Habits, as a means to personal development, have been written about for centuries.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.” Aristotle* (384-322 BC)
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant (summarizing Aristotle in The Story of Philosophy 1926)
Charles Duhigg published The Power of Habit in 2012. It gives incredible insight into how and why we do some of the things we do. In it, he presents a couple of ideas that are crucial to our understanding of habits; the Habit Loop, and the Keystone Habit.
The Habit Loop describes the conscious or unconscious patterns that we recognize as a habit. The cycle is simple; Cue>Action>Reward. Habits follow a similar pattern whether or not they are what we deem to be good disciplines or evil vices.
There’s a Cue that tells our brain that it’s about time to take a certain Action. For instance, you might go straight to the gym on your way home from work. In this case, your commute from work is the Cue to go exercise. You might brush your teeth in the morning after you use the bathroom upon waking up. Going into the bathroom is your Cue for your morning routine. You might smoke after sex. I’m not sure I do, I’ve never checked.
But the Cue only works to initiate the Action Habit if there is some sort of reward after the Action. You feel better after you exercise. You get used to having fresh breath in the morning.
The entire loop can become so automatic that it’s performed with little to no conscious thought. You get off work, drive all the way to the gym, and walk up to the door before you remember that you were supposed to go straight home to set up for your kids’ birthday party. You were on auto-pilot, set in motion by your drive-home-cue, so you went to the gym without really thinking about it.
A Keystone Habit tends to initiate other actions and habits, like a domino effect. If you’ve created the habit of a daily workout, you’re more likely to eat healthier food, get better sleep, and reduce stress. It’s as if the Habit of exercise has become the Cue for more habits.
We’ve been told that it takes 21 days to make a habit. This is rubbish. You can do the same thing for 100 days and still “fall off the wagon”. Here’s the deal: If our Cue is set up so that it’s not automatic, then the Habit never really becomes a Habit. Going to the bathroom in the morning is not something you have to plan for. Most people have to use the restroom shortly after waking up. If you’re struggling to maintain a habit, it’s the Cue and the Reward you need to focus on, not some magic number of days.
If you want to implement better habits, you’ll need to take a look at the Cues you already have in your life. What habits and routines do you already have, and how can those be altered to become the Cue for the new habit you want to cultivate?
Once you identify a Cue that’s already in place and a consistent reward following the action, you can begin to identify your Keystone Habits. This may take some experimentation. I used the example of exercise above. That’s a pretty common one for most of us. Another valuable Keystone Habit might be the way you greet your spouse and children when you first see them in the morning and when you get home from work. Are you distracted or grumpy? I can assure you that being fully present for your loved ones goes a long way toward setting you up for success in other arenas.
Practice Makes Progress
In my book, I was careful to avoid over-using the term “habit”. I more often refer to a Daily Practice. Why?
As I stated above, habits can become partially or fully subconscious behaviors. Once your brain has created a groove of responses to particular cues, you don’t have to give your habits much thought. This is an incredibly powerful tool once you learn how to wield it. But The Lyceum Method that I introduce in the book is not just a tool for achieving more, it’s also a system that promotes more awareness. The ideas behind The Lyceum Method are meant to help you work toward your Vision of the future while remaining more present.
This is why I promote daily practices.
Practice is intentional.
Practice requires your attention.
Practice is focus on incremental improvement.
Initiating a practice session each day may become a habit, but the Practice itself is not. You can’t improve by “going through the motions”. You have to be aware, fully engaged, and hopefully, gain the ability over time of entering into a Flow state of hyper-focus.
If a Keystone Habit sets you up for other habits to more easily fall in line, a Keystone Practice sets you up to become the person who is living out your Vision for the future.
Working out is a Keystone Habit for me. Writing daily is my Keystone Practice.
I want to make a living as a writer. Reading, researching, marketing, outlining, planning, scheduling may all be part of that profession, but none of those things matter without writing. You don’t become a better writer through education, mentorship, or pontification unless you’re writing along the way. In fact, I could do every other conceivable aspect of the profession and still get nowhere if I left out writing. I could (and do) screw up every aspect of the calling, but I still make progress despite my faults as long as I keep writing and publishing.
I can still use a Cue and take advantage of the Habit Loop to foster more consistency in my Practice. I have a routine that when implemented, never fails to induce writing. But, I wanted to delineate for you the difference between Habit and Practice.
We try to foster habits in ways so that our subconscious routines are serving us better.
Daily Practice is time that is intentionally bringing us closer to our Vision of the future, and who we want to be.
Once you identify a Keystone Habit and set up a successful Cue>Action>Reward loop, you’ll have a lot easier time getting more of your routines in line without excessive self-discipline.
When you identify and implement your Keystone Daily Practice, you’ll have the clarity and confidence to build your dreams.**
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**If you would like help identifying your Keystone Daily Practice, you can find resources in the book, on the Daily Prompts category of this blog, in The Lyceum Community, or feel free to comment on this post or reach out to me here.