In his book “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg (a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times) coined the term “keystone habit.” Duhigg explained that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction that changes other habits. Like a falling domino, these keystone habits start a process that, over time, can influence how people work, what they eat, how they play, what they spend their money on, and how they live.
For example, Duhigg references studies documenting that families who consistently eat dinner together raise children who have better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence than those who don’t eat together. Similarly, people who make their bed every morning have a higher level of productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger financial budgeting skills than those who don’t. Duhigg notes that it is not that a family meal or a tidy bed cause better grades or less frivolous spending. Rather, somehow forming good habits creates greater willpower and a chain reaction of other good habits.
In 2006, two Australian researchers conducted an exercise study involving two dozen self-professed couch potatoes. At the end of the study, all of the participants not only were in better physical shape, but they had also made other positive changes to their lives – they smoked less, drank less alcohol, and consumed less caffeine and junk food. Apart from these improvements toward their physical health, they also spent more time in intellectual pursuits, watched less television, and were less depressed. Somehow, getting in better physical shape caused other positive changes in their lives.
In a follow-up study, the same researchers conducted a study involving 29 people who took a four-month money management program. Not surprisingly, at the end of the program, the finances of all of the participants had improved. But the researchers also found the participants smoked fewer cigarettes, drank less alcohol and caffeine, ate less junk food, and were more productive in their school and work activities.
In a third study, the researchers conducted an experiment involving 45 students who took a course on academic improvement that focused on creating effective study habits. As you might expect, the learning skills of the participants improved. But once again, other positive behavior also increased – they smoked less, drank less, watched less TV, exercised more, and had healthier eating habits – even though none of those things were mentioned in the program to improve their study skills.
Based on these and similar studies, researchers now believe that as people immerse themselves in creating a positive habit – a keystone habit – they naturally increase their willpower and ability to regulate their negative impulses and distractions.
Broken Windows Theory
Just as one positive behavior can bring about more positive behavior, the same can be true of negative behavior. For example, in 1982, social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling suggested that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an environment that fosters additional crime and disorder. Their criminological theory – the broken windows theory – suggested that reducing minor crimes such as vandalism would help create an environment of order and lawfulness, which in turn would reduce violent crime. The theory was popularized in the 1990s by the New York City Police Department, which focused on reducing graffiti in the transit system, which resulted in a significant decline in crime in the subways.
Adopting Keystone Habits in Retirement
Greg Bishop, Attorney in Park City, Utah, suggests that habits can have a large impact on your retirement, both positively and negatively. For example, a strength training program would not only increase your physical capacity, but it could also have a domino effect in other areas of your life, such as:
- Helping you eat a more balanced diet
- Motivating you to smoke or drink less
- Improving your posture
- Improving your self-image
- Increasing your social interaction
- Restoring the quality of your sleep
Conversely, spending an excessive amount of time on the couch watching television will not only impact your physical strength, but it could also have a negative domino effect in other areas, such as:
- Incentivizing you to eat more junk food
- Facilitating more smoking or drinking
- Causing lower-back pain or other posture problems
- Decreasing your self-esteem
- Reducing the quantity and quality of your social interactions
- Impacting your sleep patterns
As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “that which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed, but that our power to do it has increased.” While Emerson no doubt meant that the positive things that we do become easier of time, the same is true of negative things – they also become easier. One key to having a purposeful retirement is to leverage keystone habits to help bring about more positive changes in your life.
About Greg Bishop, Attorney
Greg Bishop is an experienced corporate attorney, compliance officer, and HR leader based in Park City, Utah. He has devoted the past three decades of his life to helping companies succeed. Now, he is more focused on team building and inspiring others to continually improve themselves and live their lives to the fullest.