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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

-Aristotle

You know how to make habits, but what’s a great place to get started?

As the title suggests, not all habits are created equally. The order in which you put on your shoes is a habit that you’ll likely never notice, and it doesn’t have a huge impact on your day.

On the other hand, certain habits can have a massive impact, and that’s what we’re here to discuss.

What habits count?

According to Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit:

“Some habits […] matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate[…] The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

Unfortunately, not everyone will have the same keystone habits. I’m a pretty healthy guy at 5’10” and 165 lbs. I don’t need to worry about developing a keystone habit for weight loss.

The trick, then, is finding habits that make your day “click.”

Think about a very good day.

Try to remember back to the last super-awesome day you had. Just a day where everything seemed to go “right” for you.

Now, try to remember your morning. Did you do anything in particular just a bit different? Maybe you drank a glass of water when you woke up, maybe you worked out, maybe you just felt grateful for your life when you were making your morning coffee.

Try to reproduce that day’s activities. If there was something different about that morning, give it a shot tomorrow morning to see if your day goes any better than usual.

Think of it as an experiment. Come up with a hypothesis, test your hypothesis, see the results, and if you discover one activity that helps the rest of your day go better – repeat it.

My Significant Six

I’ve managed to develop six habits which I consider keystone habits for myself. I’m not saying these will apply to everyone, but I’m sure they will help a few people.

I’ll start with the beginning of my day, explain the habit, then explain why I consider it so important.

1. Journal

Yes, I keep a journal. No, I’m not ashamed of that at all.

My journal isn’t a typical journal, though. I use the daily “template” from the 5-Minute Journal to get my priorities straight, show some gratitude for the things or people in my life, and do a quick affirmation.

At the end of the “standard template”, I add a negative visualization, essentially trying to plan or prepare for a bad situation that may or may not arise in my day.

I also jot down ideas throughout the day if they come to me. This journal habit is one of my keystone habits because I practice gratitude, planning and Stoic philosophy all at once. It gets my head straight before I tackle the day.

2. Meditation

I do a guided meditation from Calm.com every morning before I make my coffee. I’ll do anywhere from a 5 to 20-minute mindfulness meditation depending on how hectic my morning is.

Aside from the touted benefits of meditation – such as higher levels of dopamine, increased focus and creativity, and an overall sense of well-being – I simply enjoy having time to myself to relax.

I have a busy, hectic life, and finding time to center myself before I really tackle the day helps me stay level. I also find that mindfulness meditation helps me be more productive because it bleeds into other activities. I catch myself more often when I’m wasting time, then redirect myself to a more productive activity.

3. Exercise

Physical fitness is simply important to me. When I was working my 8a to 9p job I just didn’t have time to work out, and I felt the effects after a few months. It wasn’t pleasant.

I also find that I have more energy on days when I work out, and as a soon-to-be new father, that’s supremely important to me. That makes it worth my time to carve out 30 minutes from my mornings to tackle a P90X3 video.

Does working out make me sore? Hell yes. Do I feel accomplished every time I make it to the end of a workout? Most definitely.

Exercise is actually a keystone habit for everyone. Being physically fit is one of the best things you can do for yourself, so this is one of those habits that I’m going to set in stone for everyone.

Make time to exercise. Period.

4. Pomodoros

I work in focused bursts of 35 minutes with 10-minute breaks in-between for stretching, spending time with my family, or training my dogs.

As an Android user, Clockwork Tomato is my Pomodoro timer of choice, it’s free, customizable and just flat-out awesome.

Pomodoros are fantastic for getting focused work done, and the typical cycle is 25 minutes of work with a 5-minute break, but I’ve tinkered with my own times to figure out what works best for me.

Using Pomodoros through my day keeps me fresh, as extended screen time tends to exhaust me and cut me off from other important areas of my life (like my family.) This also ensures that I stay focused when I need to be.

5. Planning (Daily, Weekly, Monthly)

At the end of every day, I plan the next one. At the end of every week, I plan for the next week. And at the end of every month…I think you get the idea.

Let’s start from the top and move our way down. On the monthly level, I decide on one or two goals that I’d like to focus on. These are a bit larger, like “Get 100 subscribers on x” or “Finish design and development project for John Smith.”

Next, every week I plan out important tasks that I have to finish by the end of the week, usually that contribute to my larger monthly goals. On occasion, some of these plans are fresh and urgent, like a birthday I forgot about, but they are mostly large tasks that go toward my goals.

And finally, every night before bed I write 3-5 things that I need to accomplish the next day. These can be big tasks or small tasks, but it gives me a clear outline for tomorrow.

6. Saving 10%

This last keystone habit has helped tremendously with my finances, and it’s quite a simple one. I save 10% of any income I receive before I do anything else with it. I don’t make exceptions to this habit.

Fortunately, I’ve automated this process using a service called Digit, so I don’t even think about it anymore.

10% isn’t a huge number, it doesn’t sting too bad, and everyone says something different about saving. But 10% is the number I chose based on the book The Richest Man in Babylon. It’s how I roll.

Knowing that I have this emergency savings fund that’s steadily growing gives me the confidence to take risks when other people would be too terrified. It’s a habit I’m glad I developed.

It’s your turn.

“If you create an act, you create a habit. If you create a habit, you create a character. If you create a character, you create a destiny.”

-Andre Maurois

Like I said, not everyone will have the same keystone habits, so you’ll need to find your own.

Find an area of your life you’d like to improve, whether it’s personal, professional, emotional or physical. Just figure out the area you want to improve the most.

Now look for a habit that will make a positive impact on that area of your life. Think outside the box here. For instance, keeping a food journal helps people lose weight, simply because it makes them more mindful of what they eat.

See if you can start a habit that just makes you more mindful of the decisions you make related to your goal or goals.

If you still don’t know where to start – just look at my keystone habits and pick one that you think will help. I think they’re all pretty good.

Let me know what potential keystone habit you’d like to develop in the comments, I’ll see if I can help you perfect it!

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