“Doctors would give obese patients strict diets and tell them to join a gym, attend regular counseling sessions—sometimes as often as every day—and shift their daily routines by walking up stairs, for instance, instead of taking the elevator,” notes Charles. “Only by completely shaking up someone’s life, the thinking went, could their bad habits be reformed.”
Then, in 2009 researchers took a very different approach. In a study which funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers asked sixteen hundred obese individuals to complete a single task: Write down everything they ate at least one day per week.
“It was hard at first,” Charles notes. “The subjects forgot to carry their food journals, or would snack and not note it. Slowly, however, people started recording their meals once a week-and sometimes, more often. Many participants started keeping a daily log. Eventually, it became a habit.”
Then, something unforeseen happened.
“The participants started looking at their entries and finding patterns they didn’t know existed,” Charles writes. “Some noticed they always seemed to snack at about 10 A.M., so they began keeping an apple or banana on their desks for mid-morning munchies. Others started using their journals to plan future menus, and when dinner rolled around, they ate the healthy meal they had written down, rather than junk food from the fridge.”
The researchers had not suggested any of these behaviors. The participants did so on their own. This “keystone habit”—food journaling—created a structure that helped other habits flourish.
The results? After six months, those individuals who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as everyone else.
“After a while, the journal got inside my head,” one of the participants told Charles. “I started thinking about meals differently. It gave me a system for thinking about food without becoming depressed.”
2: The food journals in this study is a prime example of a “keystone habit,” a habit has the power to start a chain reaction, igniting other changes in an individual’s life. “Some habits,” Charles notes, “matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives.”
Researchers have documented similar results in dozens of other settings. Keystone habits explain “why some college students outperform their peers. They describe why some people, after years of trying, suddenly lose forty pounds while becoming more productive at work and still getting home in time for dinner with their kids,” Charles observes. “And keystone habits explain how Alcoa became one of the best performing stocks in the Dow Jones index, while also becoming one of the safest places on earth.”
Exercise is a particularly powerful keystone habit. The research shows when people start exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they begin to change other habits in their lives, often without realizing it.
“Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed,” writes Charles. “It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
“Exercise spills over,” says James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
3: Other studies show families who regularly eat dinner together raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.
“Making [our] bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget,” notes Charles.
What’s going on here? Does a family meal or a tidy bed cause better grades or less frivolous spending?
No. “But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” writes Charles.
Reflection: How can I apply this learning about “keystone habits” in my life?
Action: Identify one potential “keystone habit” and commit to doing this new behavior for 21 days so that it takes hold and becomes a habit.