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the key to nailing your goals - keystone habits

Want to change your life for the better this year? Learn how to make smarter goals by adopting keystone habits.

Author Charles Duhigg coined the term keystone habit in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Keystone habits are small behavioral changes to your routines that, in turn, create a ripple effect of more positive changes in your life. Click To Tweet

The transformational nature of keystone habits is like the ripple effect of throwing a skipping stone across a lake. These habits’ strong influence on our lives means one small change can affect how you work, think, play, eat, or spend money. Therefore, making keystone habits the fastest way to achieve many goals.

What Are the Best Keystone Habits?

Any behavioral change you make to your routine that influences other positive changes can be a keystone habit. However, the best keystone habits to adopt are simple to implement and have the most potent domino effect on your life.

Get inspired and motivated to make more effective goals with this list of top keystone habits.


Without a doubt getting regular exercise is one of the most potent keystone habits you can add to your life.

Charles Duhigg says:

“Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

As a fitness professional since 2005, I have witnessed my clients’ lives change in incredible ways just from starting exercise.

Over the years, I’ve watched clients make healthier food choices with ease, improve their mood and focus, get promotions at work, gain the confidence they needed to start dating, and even make a brave leap to a new career.

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Keystone Habit Exercise


People who plan their day, preferably in the evening before bed, increase productivity, lower stress, and improve their chances of hitting work or life goals they are trying to make. This makes just a few minutes of planning a simple keystone habit that can improve many goals in your life.

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It might not sound sexy or spontaneous to stick to the same rituals every day, but that’s precisely what many successful people do.

Scientist Charles Darwin had focused work and reading blocks in his days in between three daily walks, three meals, an afternoon nap, and leisure time with his wife.

Prolific poet Maya Angelou did not break up her workday. Instead, she worked in one long chunk of time in a hotel room before returning home for leisure time.

Benjamin Franklin had a strict morning routine, waking up at 5 am and asking himself, “What good shall I do this day?” After planning the day and eating breakfast, he had two main work blocks divided by lunch and reading or bookkeeping.

Then, after work, Franklin had an evening routine of tidying up, dinner, music, or conversation, followed by reflection on his day. He asked himself, “What good have I done today?”

There’s not an exact formula to daily habits. Some successful people work in long and short bouts of creativity; some are night owls and others early birds. What’s important is to have a routine and stick to it.

Daily habits lead to better focus, productivity, and improved mental health. Click To Tweet

As Psychology Today points out, “The key to reaching your High Endeavor goals is sustainability.” Therefore, staying power through life’s adversity is best accomplished through daily routines.

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Office Desk Planning Your Day


We all know sleep is good for us, but how many get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night?

It turns out the exact number of sleep-deprived adults in the US is 35.2%, according to the CDC. Are you part of this sleep-deprived group that could benefit from a routine that gets you an extra 30-90 minutes of restful slumber each night?

The American Psychological Association warns that “Sleep deprivation taxes the immune system, and is associated with a heightened risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and depression.”

On the plus side, improved sleep is correlated with better health markers, lower body fat, reduced stress, and increased willpower, focus, memory, and productivity.

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I adopted the keystone habit of stretching last year, and it’s been a game-changer!

Stretching in the morning has improved my mood, reduced nagging aches and pains from sitting, and made me more productive throughout the day. So, as a result of daily stretching I have not just increased my mobility, I’ve also made progress in my work and personal life.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine states the most significant benefits of stretching are:

  • Increasing flexibility to prevent injury
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving strength
  • Freedom of movement
  • Relaxation and mental wellbeing

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Daily Habit of Stretching


There’s nothing like a good home-cooked meal to make us feel a sense of comfort and connection with others.

If you live alone, cooking for yourself is a loving act of self-care that can improve your health and confidence and lower your stress. Click To Tweet

If you live with a significant other or have a family at home, making food and sitting down together to share a meal strengthens the family bond leading to better intimacy and a sense of security and confidence.

As Duhigg writes, “Families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.”

Cooking at home means you’ll also be eating healthier food, which will improve your energy levels and your general wellbeing.

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Cooking Meals at Home


Food logging doesn’t have to be rigid and time-consuming. It’s simply about developing the awareness of what you’re putting into your body. In turn, you may find you eat less junk and improve your energy, health, and athletic performance.

I’m not a big advocate of calorie counting but instead tracking food using a hand-size portion method to measure macros.

