Keystone Habits

Part 2 of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit begins with a chapter that talks about keystone habits. These are habits that, once created or changed, have a cascading “snowball” effect on other aspects of a person’s life. Duhigg says:

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers…The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

This is the part of the book where Duhigg switches from a focus on individuals to a focus on organizations, so it seems appropriate that his examples include one of each – this chapter looks at Olypmpic swimmer Michael Phelps and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. Duhigg initially focuses on Alcoa’s CEO, Paul O’Neill, who came in to run the company at a time when it was in decline and whose focus on workplace safety led it to outperform the competition even after he left. 

Duhigg begins the story of the Alcoa transformation with a lengthy background on O’Neill, demonstrating his knowledge of habits and how he honed this knowledge throughout his career. When O’Neill took CEO position at Alcoa, he recognized that if he were to succeed, he would need a focus that unions and executives could both agree was important – this was worker safety. O’Neill had determined that this was a keystone habit:

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to understand how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.

In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa had to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

Duhigg details some of the policies that O’Neill implemented, and shows how a focus on one thing – worker safety – had far-reaching implications for how the company operated. He then returns to Michael Phelps and talks about how exercise is often a keystone habit for people – how even exercising once a week can have a spillover effect in how people make choices about eating, sleeping, etc. Reading this section, I was reminded of the FlyLady, whose email list I was on for a while back when I could not manage to keep my house clean. One of her central tenets is to start with the kitchen sink, and ensure that at the end of each day, that is clean. Somehow, that really helped me, and now I see that it was part of a keystone habit around attacking cleanliness and organization.

Of course, Duhigg does not stop with keystone habits – there must be a secret sauce for each chapter, and in this one it is “small wins.” Duhigg introduces small wins with Phelps, then has a brief aside that mentions the wealth of research around the effectiveness of small wins and how they sparked a major movement for LGBT equality, and then returns to the Alcoa example to discuss how small wins helped the keystone habit of focusing on workplace safety become ingrained. Duhigg says “This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cutures where new values become ingrained.”


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