Keystone Habits: What It Is + Why You Need To Have Them Now

Imagine a dozen dominoes lined up in a row. Push the first domino and what happens? They all fall down.

Now take that same dozen and double it. No, triple it. No, wait — add 15,000 dominoes, branching off into a bunch of crazy shapes and designs. Now, push the first domino and what happens?

Here’s a video to help you out:

Why are we talking about dominoes and cool YouTube videos? That’s because today I’m talking about keystone habits. These are the habits that — once implemented — have a positive impact on many other facets of your life.

Like the first domino pushed in a row of others, all you need to do is perform this one habit and you’ll see the benefits ripple out.

Let’s break down exactly what a keystone habit is, its origins, and give you three of the best keystone habits you can start today.

What are keystone habits?

Charles Duhigg introduced the concept of keystone habits to millions in his book The Power of Habit. In it, he describes keystone habits as “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.”

From Charles:

“The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self-image. Basically anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.”

Let’s take a look at a simple example: Dressing better. If you’re normally seen as the person to whom jeans are “dressing up,” a suit and tie or a nice dress might be completely foreign to you.

Imagine taking the initiative and dressing up for a week though. How do you think that would impact you psychologically?

All of a sudden you’re looking better. People are perceiving you in a new light — and therefore treating you differently. Maybe the barista refers to you as “sir” or “ma’am.” When that happens, you’re likely to start carrying yourself differently. Maybe you’re more confident and self-assured.

See what’s happening? It’s one seemingly small change today that has an outsized impact on other areas of your life.

It’s not just dressing better. It’s feeling more confident. It’s being treated better by the people around you.

That’s the power of keystone habits.

3 keystone habits that’ll change your life

Not all keystone habits are necessarily positive. After all, if you pick up the habit of smoking a pack a day or drinking a sixer of Bud Light each night, you’re going to see it impact other areas of your life negatively.

However, if you recognize good keystone habits and adopt them, you’ll find that your life can drastically improve because of one simple change.

Here are three of the best ones you can implement to help get you started.

Keystone habit 1: More exercise

Exercising regularly is perhaps the most impactful keystone habit you can implement.

And it makes sense. Once you start exercising, you’re not only becoming more conscious about the way your body looks but also what you’re putting into your body as well.

This consciousness starts to spread to other areas of your life. Maybe you’re not eating takeout or going to bars as often, because it’s unhealthy. That means you’re saving money each month you’d otherwise have spent going out.

And here’s where that ripple effect happens: once you see that you’re saving more, you’ll be able to spend money consciously toward your Money Dial. That means using that money and spending it on things that you LOVE instead of crappy takeout.

Charles Duhigg even mentions it in his book as a big keystone habit:

“When you start exercising habitually, according to studies, you start eating more healthfully. That makes sense. You start feeling good about your body. For many people, when they start exercising, they stop using their credit cards quite so often. They procrastinate less at work. They do their dishes earlier in the day. It seems to be evidence that for many people, exercise is a keystone habit. Once you start to change your exercise habits, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other habits as well.”

When I started training for a marathon, I noticed the effects of regular running almost immediately. I knew I had to clean up my lifestyle if I wanted to finish running all 26.2 miles.

That meant giving up smoking, cutting back on after work beers, and getting good sleep. And it worked. That keystone habit gave me the mental willpower I needed to improve my lifestyle.

How you can get started:

  • Get started running with a simple program like Couch to 5k.
  • Purchase a gym membership and start lifting weights with a program like Starting Strength.
  • Join a sports league in your city or local YMCA

Ready to improve your habits and level up your life? Download our FREE Ultimate Guide To Habits below.

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Keystone habit 2: Better sleep

One of the most harmful side effects of “hustle culture” is countless people out there forgoing sleep. After all, more time awake means more work done … right?

Wrong. In fact, studies have shown that a lack of sleep increases the chances of stroke, heart disease, and an early death (which — you know — definitely cuts down the time you can get work done). I wrote about this in this post on productivity:

“My fundamental 80% Win here is that I sleep 7.5 to 8 hours almost every night. It’s not sexy. But as I’m writing this at 9:34am, I slept 8 hours last night and I woke up knowing I was going to have a productive day.”

When you get adequate sleep, your mind and body are primed for a productive day. That means more energy and mental capacity to do the work you want to do — and do it well.

“When I wake up after a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m ready to meet the day,” says Richard, a Denver-based programmer and IT technician. “I have more energy in the day to get work done and I don’t feel that afternoon drag where I feel like I need a nap.”

If you wake up groggy on four hours of sleep, do you think you’ll be as productive? Sure, you might have more time to work on things, but if your mind and body aren’t in the right place, you sure as heck aren’t getting as many things done.

How you can get started:

  • Avoid electronics (cell phone, laptop, television) for 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
  • Download a sleep app (like Sleep Cycle) that can help you track your sleep.
  • Set a time that you’ll go to bed each night and sleep for at least 7-8 hours a night. If you have an Apple product, you can use Apple’s sleep reminder tool to manage this.

Keystone habit 3: Waking up earlier

Waking up earlier has a number of benefits.

First, research shows that the early morning hours are prime for productivity. Harvard biologist Christoph Randler conducted a study that showed that early risers are more likely to set long-term goals and be more motivated than their late-rising counterparts.

Not only that but early risers tend to have a higher level of cognition and ability to solve complex problems, according to another study. And many CEOs are also early risers — which some studies cite as a reason for their productivity.

Second, the morning is the time when your willpower is at an all-time high. At I Will Teach You To Be Rich, we’ve talked about the limited amount of willpower humans have. When we wake up, our willpower is still high because we’ve used less of it. As the day goes on, our willpower is depleted until it drains completely and all we want to do is watch Netflix after work rather than, say, head to the gym.

Don’t just take our word for it. I talked to Dr. Patrick H., a Chicago-based doctor who recently implemented early rising as part of his strategy to read more — and it’s been working like a charm.

“When I wake up early, I get a lot more work done,” Dr. H says. “I make myself an excellent cup of homemade coffee, which gives me something to enjoy while I read before work. It’s great.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to work out more or working on your novel. By completing tasks while your willpower is high, you become much more likely to complete them.

How you can get started:

  • Set a time you’re going to wake up every day — no exceptions. Good opportunity to correlate this with your sleep time from the previous section.
  • Make it easy for you to get up and started with your day. For example, if you plan on heading to the gym, lay out your workout clothes so they’re ready for you when you wake up.
  • Put your alarm clock in a hard to reach spot. This ensures that you’ll have to physically get up in order to turn it off, increasing your chances of staying up.

What are YOUR keystone habits?

For more on habit building and building winning ones, be sure to check out our resources below:

Keystone habits have the opportunity to impact your entire life — that’s why we want to offer you something to help you even more:

The Ultimate Guide to Habits: Peak Performance Made Easy

In it, you’ll learn the actionable steps to crush any goal through smart habits. You’ll learn:

  • How to set goals — the RIGHT way
  • How to create and implement winning keystone habits
  • How to make any habit last forever

Want to build a business that enables you to live YOUR Rich Life? Get my FREE guide on finding your first profitable idea.

Written by

Host of Netflix's "How to Get Rich", NYT Bestselling Author & host of the hit I Will Teach You To Be Rich Podcast. For over 20 years, Ramit has been sharing proven strategies to help people like you take control of their money and live a Rich Life.