Dan Beverly

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.”
Brian Tracy

In my last post, I wrote about How to Harness the Power of Habit. That was an article I’d been longing to write for quite some time. But the idea I really wanted to talk about was the “Keystone Habit”.

Being able to fashion our habits according to our own (conscious) design is a great advantage. But we all have limited time, energy and (crucially!) willpower. So where to start?

The answer is: with the habits that matter the most. Keystone habits.

Keystone habits: the engine room of success

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction that shifts and remakes other patterns of behaviour. Such habits are keystone habits.

A good example is regular exercise. I’ve been exercising most mornings for the last 20 years. Off the back of my routine, I go into my working day mentally alert and clear, with feelings of energy and ambition that spill over into my work. I’m more relaxed, have more patience and am more productive. I eat better. And so on.

Other examples of keystone habits include: making your bed every morning (a small achievement boost that’s been correlated with increased productivity); keeping a food journal (leading to improved eating habits); meditation (providing health benefits as well as calmness of mind, decreased stress and increased memory, awareness and goal-setting ambition).

The relationship between a keystone habit and its benefits is not always direct cause-and-effect. But it’s the spark that triggers a chain reaction that then leads to widespread change.

The characteristics of keystone habits

Keystone habits can be hard to pinpoint because they are a small cog in a bigger machine. The key is to look for sources of the other high-impacting habits you want to make in a given area.

My morning exercise routine is one of my steadfast keystone habits. But actually, it’s the not my source keystone habit. That’s actually: waking early and putting my gym gear on. That leads to my early-morning routine which includes going to the gym (I’m unlikely to back-out once I’m in my gear); but it also includes the rest of my regular routines that help me organise my mind and my day. That’s my source keystone habit.

To help distinguish the keystone habits, here are the 5 characteristics I look for:

  1. A small win. A keystone habit is not often “big”. It’s more often a small win: a victory or an advantage that both sets things in motion and gives us the sense more is possible.
  2. Easily accomplished. Keystone habits works because they have a low barrier to execution: there’s little obstacle. And the virtue of a keystone habit is less the habit itself and more the behaviours it kick-starts. So easy ignition is important.
  3. Lightweight, versatile and transferable. Related to the above, keystone habits come with little “baggage”. They don’t need lots of preparation or specialist equipment. They can take place in any number of situations and are relatively context-insensitive. So no excuses!
  4. A launching platform. Keystone habits also provide a platform from which other habits are almost inevitable. This gives us and our habits momentum.
  5. Impeccably timed. Having said keystone habits are relatively context-insensitive, the one crucial contextual element is their placement or timing in the pattern of behaviour. Keystone habits strike at the point just when we are most likely to quit. I could hit the snooze button; but my keystone habit gets me up. The rest is easy.

The most important of these characteristics is the last: impeccable timing. Why: because it helps develop the most important success habit of all: willpower.

The most important success habit of all: willpower

Willpower is the #1 habit of successful people. It drives all other habits and habit formations. And it can be learned – it can be made a habit, itself.

This is one of the reasons keystone habits are so productive: they support the development of willpower as a habit. And increased willpower in one area encourages willpower in other areas.

But a small word of caution before we think about how to design our own keystone habits: we exhaust our willpower throughout the day. (Don’t let your children or your staff know that! Alternatively, make requests of your boss late in the afternoon.)

So the most robust keystone habits are those that cultivate willpower early in our day.

Designing your own keystone habits

Keystone habits, in their mechanics, are identical to other habits. And you can use the same habit loop to design your keystone habit. There are, however, 3 things to add to your thinking on keystone habits:

  1. Bring the vision up a level. Rather than starting in the detail, take a macro-level view. Keystone habits are small things that affect big areas, like health, career, personal dev. So start by identifying the big area.
  2. Find the source. Think of some example target behaviours in this area. What behaviours do you want to see from yourself? What would get you what you want? what would be really useful? And now ask: what would lead to that? And keep asking that question until you’re happy you’ve found a candidate source behaviour.
  3. Get the timing right. At what point are your intended new patterns of behaviour most likely to come undone? When you first wake? When you walk into the office? When you fire-up email? Design your keystone habit around that circumstance and in contrast to the unwanted behaviour at this moment of truth.

The 7 keystone habits of successful people

Alongside willpower, what are the most impactful keystone habits of successful people?

  1. They have a strong morning routine. They start-off right, with a regular and well-organised routine that sets them up for the day. They rise a little earlier than they need to, they exercise, they make their bed! Their regular routine provides consistency that produces a cascade of positive effects.
  2. They plan their day. Not just a To-Do list that gets everything thrown on it and with anything not done just spilling-over into the next day. A proper mini-plan of the day, fully focused on the top priorities.
  3. They are 5 minutes early for every meeting. It need not be 5 minutes’ or just applied to meetings. But this is about thinking ahead, being well-organised and well-prepared. What would be your equivalent keystone habit to engender these behaviours?
  4. They are present. If you’re going to be in the room: be in the room. Presence is about giving your full attention to a meeting or conversation. It’s about being focused on the task or topic at hand.
  5. They take positive responsibility. I’m always impressed by those who take positive and productive responsibility for whatever they might be involved in. When we take responsibility, we empower ourselves with options and ownership and put us in control of our successes.
  6. They practise positive self-talk. I don’t particularly mean 5 positive affirmations in the mirror before leaving for work. I mean reigning-in our harsh inner critic and speaking kindly to ourselves. Improves self-esteem, confidence, ambition and so on. And all that spills over into our other work.
  7. They have an end-of-day completion routine. Clearing-up their desk, making notes for tomorrow, lots of little things that lets us draw a line under the day and properly unplug from work. A great keystone habit that can lead to better quality downtime with friends, family and loved ones, better work/life blend, a better night’s sleep. All to your advantage at work, tomorrow.

What keystone habits would you have on your own list?

Keystone habits for success

With limited time, energy and willpower, success depends on identifying and focusing on the few key priorities. Thinking in terms of keystone habits can help us achieve that: by designing and embedding the habits that give us the most bang for our motivational buck.


  • Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (London: Random House, 2013).
Dan Beverly

Dan Beverly is a leadership and performance coach helping high-calibre, high-performing professional women embrace the pivotal career moments.

To work with Dan, go online to book your complimentary “Session Zero” – and start capitalising on your pivotal career moment, today.