iStock_000001245119XSmallWe live in an interesting world. As a species, we are pre-disposed to follow the person who seems to know what’s going on. It’s probably a survival instinct.

We often will see a visionary leader, someone who is inspirational and colorful and full of initiative, courage and new ideas. Then everyone gets on board behind them as they build an amazing company. Then one day, they retire, die, quit or are forced out by the Board of Directors. They are replaced by someone the Board is comfortable will keep the well oiled gears of this now large and profitable company in working order. Of course, this new person isn’t that innovative, doesn’t take risks (Board doesn’t like that), and does their best to keep the ship on its previous course. The Board can then go back to sleep, assured that capitalism is safe for another day (Duhigg 98).

But over time, the company loses its edge. Customers complain that the company doesn’t know who they are anymore and doesn’t care about them. Vendors see that the company is not adapting to new technologies and innovations. Then investors start to bail like rats from a sinking ship as they see the Board unwilling to make any changes. There is a hole in the  ship and its going down, meanwhile the Board just paddles faster and faster. Soon, the company fades into history. But every so often a company selects a new leader that is innovative, takes risks and takes a different approach to things. The Alcoa company did this in 1987 and ended up turning the company completely around, back into a profitable and innovative corporation and their new CEO, Paul O’Neill did this by focusing on . . . safety.

O’Neill did not come into the annual Board meeting talking about profit margins, lowering expenses, nor using any of the industry buzzwords (Duhigg 98). His goal was zero workplace injuries. While the Board was skeptical, O’Neill had discovered a key principle – the Keystone Habit.

  • When you change a habit, the right habit, the changes can ripple through an organization – or through your life (Duhigg 100).
  • You can’t order people to change, that isn’t how the brain works, you have to focus on one thing (Duhigg 100), then the changes can spread throughout the rest of the company or in the case of a person trying to change, the changes will spread throughout other areas of their life.
  • Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, these are Keystone habits (Duhigg 100). Success doesn’t depends on getting every single thing right, but instead a keystone habit relies on a few key priorities and fashions them into powerful levers (Duhigg 101)

When Alcoa started focusing on safety, which everyone could agree was important, they found numerous other benefits including improvement of processes and even an increase in the bottom line as a result (Duhigg 108). Whenever there was a workplace injury the unit president was required to report it to O’Neill within the first 24 hours and present a plan for making sure that the injury never happen again (Duhigg 106). That was the routine. The reward was that anyone not embracing the plan did not get promoted (Duhigg 106), sort of a reverse reward but it still worked.

This one change required vice presidents’ to be in constant communication with the floor managers, and floor managers in communication with workers so they could raise a warning flag if they saw problem or had a suggestion to improve safety. This  made it easier for the lowest worker to get an idea to the highest executive as fast as possible and helped break the rigid hierarchy that have been previously been established (Duhigg 107). Even the Union got on board because who cannot support a safer workplace?

On a personal level there are a couple of Keystone habits such as habitually working out which often causes people to become more productive at work, smoke less and become more patient with colleagues and family, eating better and even become more fiscally responsible (Duhigg 109).

Families who eat together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control and more confidence (Duhigg 109). Even making the bed every morning has been correlated with better productivity, any greater sense of well-being (Duhigg 109)  – – thank you to my wife, but this is one of her daily routines and I actually feel better and more organized when the bed is made. It’s not that these keystone habits cause better grades, or better productivity, it’s that somehow they start a chain reaction that help other good habits take hold (Duhigg 109).

Keystone habits also helped Olympic Champion Michael Phelps. Phelps had trouble calming down before races so his swimming coach introduced some relaxation exercises and a routine for Phelps to follow (Duhigg 111). When it came time for the competition, Phelps “put in his videotape,” followed his routine and ended up winning gold medal after gold medal (Duhigg 111). Once his coach established a few core routines all of his other habits such as as diet and his practice schedule seemed to fall into place (Duhigg 112).

The reason Keystone habits are so effective is the principle of “small wins.” (Duhigg 112). Small wins do not combine into a linear form, marching lock step towards a goal, rather it’s about finding small moments of success and building them into mental triggers (Duhigg 114).

Another way that keystone habits encourage change is by creating structures that help other habits to flourish (Duhigg 119). Some people come up with elaborate systems to create change and end up overwhelming themselves in the process. This is why I don’t like ANY of the diet programs that require tons of math to figure out how many carbs, proteins, points, etc., so forth I’m eating at any given time. While food journaling is a keystone habit, it needs to be a simple process, not advanced Calc.