Alternatively, there are also benefits to developing the habit of just writing down what you eat to hold yourself accountable.

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Could making your bed make you happier? According to Gretchen Rubin,  author of “The Happiness Project,” the answer is YES, it can!

While researching her book, she found that one of the most common simple changes that led to happiness was learning to make the bed each morning.

“[Bed making] is a step that’s quick and easy yet makes a big difference,” says Rubin.

In addition to overall happiness, bed makers are also more likely to like their jobs, own a home, feel motivated to exercise regularly and feel well-rested.

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Top Keystone Habit - Bed Making


I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 11 years old. In my twenties, I wrote several pages each day. The habit of daily writing helped me organize my thoughts, deepen my self-awareness, understand my emotions, and reduce the stress of negative emotions.

Overall, journaling has helped me make small and massive changes over the years and gave me the tools to improve my life in many ways.

Science agrees with me. Positive Psychology notes 83 benefits of journaling for both physical and mental health.

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Reading not only makes you smarter and more interesting at cocktail parties, but it can also help you live longer!

A 2016 study found that people who read for 30 minutes per day lived an average of 23 months longer than their non-reading counterparts. Therefore, you can enjoy a leisurely hobby and increase longevity by adopting a reading routine.

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Daily Habit of Reading


Psychology Today defines visualization as a mental simulation of your future experiences. “Using simulation can improve your motivation and increase your belief in your ability to achieve a goal,” says Ph.D. psychologist Jennice Vilhauer.

Everyone visualizes their future in some way, whether purposefully or unconsciously. However, if you take an active role in stimulating desired future experiences, you’ll maximize the way your brain uses visualization.

Athletes know the benefits of positive visualization for successful competition and physical training outcomes. I used positive visualization frequently in my preparation for Muay Thai fights.

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It’s a no-brainer that getting some quiet time to center ourselves can reduce stress. However, there are more surprising benefits of having a daily “namaste” ritual or deep breathing time in your life.

The National Center for Complementary Integrative Health says practicing meditation “may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression and may help people with insomnia.”

I like to “habit stack” my breath-work with my morning routine of stretching and planning my day. Who says you have to make each keystone habit separate?

Feel free to marry multiple habits into daily routines if it works for you!

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Practice of Meditation


Admittedly, I’m horrible at personal budgeting. I think I’ve read the Total Money Make Over by Dave Ramsey twice, but I still can’t manage to pay off my credit card debt.

However, I see the benefit of reducing credit cards’ “optional” debt. Getting high-interest rate debt as low as possible can reduce stress and provide you with more freedom for your future. Therefore, tracking expenses is a solid keystone habit to adopt if you want peace of mind and increased stability in your life.

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Gratitude lists may sound hokey or too elementary to work. However, the benefits of writing down what you’re grateful for are well studied.

The practice of making gratitude lists can lead to better sleep, psychological well-being, longevity, and increased physical activity. Click To Tweet

Ph.D. Research scientists at India University Josh Brown, Joel Wong conducted a study with 300 adults reporting clinically low mental health. The study found that gratitude letter writing leads to “significantly better mental health.”

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Practicing Gratitude - Success on Mountain Top


Hopefully, this list fired up some insights and ideas for your goals this year. What keystone habits do you want to adopt this year? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

As part of my New Year Goals Series,  I’ll discuss how to streamline a list of goals and plan for better results in my next article. If you have various goals you want to tackle this year, you’ll learn to plan for goal success like a pro!

Make sure to subscribe to my email list below for updates 🙂

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Matt Walker M.A. (2015, April 19) Routine, Grit, and Visionhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/adventure-in-everything/201504/routine-grit-and-vision

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2016, June 1) Sleep Data & Statistics. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.html

Kaminski, J, RD. (2021, September 21) The Benefits of Stretching: Learn the Advantages of Flexibility. National Association of Sports Medicine. https://blog.nasm.org/the-benefits-of-stretching

Brown, J. & Wong, J. (2017, June 6). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. The Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

Rubin, G. (2009, Aug 28). Make Your Bed. Gretchenrubin Blog. https://gretchenrubin.com/2009/08/make-your-bed/

Courtney E. Ackerman, MA. (2021 December, 14) 83 Benefits of Journaling. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-journaling/ 

 Bavishi, A., Slade, M.S., & Levy, B.R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Soc Sci Med, 164:44-48. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.014

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Health and Wellness15 Top Keystone Habits for a Better Year