Keystone Habits: Why They Are Important, And How You Can Build Them Effortlessly


In 1987, Peter O’Neill, the new chief executive of the Aluminium Company of America (or Alcoa, as it is known), stood before a ballroom of anxious Wall Street investors and stock analysts, and announced his first order of business:

“I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America” he declared. “I intend to go for zero injuries.” [1]

Safety (or a lack thereof) had become a major cause for concern for Alcoa. Every year, countless employees were taking sick days due to injury – and the problem was only getting worse. O’Neill had only one intention: To put a stop to it as soon as possible.

Fast forward one year after O’Neill’s speech: Alcoa’s profits broke company records. Their profit margins were five times higher than they had been prior to O’Neill’s arrival and their market capitalisation had risen to 27 billion dollars.

And best of all, they had done it and still remained one of the safest companies in the world.

Alcoa’s secret to success was simple, yet profoundly significant: O’Neill had transformed the company by focusing on a “keystone habit.

Introducing Keystone Habits

On Alcoa’s transformation, O’Neill commented:

I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company. [2]

Charles Duhigg (who popularised The Habit Loop in his New York Time’s bestselling book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change) describes a keystone habit as:

A pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization. [3]

That catalyst can often be a habit you would typically overlook and disregard the importance of.

But, in reality, those habits – the tiniest, perceptibly insignificant habits – are the ones that have the biggest knock-on-effect.

For Alcoa, it was health and safety. And when it became their number one priority, employees not only suggested improvements in rules and regulations (like repainting safety railings yellow, which was previously considered insignificant), but how to develop business and maximise profit as well.

Alcoa profited from its keystone habit because employees no longer feared suggesting improvements to management, in fact, they were encouraged. The more suggestions made, the safer and more productive the company became. And today, the results continue to speak for themselves.

Fortunately, keystone habits aren’t limited to organisations: They can be taken advantage of by you as well. 

Finding Your Keystone Habits

It’s common to feel overwhelmed when building a new habit. For example, when dieting, there are many considerations to make. Should you join a gym? Go on a diet? Or both?

The answer is not to necessarily limit yourself to the above, but instead, focus on your keystone habits: The habits that change, remove and reshape your other habits.

These are the habits that, according to Duhigg, allow you to celebrate small wins, create new platforms and establish a culture where excellence is contagious. [4]

Like Alcoa’s on-going celebration of “(X) number of days without incident” you should celebrate your successes upon completion of your habits. If you did not succumb to the allure of a sweet dessert, you are entitled to a well-deserved pat on the back.

Rewarding yourself for behaving becomes the secret to success in long-term habit formation.

These successes snowball and inspire changes in other habits as well.

For instance, let’s suppose going to bed before midnight on a weekday is a problem for you. If you’re consistently saying no to dessert and rewarding yourself with a sense of self-satisfaction, it’s not uncommon to not only start exercising, but have a motivation to sleep earlier as well (because of fatigue).

Self-discipline becomes acontextual: The commitment you apply to one habit, ultimately, runs into the next and with no additional effort. 

Finally, those changes become a reflection of who you now are and more importantly, what’s possible in the future. No habit is unchangeable. And soon, you’ll have more than enough references points to draw from.

You become an example; someone who inspires others to follow suit and implement their own changes. Someone like a Tommy John.

Here are a few more examples on how you can apply keystone habits:

  • If you want to lose weight, your keystone habit could be recording what you eat. In one study published in the National Institute of Health, dieters who kept a daily food log not only lost more weight than those who didn’t, but built other habits like meal planning in the process. Recording their daily meals became a keystone habit. [5]
  • Want to go running? Your keystone habit could be going to bed before midnight. If you’re well rested, you’ll have more energy and more motivation to lace up your running shoes.
  • If you want to write daily, your keystone habit might be better organisation – even if it’s promising to tidy your room before bed. If you’re more organised, you’re more likely to be comfortable with your environment – and write consistently.

A Final Word

Identify your keystone habits and celebrate the behaviours where success is not only noticeable, but measurable. This includes the number of desserts you have said no to since beginning your diet.

Observe the patterns that influence other patterns for the better, for example: “I’ve noticed when I record what I’ve eaten, I feel less inclined to eat dessert and exercise instead”.

And lastly, recognise the effect it can have on those around you. Soon, others will comment: “If she can do it, so can I!”

Keystone habits are a powerful catalyst for change – but only if you set them off. Go and light the fuse. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


[1], [2] Duhigg, C. (2012) How ‘Keystone Habits’ Transformed a Corporation(Accessed: 19th October 2014).

[3] Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change, New York: Random House.

[4] Duhigg, C. (2012) The Right Habits(Accessed: 19th October 2014).

[5] Hollis J.F., Gullion C.M., Stevens V.J., Brantley P.J., Appel L.J., Ard J.D., Champagne C.M., Dalcin A., Erlinger T.P., Funk K., Laferriere D., Lin P.H., Loria C.M., Samuel-Hodge C., Vollmer W.M., Svetkey L.P.; Weight Loss Maintenance Trial Research Group. (2008) ‘Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2), pp. 118-26.

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