The final way keystone habits encourage change is by creating cultures where new values are ingrained (Duhigg 123). The US Military Academy at West Point knows this. When researchers studied the freshman cadets, who all had high GPA’s, were physically fit and had great self-discipline they discover that that’s NOT why they were successful. They found that grit, the ability to be persistence in spite of failure, mattered more than all the other elements (Duhigg 124). Also, they discovered that cadets who were successful at West Point need a culture of like-minded friends to help them find the strength to overcome obstacles (Duhigg 124).

Starbucks, that coffee making empire, found through research that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success and that the best way to strengthen willpower is to make it a habit (Duhigg 131). They learned that they could train their employees to put their personal problems and issues aside, and provide a burst of enthusiasm while serving a latte (Duhigg 131). Starbucks set about teaching self-discipline.

According to the research, Self discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance then does intellectual talent, and students who have high levels of self-discipline outperform their peers on every academic performance level (Duhigg 131).

But, willpower is skill like a muscle – it gets tired as it works harder so there’s less leftover for other things (Duhigg 137). This is the same reason that if you spend all day responding to email or doing mundane tasks, you will not have anything left over for the big important projects. But like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened or increased, either in the gym or through a money-management program or some other keynote habit that spills over into other areas (Duhigg 139). Even focusing on your highest priority projects first and then the lower priority email and mundane projects later, can help build your willpower (at least its a better use of your depletable energy)

Good habits spill into other parts of your life. When you get yourself to the gym to work out or start eating better you are changing how you think. You’re getting better at regulating impulses and learning to distract yourself from temptation (Duhigg 139). This is often why enrolling your kid into anything from piano lessons to sports can improve academic performance (Duhigg 140). Even as an adult, taking an enrichment course of some kind, will often have positive impacts in other areas of your life. Tied into these keynote habits is writing down your specific goals and also writing down a plan of action if something should pull you off track (Duhigg 142-143).

Willpower becomes a habit by choosing certain behaviors ahead of time and then following the routine when the inflection point arrives – when the cue arrives, the routine occurs (Duhigg 146)

By writing a plan of action ahead of time gives you a sense of control over your life and we all want to be in control of our lives (Duhigg 151).

A keynote habit that our nation once had, but has since lost, is space exploration. While some people speculate that space exploration is a waste of time and money, consider that the amount of money budgeted to NASA is 4/10th of one penny on a tax dollar. The bank bailout a few years back exceeded the total amount of money that NASA has EVER received in its history. Yet, when we had a vibrant space program, more people wanted to get into the science, engineering, math and technical fields and innovation exploded, raising every industry.

As Joe Rice, Lockheed Martin’s Director of Government Relations said in my class today, if you know anyone who has survived breast cancer because of early detection, they can thank the fact the Hubble Space Telescope was blurry, for it was in the technology that was developed to fix Hubble, that someone figured out the same process could be used to detect small signs of breast cancer. According to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, the research done under the banner of US space exploration includes:

  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • Implantable pacemakers
  • LASIK surgery
  • GPS (which impacts MANY areas of our lives)
  • Collision-avoidance systems on aircraft
  • Digital imaging
  • Cordless power tools
  • Athletic shoes

Space exploration provides many innovations that would not ordinarily be created. One could argue that better research into breast cancer, or more funding, would have provided the same solution, but DeGrasse Tyson argues that that’s not what inspires some of the people that may be able to solve the problem.

Had President Kennedy announced an ambitious plan to eradicate breast cancer (something the majority of the public knew little about in 1961), instead of announcing a plan to put man on the moon, do you think he would have inspired a generation of scientists, engineers and biologists to jump in on the program? Unfortunately not, but that’s the reality. A cultural keystone habit called space exploration, has spawned or enabled the development of everything from the cell phone to the microwave oven, causes many more areas of our society, such as medicine, to improve, while providing jobs and spurring the economy – all for the low low price of 4/10 of a penny on the dollar.

We started this blog talking about company’s that had stagnated and were soon out of business because of their failure to change and embrace new thinking that goes beyond the immediate concerns. As Rice mentioned earlier today in my class, there used to be two countries that could go into space, the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, there are still two countries, except now its Russia and China. We actually have to pay one of those countries $72 million dollars to send a US astronaut into space, which are US dollars going out of the US economy and to a foreign nation. Is our nation really that stagnant?

While you may not believe you are able to affect change at the political level, you can. You can change virtually anything in fact with the concept of keynote habits, which are based on small wins. Start at your level. What keystone habit could you incorporate into your personal or work life? What small wins can you go for?

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.


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