Cornerstone Habits You Need to Build for a Full Life

In a paper on habits, a group of Duke researchers put it quaintly, “Without habits, people would be doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action.”

We may not think about our habits that often, but we should. They’re a huge part of our lives. These reflexive thoughts, feelings or actions make up a lot of who we are. In fact, studies have shown that roughly 45 percent of our everyday behaviors are related to habits. With so much influence, we can’t afford to leave our habits unaccounted for.

Cornerstone habits you need to build in your life

If you’ve read The ONE Thing, then you know that everything doesn’t matter equally. And habits are no exception. If you were to take account of all of your habits, you’d find that some have extraordinarily more influence than others. These habits, called cornerstone or keystone habits, are habits we develop that interact with other behaviors in our lives. If you find yourself stuck with a bad habit, you might find that it’s actually a symptom of another, more ingrained bad habit. As Charles Duhigg describes in his book, The Power of Habit:

“If you focus on changing or cultivating keystone habits, you can cause widespread shifts. However, identifying keystone habits is tricky. To find them, you have to know where to look. Detecting keystone habits means searching out certain characteristics. Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins.’ They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.”

In a sense, these habits are building blocks we can use to create a lasting, positive change in our lives. For Admiral William McRaven, making the bed every morning as a Navy SEAL was this kind of habit. Making the bed correctly set the tone for the day. No matter how hard and physically grueling the rest of the day may have been, he could be proud of the way it started. And the sense of accomplishment from that one small daily habit carried a positive tone throughout the rest of the day.

Identifying our own cornerstone habits comes down to knowing where your priority lays. Similar to using Goal Setting to the Now to determine what activity you should be focused on at any given moment, we can find these critical habits by working backward from our priority. Then start with a small habit you can build without relying on motivation.  We call it an achievable domino. Think for a moment about a person who makes sales calls for a living. This is no easy job, as no one likes to hear the word “no” over and over.  Instead of starting with dialing 50 calls from the get-go, developing a keystone habit points to starting with a more attainable number of calls, like five. Dial those five numbers like a champ. Work to knock that domino over. And once it’s easy to achieve, you can start on the next domino in the chain. Perhaps 15 calls won’t seem that difficult after five are mastered. With each success, you’ll up the ante on the calls you’re making and in the process, you will start to remake your behavior in other areas as well.

Our very own Jay Papasan’s experience working out with a trainer in the morning is a great example of how positive cornerstone habits can change our lives for the better. He knew he wanted to make a commitment to getting healthier and wasn’t finding the time to go to a gym. So, he hired a trainer to come to his home so that he could work out in his garage. As he built this habit over time, he discovered the halo effect as this one habit began to influence his life in other ways. For instance, the trainer would ask about the food he ate so he began eating better as a result. The trainer came to his house in the morning before work. So, this early wake-up call meant he had to go to bed earlier. The single habit of working out with a trainer helped him improve his health in other areas of his life as well.

Cornerstone Habits to Focus On

What cornerstone habits can you build into your life to achieve great things in each of the key areas of your life? That answer depends on what you wish to accomplish. The important thing is to keep the initial task simple so that it doesn’t require much motivation to complete it. It can build from there. Consider the following suggestions:

  • For your spiritual life: Try starting your morning with five minutes of meditation. Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, close your eyes and breathe. If you need help getting into the right headspace, there are several apps that can help guide you through it. When you can let the thoughts go in and out of your mind without judging them and aim to find stillness in the moment, you’re setting yourself up to reap the benefits.
  • For your physical health: Get enough sleep each night. Many smart phones have features that can help you track your sleep. To decide when you need to get to bed, count backward from your wake-up time to ensure you get at least seven hours of sleep. Try setting a reminder 30-minutes before this bedtime as your marker to start getting ready for some much-needed shut-eye.
  • For your personal life: Each month at the beginning of the month, time block one hour a week to do something for yourself. Whether it’s a class or a bath, make a calendar appointment with yourself for something that will make you happy.
  • For your key relationships: Schedule a family dinner or movie night with your family once a week. They will appreciate the quality time and together, you’ll create new memories.
  • For your job/business: Fill out a 4-1-1 each week. By taking the time to do this, you’ll understand what needs to be done right now to accomplish your goals.
  • For your finances: Start to check your bank account weekly, if not daily, to see what’s coming in and what’s going out. A great step toward eliminating debt and increasing your net worth is simply understanding the path your money takes.

How to Replace an Old Habit with a New One

Bad – or even mundane – habits are often easy to pick out. They’re those innocuous time sucks that seem important or harmless at the time, but when we look back, we often think “Where did the time go?” When we start to take account of our habits, we inevitably find a few that we realize we’d be better off without. But the worst part about habits is that they can’t be removed, they have to be replaced.

Every habit we want to change has to be replaced with another one, and that’s accomplished through a three step process called a habit loop.

The first part takes the shape of a cue or trigger that tells our brains we need to automate our behavior. Similar to how a hypnotist will snap their fingers to bring you into a trance, these triggers can be anything from a time of day, an emotion, or a place that causes our brains to act differently.

The next part is a physical or mental routine that occurs once a trigger takes place. A couple of examples of this might be a nervous tick in response to stress or a craving after a hard workout. It’s anything that is done routinely in response to another event.

Finally, after the action takes place, we receive a reward. It doesn’t matter if it’s tangible or intangible, like a piece of chocolate or a welcome home kiss – rewards are what solidify our habits. They help our brains determine whether or not a loop is worth remembering for the future. The loop between cue, routine, and reward becomes more and more automatic over time until a habit forms.

Being able to pinpoint a bad habit and understanding how a new habit can be formed isn’t enough. If that was the case, tobacco companies would be at a complete loss. No, it isn’t simple. When we know we need to kick one habit, we often weigh the pros and cons and often unconsciously find that it’s just easier to stay the course. It’s easier to do nothing because building new habits requires discipline in everything—and we just don’t have the time or energy for it.

But that doesn’t have to be the case at all. Success isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing the right thing.

These words from The ONE Thing couldn’t be truer. We don’t need more all-around discipline to achieve greater success. Rather, to experience success, we need to choose the right habit to adopt to help us reach our goals and then bring just enough discipline to establish it.

If you pay a vending machine a visit daily, perhaps your sugary habit can be replaced by walking to the water fountain or by packing a healthy snack for when the urge hits. In other words, we have to shake things up and train ourselves to act in new and specific ways. And when we do it long enough, it becomes routine – or a habit.

This process takes a little bit of time. In fact, it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit. And depending on how sticky and engrained the behavior is, that number can stretch toward 254 days.

The good news is that habits take more energy to establish than to maintain. Think about it. When you were a kid, your parents had to drill it into you that it was important to brush your teeth. And as you got older, you more or less just don’t think about brushing in the morning and before you go to bed (hopefully). Each time you brushed as a child, the more brushing became second nature. And now, it just feels weird when you don’t do it.

That example brings up another good point to remember: habit building is made easier when we hold ourselves accountable.

We recommend downloading our 66-day calendar and marking an X through each day as you complete the activity you’d like to make into a habit. The further along you go, the less you’ll want to break the chain of X’s that show your success. Keep that chain going!

What habits have had a positive ripple effect in your own lives? Check in on our Facebook page to tell us about them! And if you want to learn even more about habits, listen to this week’s The ONE Thing podcast with guest, Nir Eyal.

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