Finding Your Keystone Habit: The First Step to Sustainable Change

John Sowers

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” -Poet John Dryden

I heard a story about a man named Eugene Pauly – E.P. Because of permanent brain damage, E.P. has no short-term memory. He doesn’t know where his own kitchen is. When you ask him, he just shrugs. But twenty minutes later, he gets off the couch and gets a drink from the refrigerator. He can’t explain it. E.P. takes a daily walk around the neighborhood – and when asked which house is his, he doesn’t know. However, when he gets to his driveway, he always finds the right house and goes inside.


According to research from Duke University, more than 40% of our actions are unconscious habits. (The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg) E.P. finds his house because there are pathways in our brain telling us what to do, based on engrained routine. We all have these routines. Habits. Things we just do – without thinking about it:

The first thing we do when we wake.
What we eat for lunch.
How we dress.

*Photo by Łukasz Hejnak, Creative Commons

Habits drive a ton of my decisions. It’s normal for me to slip into the routine. Wake up. Grab coffee. Run out the door. Work. Get home. Play with my girls. Kiss my wife. Go to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s easy for me to go through life without thoughtful intention.

We’re still in the wee-early morning hours of 2013. It’s an opportunity for reflection. For change. As I think of the past year and look to the next, I wonder:

“Who am I becoming? What needs to change?”

But when I see everything I want to change – I’m overwhelmed. I set too many goals – run in ten directions at once, and change nothing. For the past ten years, my New Years Resolutions have looked something like this:

1. Make a totally AWESOME plan.
2. Be awesome for two days.
3. Stop being awesome.
4. Get depressed.
5. Eat Ben and Jerry’s.

If my original resolution was eat to more Ben and Jerry’s, I would be #epicwinning.

For some reason, I believe when the big glass ball falls in Manhattan – everything will change. This is the myth. But the good news is this:

I don’t have to change all of my habits at once.

According to Duhigg, research shows we all have few trigger habits, keystone habits. Singular habits – when we do them, transform other areas of our lives. Keystone habits set off a chain of internal events, giving us willpower and momentum to do other things. Over time, these keystone habits form other habits, and we become completely different people. These habits can be positive or negative, like the Road-Side Ditch Guy.

Craig Groeschel’s keystone habit is flossing.
A friend of mine makes his bed every morning.
My keystone habit is waking up early at a set time.

When I wake up early at a set time, I have more willpower to workout, write, eat well. For some reason, the small decision makes me feel like I’m gaining ground. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Leo Marvin, the small decision is a baby step, but it’s a step. It creates movement. Velocity. We can’t magically order ourselves to change. But if we find our keystone habit – we can find momentum, setting off a slow avalanche of change.

One small win makes a huge difference. The one win also feels more attainable, setting out to do one thing. One small thing. It doesn’t feel anymore like I’m looking up at the Kilimanjaro. I’m just putting on the shoes.

For 2013, I don’t have a huge plan. I’d like to be more spiritually consistent, do a triathlon, write a book, track Kodiak bears, get my black belt and be a better friend. And I do plan to map it out on MySubplot. But my road to these things starts with one keystone win. So I bought a new alarm clock.


John Sowers

John Sowers

This is a post by John Sowers, one of the Storyline Contributors. John has just released his latest book, The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart. Learn more about John's story by visiting his website or by following along on Twitter (@johnsowers).