Keystone habits can act as catalysts for positive behaviour change, leveraging our human preference for immediate rewards. By offering regular rewards, making it easier to adopt new habits, and instilling confidence, they can rewire our brains for sustained change.
Keystone habits have a domino effect on behaviour change
Keystone habits have a domino effect on behaviour change, making new habits more straightforward while increasing your confidence and opening your mind to what’s possible. In his prize-winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow (1), Daniel Kahneman introduced many people to the idea of ‘dual processes’ in our thinking.
System 1 is a proxy for our fast, intuitive and emotional thinking. System 2 is slower, effortful and more deliberative. System 1 makes humans vulnerable to a wide variety of cognitive biases. For example, we often fall victim to temporal discounting, which means we value the SSR – Smaller Sooner Reward – more than the LLR – the Larger Later Reward.
This phenomenon even seems to apply to life-or-death situations. A 2012 study followed 5,404 people diagnosed with a chronic condition to see if they made any positive changes to their lifestyle (2). Changes such as stopping smoking, exercising more and eating healthy would likely have resulted in significantly larger, later rewards for improved health and longevity. However, the study found that very few people positively changed their behaviour. They preferred the smaller sooner rewards of sitting on the sofa and eating junk food.
It’s tempting to ignore findings such as this and assume that we are different, but the weight of evidence suggests that humans are all predisposed to favour short-term rewards. So, what can we do about it? We must stop relying on System 2 and, instead, direct our dopamine-driven System 1 to our benefit rather than harm. The concept of ‘keystone habits’, introduced by Charles Duhigg (3), can help by leveraging our preference for Smaller Sooner Rewards.
How can you identify keystone habits?
You can identify keystone habits, which leverage this preference and ‘unlock’ behaviour change in other areas, by looking for the following three characteristics:
Keystone Habits offer regular rewards.
Identify habits and routines which will provide you with consistent small wins. Our preference for smaller sooner rewards means that micro-victories have a disproportionately powerful influence on our behaviour. For example, a small success might be as simple as seeing a ‘data streak’ accumulate in your wearable app as you consistently log new behaviours.
Keystone habits make it easier to start new habits.
Duhigg describes keystone habits as “the soil from which other habits [grow].” For example, regular exercise is a keystone habit for many people. Going for a short walk each morning also exposes you to bright blue light, which helps regulate your body clock and improves sleep. Look for ‘2 for 1’ opportunities.
Keystone habits give confidence.
Identify behaviours or actions which have a contagious, enduring effect on motivation. Keystone habits change our perspective on what is possible and give us the confidence to do more. For example, building the habit of getting outside for a 10-minute walk early each morning, rather than sitting at your laptop as soon as you wake up, can shift your perspective for the whole day (4).
Keystone habits are a powerful way to begin rewiring your brain for behaviour change. Look out for the behaviours in your life that exhibit these three characteristics and build on them to establish the foundations for durable behaviour change.
1) Kahneman, D. Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2011;
2) Newsom JT, Huguet N, Ramage-Morin PL, McCarthy MJ, Bernier J, Kaplan MS, et al. Health behaviour changes after diagnosis of chronic illness among Canadians aged 50 or older. Public Health Rep. 2012;23(4):49–53;
3) Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit. William Heinemann. London. 2012;
4) Bergouignan A, Legget KT, De Jong N, Kealey E, Nikolovski J, Groppel JL, et al. Effect of frequent interruptions of prolonged sitting on self-perceived energy levels, mood, food cravings and cognitive function. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2016;13(113).