not using her credit cards. She enjoyed the sense of self-control. She eventually worked out a program for reducing her credit card debt, which included no longer using her credit cards at all.
The point in this story is that Carla did not begin by tackling her credit card habit head on. She did not set up a budget and try to stick with it. She didn’t deprive herself of what she was used to doing or having.
Her keystone habit in this case was to simply write down what she spent. This habit automatically led to the evolution of a number of new habits as well as the dislodging of some old habits, without any real resistance to the process. Eventually she was able to meet the real goal, which was to change her spending habits and reduce her debt.
This is the way keystone habits work. They come in under the radar of our resistance, and they are connected to a string of other practices and habits that ultimately will change in the process of our focusing on our keystone habit.
Suggested Reading: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. Charles Duhigg. Random House, 2012. (See Chapter 4: “Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O’Neill.”)