The Byproducts of Mastering a Keystone Habit

It seems those who are growing the fastest — those who are intentional and proactive with their lives — all have something in common.


They start by changing a single habit until they have mastered it. This clears the way for some powerful momentum to take over.

There is an incredible phenomenon which happens when you master a keystone habit.

It may not matter which habit, either!

For us it was money. We were exposed to Dave Ramsey and latched onto the wisdom of what he teaches about getting out of debt and living on less than you make. We read many books on the topic. We discussed it with friends and coworkers, collecting the best of everyone’s experience and insight — and discarding the rest!

It all started to make sense. We put into action what we learned by piling money onto our loans like buckets of water on a fire. We punched debt in the face! We are now debt-free and will never go back.

This was incredibly empowering, and had wonderful byproducts. Though the original exercise was purely financial, but it bled into other areas.

Insert momentum here.

We figured out wills and life insurance. We got rid of a bunch of stuff and simplified our lifestyle drastically. We sold one of our beaters and bought a nicer used car.

We even started taking more walks.

And it can all be traced to proactively mastering a keystone habit regarding money.

Growth begets growth.

For a friend, it was fitness. He now works out several times every week. The boost to his confidence and energy have been huge and undeniable.

The tremendous encouragement he found through fitness fueled him to take on new challenges.

This is the power of mastering a keystone habit.

What is your keystone habit?

Here are some ideas: Lose weight. Get a better job. Attend church regularly. Get serious help with a bad habit. Live on your own. Grow deeper relationships with friends. Smile while you talk. Delegate the tasks you hate doing. Get up early and read every morning. Throw away your television.

Any one of these may be just what you need — a keystone habit for you to work on.

Put all of your energy into following through.

And let the progress you make build momentum to carry you through the next milestone. And the next.

Growth begets growth.

No really — what is your keystone habit? What will you work on now to open the door for future growth?

Putting Off the Old and Putting On the New

Transformation (change) does not happen by addition. Adding wings to a caterpillar will not make it a butterfly. Adding a good habit will not cancel out a bad one.


During metamorphosis, the caterpillar sheds part of itself before it can become a butterfly. The old has got to go before you can be transformed by the new.

It’s difficult to change. Even if our habits are bad, we are comfortable. It’s like the toddler who doesn’t want her diaper changed. It may be soiled, but it’s warm and it’s hers!

And, for one more example, you have to empty your garage before you can fill it with something else.

The Bible has plenty to say about transformation. See what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24 (emphasis added)

I like the words Paul uses. I imagine taking off layers of dirty clothing so I can then put on new, fresh, clean clothes.

Paul is one to talk about change. His own life transformed dramatically when God got his attention in a powerful way and he immediately repented (turned around). He was so different that his name was changed from Saul to Paul.

You know you want to change. You want to quit your bad habit.

But you don’t want to put off your old self first. And without doing that, you will never be able to put on the new self.

Why is it so hard to put off your old self?

Wandering Generalities Won’t Ever Change

I have limited patience for theory. I mean, it is definitely important to understand how systems work, sure. But I used to get frustrated in school because we seemed to discuss theory way more than we discussed application. I need to see what can be done with all this theory so it can fuel my inspiration to learn the material.


So enough theory. Let’s apply the concept of change to an area of your life.

What bad habit are you going to focus on changing? How will you accomplish this? Be specific!

Zig Ziglar called people “wandering generalities” when they seem to have no defined purpose. It’s time to get serious and become a “meaningful specific” instead.

None of this “I need to get better at life” stuff. No more “I suck at being productive” or “I want to lose weight.” Let’s put on big kid pants and nail down your desire for change. What specifically needs to change? What are you working on? How are you going to do it?

Maybe you’re lazy and you want to change it. Maybe you feel tired all the time because you eat unhealthy food often and don’t exercise. And your choices have now made your overeating and lack of fitness obvious to others.

Now break it down into bite-sized goals.

You can figure this out. Don’t make me spell it out for you. You’ve got to confront each facet of this change head-on. One facet is groceries and restaurants. Another is signing up for a gym membership. Another is scheduling a time to work out three days a week.

And to really nail it down, experts highly recommend writing down your goal. If it’s sensitive, start a private journal collecting your thoughts and strategies.

Regardless of what you do — do something!

It’s not head knowledge. Not changing is rarely an issue of ignorance. Usually, you know better, but you fail to follow through.

And you fail to follow through because your goals are vague and undefined.

Stop being a wandering generality. Get specific!

Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” What are your specific goals for change?

Choosing to Suffer

It’s easy to assume people don’t like to suffer. People want to be happy, right? I mean, what kind of people would choose to harm themselves over and over?


Tons of people do this, it turns out! How else do you believe addictions are created in the first place?

Yes, the original poor choice was long ago. However, by choosing not to fix your bad habit, you are choosing to suffer.

It sounds harsh, but it’s nothing compared the the suffering you choose by refusing to change!

I have read how people with addictions are nearly powerless to stop their bad habits. (Hang on — we will discuss the power to change in a later post.) This may be mostly true. If there is momentum, it will take much active energy to turn things around.

Once habits are formed, they require very little brain power to maintain. It’s pretty much following a script without thinking.

But let’s not call you a victim just yet. There is still plenty of personal accountability you need to accept for your situation.

For you to create this bad habit, this addiction, you had to make a poor choice many, many times. Over and over, choosing the wrong path each time.

Even if this is obvious to you, the next part may not be.

By choosing not to change, you choose to suffer.

Do you agree with this concept? Speak your mind in the comments.

Think about it. The choice — and the power — are yours, even now.

Are you choosing to suffer? Are you choosing a bad habit over something better?

Discovering the Reward for Your Habit

When we discussed habits previously, we learned they are composed of a cue (trigger), routine, and reward. Though the routine is the part we think about, it is really the reward which drives us to do the bad habit.


So what is your reward?

It is what you hope to receive as the result of your routine. You need to discover your reward to stand a good chance of changing your behavior. This drives the habit in the first place.

Let’s look at an example.

A young woman moves to a new city and is spending a ton of money on food and entertainment. She can’t afford this lifestyle and she knows it.

Determine the cue, the routine, and the reward. Where does overspending fit in?

Since something else likely triggers the desire to spend money, it is not the cue. We don’t fully understand the reward yet, so we can’t know the cue. Let’s leave the cue for last.

Overspending might not be the reward either, since there may be an ulterior motive behind this behavior.

Overspending, in this example, is the routine — the bad habit which she wants to change. It may help to think of the routine as a symptom of the root problem, the reward.

So what is her reward? This gets tricky.

Some digging reveals she is very lonely in the new city. She finds herself alone in her apartment too often and doesn’t have any friends yet. So she goes out for dinner and a show to be around people.

The cue, then, might be seeing a couple hold hands on the sidewalk or walking by a restaurant full of people.

Did you catch that?

Overspending is not the problem! The routine is the path to a reward. In this case, it is social interaction. Her desire for relationships (the reward) leads her to overspend (the routine).

Instead, she could use loneliness (the cue) as a reminder to call an old friend or join a club which shares her interests. And this will lead her to satisfy her desire (craving) for social interaction.

Does that make sense?

Changing a habit will be difficult without understanding your reward. Otherwise, it is easy to get stuck on the routine and miss the desire behind it.

Once you understand the reward, you have more leverage to change the habit.

For extra credit, read this article by Charles Duhigg. His example explains this concept further.

Think of a specific habit you have. What is the reward you are looking for?