This post was updated in 2023.
Enter most arched passageways in historic buildings made of stone and look up. Look closely and you will see one block is different from all the rest. That wedge-shaped piece is the keystone block. Keystones in architecture are used to hold the other blocks in place. In the world of habits and discipline, keystone habits are the building blocks that hold other habits together.
On the surface, most habits seem obvious. We all know we should drink more water, exercise more often and sleep more. The secret to habits – especially keystone habits – is not so much the act of the habit, it is the leverage they can give you on life. Like discovering a helpful app for your phone, adding a positive habit to your life can allow you to enjoy more success without more effort. I recommend these keystone habits the most because they have given me to most leverage over my life. I hope you enjoy the same leverage in your life.
1. Do the hardest work first
“The people who achieve extraordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them by getting more done in the hours they work.” – Gary Keller, The One Thing
It’s hard – if not impossible – to not think about what you need to do. Often referred to as the Zeigarnik effect, we tend to pay more attention to incomplete work over complete work.
For example, if you’re in a meeting with someone who you know deserves your apology, it gnaws at your attention and energy. The more you think about it, the more you are distracted. Make the apology and (often regardless of their response) you feel better and clearer almost immediately.
It’s like that with the habit of doing the hardest work first.
While most habits offer a single reward – exercise leads to better health, etc. – when you do the hardest work first you get the double bonus of completing the work, plus more motivation for what’s next on your list.
HOW TO START: Before starting your day, block time (see below) for the hardest work of the day. Be as specific as possible (“email agenda to the committee” is better than “Deal with next committee meeting”)
2. Block time
“My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines.” –Cal Newport
When I ask audiences how they respond to an appointment on their calendar for, say, a committee meeting, the responses are almost universal. They anticipate it, plan to be there on time, make apologies and try to reschedule if unable to attend.
Next, I ask how, in the middle of a busy day, they respond upon noticing a task they added the previous week to a long to-do list. Almost universally they think about it, maybe work on it a bit, but mostly ignore it.
Appointments work. And when you block time for important work it’s like making an appointment with yourself.
Creating time blocks is an antidote to a frustratingly distracted day where it feels like nothing important got done. It’s all about doing the “Deep work” author Cal Newport defines as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
The process is easy (I go into more detail in this article): as soon as you recognize a chunk of work that requires your full attention, block it in your calendar. And then ( this is the most important part) respect that appointment. If you get distracted or delayed, reschedule your time block—don’t delete it. The goal is to treat time blocks like you would with a team member or your doctor. Once you make the appointment, respect it.
“Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes.” – Charles Duhigg
As soon as I adopted time blocking everything changed. I had to think through what was most important for that day (and what was not important). My day became a series of appointments, rather than a miscellaneous list of competing priorities.
Best of all, every time block was focused time to get a specific task completed. I started wearing headphones more often to avoid hearing conversations in our office. I closed windows on my computer, turned my phone to silent, and checked my email less often. Best of all, I so see the progress I was making that that energized me.
HOW TO START: Block your calendar for the week with time slots for critical work. Use this visual to see where you might need more time, or have a conflict. The goal is deep undistracted work. If something comes up that conflicts with the time block, move the block.
3. Make your bed
“Your bed is a symbol of you. There’s something about having your bed feel orderly that makes your life feel that way.” –Gretchen Rubin
I always get a lot of smiles when I recommend this habit to a live audience. It’s like a secret habit so many people have adopted and come to love.
Fans of the make-your-bed movement are supported not just by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Adrianna Huffington, and Bill Gates, but also by research.
One study, at Hunch.com found “bed makers” are more productive and happier. Charles Duhigg, the author of one of my favorite books, The Power of Habits, wrote that making your bed is – “the kind of habit that leads to other good habits being formed.”
In a commencement speech at the University of Texas, Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Seal William H. McCraven, author of Make Your Bed: Little Things Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World told students “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,″ he said. “It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”
HOW TO START: As soon as you get out of bed, turn around and make your bed. Do it for one week—it’s as simple as that. Practice the habit and notice how good it feels.