You may have heard self-help and productivity gurus talk about “keystone habits” without really explaining what they are. Let’s sort that out.
A Keystone Habit is a daily ritual – one that you do with such diligence and regular practice that it becomes second nature, and in turn it acts as a catalyst for other positive things in your life.
Think about monks at a monastery: they have a set of rituals and habits that they perform every single day, from the first bell that calls them to prayer at dawn, to hand-washing before every meal, devotions at specific times of the day, etc.
Those of us who aren’t living a monastic life (which really does regulate what’s done almost every minute of the day) can find ourselves in rather chaotic quagmires.
Here are a few habits (or call them rituals, if you’d prefer) that can bring a sense of calm to our lives, and can be forces for profound positive change.
Chronic exhaustion affects every single aspect of our lives, from our physical well-being to how we show up in our relationships.
Our circadian rhythms can be interrupted by working late into the night, then our digestive systems are thrown off by living on coffee and take-out.
So, we’re tired and cranky and have upset stomachs, which can result in us snarking at our family members, performing badly at work, suffering from nutritional deficiencies or weight issues… the list just goes on.
A solid night’s sleep is the absolute foundation for a healthy, peaceful life.
Turn off your phone at least an hour before your planned bedtime, and don’t look at any screen as you wind down for bed.
Have a bath, do some gentle yoga, read, or even do crossword puzzles in bed until you start to nod off.
Set an alarm to wake you (gently) 7 or 8 hours down the line, and try to stick to that schedule every day of the week. Your body will soon settle into that rhythm and various other aspects will fall into place as a result.
2. Make Your Bed
It may seem irrelevant, but it’s a small, quick habit that sets a precedent of order and productivity for the day.
Also, on a subconscious level, it sets the stage for the day to unfold: it closes the chapter on the previous day, leaving a blank slate for today.
It also has the added benefit of having your bed ready for you to crawl into at night. Bonus points if it also keeps pets or kids from leaving surprises in your sheets for you to find later.
3. Schedule Regular Exercise
You don’t have to dive into an intense cross-fit training program or decide to do triathlons overnight: in fact, the likelihood of most people following through with either of those is slim, and that’ll just lead to self-loathing. No need for that.
Instead, take an honest look at what your weekly workload and responsibilities are, and schedule exercise you enjoy when you have the ability to do so.
Ideally, half an hour to an hour of exercise every day would be great, but we do our best with what we have to work with, right? Be gentle with you.
Walking is wonderful, as is swimming, if there’s a pool near you. Exercise that combines meditation with movement like yoga or tai chi are spectacular, and can be adapted to your level of able-bodied-ness.
Would you prefer to dance? Try Zumba, or belly dancing, or even ballet for beginners.
If you can, schedule a session at the beginning of the week to kick-start your energy, one at midweek to keep you going, and one longer one on the weekend when you have a bit more time.
You’ll soon see how great you feel after you move around a bit, and having a regular schedule creates that sense of rhythm and reliability we all appreciate in our lives.
4. Discard And Replace
Choose one day a week, or every other week, or even once a month, where you discard something you don’t love or need.
This will help you reduce clutter (no more “junk drawer”) and can give you the opportunity to replace things you feel “meh” about with things you truly appreciate (or simply embrace minimalist living).
As inspiration, draw from William Morris’ idea:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Want to get rid of plastics in your kitchen? Piece by piece, replace plastic utensils and storage containers with those made of wood, glass, metal, and ceramic.
Hate the decorations on your walls? Swap them out for something new until you’re surrounded by beauty that inspires you.
Eliminate the items from your life that are just adding clutter without adding value, or that you don’t truly love and appreciate.
5. Establish Regular Shared Meals And Family/Friend Rituals
Having a special meal or family ritual to look forward to on a regular basis is a beautiful keystone habit to develop.
Some people get together with relatives for a big family dinner on Sunday evenings, while others may do a twice-monthly brunch with their best friends instead.
Many observant Jewish people celebrate Shabbat from sunset on Friday night to sunset Saturday night, where food is prepared in advance and people don’t do any work at all. Family and friends gather to share meals by candlelight, and participants can take personal time to read/meditate, and just spend time together.
You can create whichever weekly ritual works best for your social circle and/or spiritual leaning.
Some people hold gatherings at the full and/or new moon every month, while others celebrate solstices and equinox.
However you and your loved ones choose to celebrate, establish a calendar of events and gatherings and make sure you stick to it!
6. Stop Being Critical Toward Yourself
If you were raised by parents who were overly critical toward you, you probably developed a rather scathing, negative inner voice.
This voice may tell you that you look like hell when you’re getting ready to go out, or mock your creative attempts, or decry your work as sub-par.
It’s of vital importance to counteract this voice with something far more positive.
Every time that negativity starts to creep up, imagine yourself stepping in and protecting your inner child, lauding them with praise, encouragement, and unconditional love.
You’ll be surprised at how this can turn around your entire mindset in a very short amount of time.
On a similar note…
7. Start A Positivity Journal
This is something you can do in bed after you’ve turned off your electronics for the night.
You don’t have to blather on about all the fluffy goodness you can think of: that really won’t be of much use, especially if it’s saccharine and insincere.
At the end of the day, simply write down just one positive thing that happened that day.
Even on the crappiest, most stressful of days, there’s usually something good to cherish.
Did your pet greet you with love and cuddles when you got home from work? Did you discover that you still had a few scoops of ice cream left in the freezer? Those count! Write them down.
When and if you find yourself feeling like you’ve had an endless slew of negativity for weeks, you can go through that journal and see all the good stuff that happened as well.
It can be great for some much-needed perspective when you’re feeling bogged down by grayness.
8. Never Stop Learning
How excited do you get when you learn something new? Seriously, when was the last time you had that giddy little “squeeee” thrill because you’ve immersed yourself in a new project or endeavor and can actually measure your progress?
There are countless different things you can learn, depending on which subjects interest you the most.
Do you like to work with your hands, especially on creative endeavors? You can take up knitting, woodcarving, leatherworking, or jewelry making, just to name a few.
Are your cooking skills mediocre at best? Take some cooking classes, or borrow various cookbooks from the library and try out new recipes!
Have you always wanted to learn a new language? Take classes in person or on online, and open up new worlds of understanding.
You’ll enrich your life and feel an immense sense of achievement every time you reach – and surpass – a new goal.
As an additional “yay” bonus, learning new things helps to establish new network pathways in our brains, which is awesome for delaying mental issues like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. It’s really win-win all around.
Which of these keystone habits are you most looking forward to putting into practice? Which do you think you’d struggle with?
Do you have keystone habits of your own to share? Please let us know in the comments section below!
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.