The Critical Few – Using Keystone Habits


I’m in Week 8 of a Working Out Loud Circle.  This week is about building new habits.  One of the ways suggested to build new habits is to chart your progress.  Exercise 3 in this weeks Guide is to create your own progress chart.

I’ve used progress charts to support habit-building in the past.  With mixed results.  Actually, there is a pattern to my results.  I tend to struggle to embed new habits.  I was reluctant to create another progress chart only to struggle to stick to the habits listed on it.  However, I’d committed to do the exercises in the Circle Guides so pressed on.

Rather than create a new template I hunted through the files on my computer in search of one I could re-use.  I found one that sounded promising – ‘Resolution Chart.xlsx.’  I opened it.  Wow!  Here’s a clue as to why I have struggled to embed new habits.  I was confronted with a list of habits broken into 6 categories:

  • Health – 10 daily habits and 1 weekly habit
  • Money – 2 daily habits and 1 weekly habit
  • Career – 4 daily habits, 11 weekly habits and 2 monthly habits
  • Personal Development – 2 daily habits and 1 weekly habit
  • Planning and Administration – 2 weekly habits and 1 monthly habit
  • Friends and Family – 1 daily habit, 2 weekly habits and 4 monthly habits

A whopping total of 44 habits to track (19 daily, 18 weekly and 7 monthly).  My goal at the time was to complete 80% of these each month.  It’s tempting to calculate the number of data points per month to track this, but I don’t think it’s necessary to make the point.  Perhaps I should have added another one – to track my habits.  Seriously … I see now how this was setting myself up for failure.

This list is clearly unachievable and gave me a lot of reasons to beat myself up. However, there is a bigger problem with creating overwhelming lists of habits, routines and goals.  When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.  I was not discerning enough about which of these habits would make the most difference in my life.

In his book ‘The Power of Habit‘ Charles Duhigg allocates a whole chapter to ‘keystone habits.’   “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”  Duhigg characterises keystone habits as “small wins.”  Based on research on small wins he notes that they “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”  Duhigg also concludes that keystone habits encourage change “by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.” They create can atmosphere in which other behaviours emerge.

I set up my Working Out Loud habit progress tracker.  The complete list – just 4 daily habits – is shown below.

My Daily Dispatch post (such as this post!) does take around 30 minutes a day, so is not really a ‘small’ win.  However, if I pick my topics wisely each post can be used as part of the Reflection Challenge (#reflectchall) I’m doing this month at no additional effort.  This leaves checking my Twitter relationship list for my current WOL Circle goal, and responding to two posts that others have made online.  This could take as little as five minutes per day.  Not overambitious (for a change).

I’ll give this progress chart a go and report back at the end of month in a Dispatch.

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  1. #1 by Bruno Winck on November 7, 2018 - 5:48 am

    My 2 cents on habits:

    Weekly or above is merely a routine part of a process. There is no habit formation like Duhigg or Dr Fogg talk about. This was explained to me again by my fitness coach. People who come to Gym once a week are not good customers, stats show it.

    Either the routine cost nothing and find its place in a chain of habits like a morning routine or it requires willpower or at least memory. That’s where triggers, rewards and stretch tracking come into play.

    Stretch logs are important for habit formation, that’s how you measure how the habit is installed.

    Now if the tracking itself falls under this last category we have a problem. For some (morning writing, gym, walk) I use journaling. I use automated tracking on the devices for time on Twitter, reading, number of pages read, writing. For small daily routines that doen’t take place on a device, I resolved to track things near the point of use and outside any device. It would sound silly to light up a device to track something we did on purpose away from the said screen.

    All together we can’t fill our days with routines and habits. We need some time to get the real work done. 2 or 3 at a time sounds good.

    Woops, a check mark on the second column for me 🙂

  2. #2 by Michelle Ockers on November 7, 2018 - 6:49 am

    I like your characterisation of a ‘chain of habits’ as a routine.

    I’m increasingly attracted to keeping things simple, including tracking. Also to reducing time in front of a screen. I have used a habit tracker on my phone in the past but found I didn’t want to open my phone in the evening to track, especially close to bed.

    Things like going to gym I can put into my calendar if I have regular times to do this. The nudge then becomes a calendar reminder or seeing it in my calendar. However, to your point that we can’t fill our days with routines and habits, if I put too many of these kind of things in my calendar it reduces my commitment to doing them.

    What I’ve realised is the key for me is to be discerning and figure out at any point in time what the most critical changes in habits are that I need to make and track those.

    Thanks for responding to my post. 🙂

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