The Phenomenal Power of a Keystone Habit

All seemed lost for Lisa Allen.

She was overweight, unemployed, clinically depressed and addicted to both alcohol and cigarettes. Her husband had just left her for a younger, more attractive woman and she actually began stalking the two of them; contemplating violent action.

To make matters even worse, she was standing on over $10,000 in debt without any means of repaying it. Even before her life was completely in shambles, she had never held a job for more than a year.

She had absolutely nothing going for her in her life.

Fast forward 4 years and Lisa is sitting in a laboratory with researchers who are completely awestruck by her. The woman they are looking at may as well be a completely different person.

She is lean and vibrant. She looks a full decade younger than the old photos in her charts. And according to her financial statements, she has no outstanding debts and has worked for the same graphic design firm for over 3 years.

She hasn’t smoked one cigarette in the entire 4 year span, while also losing 60lbs and running a marathon since then.

How did this happen?

How was Lisa able to turn her life around from being a complete failure on the brink of suicide, to being healthy, happy and successful in just 4 years?

One day Lisa decided that she was going to focus on just one thing she could control. She decided that every time she craved a cigarette, she would summon the willpower to go for a jog instead. [1]

That’s it. There was no intervention by her friends and family. No time in rehab. No therapy. No “lucky break” that finally turned her bad fortune around. She simply replaced one bad habit in her life for a good one.

She created what author Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, calls a “Keystone Habit”. [2] 

The Domino Effect of a Keystone Habit

Lisa had felt out of control her entire life.

She felt as if things were always happening to her and there was nothing she could do about it. So when she hit rock bottom, she looked for something – anything – that she could do that she could control.

So she turned to her smoking. Despite all of her cravings for cigarettes, she knew that she had the ultimate control over whether or not she put a cigarette in her mouth (your muscles aren’t going to involuntarily do it for you).

Then she realized that she also had control over running. The outside world could not stop her ability to put one foot in front of the other. So choosing to run instead of smoke became proof that she was in control of something in her life.

After a couple of runs, she began to feel more healthy and confident in herself.

Then she began craving healthier food, which would make it easier for her to run. As she started to get used to the daily endorphin rush from running, she became happier and less depressed.

Then, because she was eating healthier food and exercising more, her body had more natural energy. She used this boost of energy to start being more productive – which led to her landing a job. [3]

Slowly but surely, she changed every bad habit in her life and replaced it with a good one.

With each habit she changed, she grew more confident that she would be able to establish the next one. Over the course of 4 years, the domino effect of that one habit change, completely turned Lisa’s life around. [1]


A keystone habit is a positive change in behavior that allows other positive habits to grow as well. For Lisa, substituting smoking for running naturally changed other behaviors in her life.

Some other keystone habits might be:

Eating healthier

What you eat is one of the most important aspects of your willpower. Eating a healthy, low-glycemic diet will give you more mental energy for your brain to use to exert willpower throughout the day.

With more mental energy, you will be able to accomplish more of your difficult daily challenges like being productive at work, or sticking to your exercise routine. You will also feel healthier and better about your appearance – leading to increased happiness and confidence. [4] 

Waking up earlier

Your willpower is the highest in the morning. So not only does waking up earlier give you time for things like exercising, writing or planning for the day, but also the willpower to get those things done. 

By planning to wake up earlier, you will also naturally start to go to bed earlier. This will lead to less time watching late night TV, less time spent out late partying, etc. [5]


Practicing meditation on a daily basis is one of the best keystone habits there is. Those who meditate have a greater control over their thoughts and ultimate decisions – not to mention a higher level of willpower.

These benefits will help you in almost every other aspect of your life. They will make it easier to resist unhealthy food, they will make it easier to focus on your work, they will make it easier to stop procrastinating and they will make it easier to let go of your negative thoughts and think positively. [6] 

All of these daily practices help other great habits flourish naturally.

The Keystone Habit Formula

If none of the keystone habits above seem appealing to you – no problem! To find out if there are other keystone habits that are more suitable to your lifestyle, simply determine if they meet the criteria below:

There are 3 characteristics of a keystone habit that distinguish it from others:


Although it would be great to read a book every day, that’s a habit that’s going to drain your mental energy and willpower. A habit like exercising, on the other hand, will actually give you more energy that you can use to build other productive habits. 

So when trying to create a keystone habit, try to find something that will naturally give your more willpower. For a little help, here is a list of 10 habits that will increase your willpower.


Probably the most important factor in Lisa’s transformation is that it began small. If she set out to change all of her bad habits at once, she would have been doomed to fail. Instead, each run was a small win and each small win gave her more confidence.

With more confidence, she began to believe she could accomplish the next change in her habits; causing that chain reaction.  

So don’t try to overhaul your life. Focus on changing one thing, build confidence by achieving it consistently and let the dominos fall from there.


A keystone habit will create a platform for other habits to flourish. By exercising, Lisa naturally wanted to eat healthier so that exercise would become easier for her. Then by not spending money on cigarettes, she now had more money to start paying down her debts. 

So find a habit that will create a platform for other habits to flourish. Waking up early, saving money and investing in your education are all great examples of this. 


Lisa Allen is the perfect example of how great things are actually accomplished. They are not accomplished by completely overhauling your life and they are not accomplished overnight. 

Great things are accomplished by improving one small aspect of your life, achieving small wins, growing confidence and allowing time to take its course. This huge change started when Lisa was 30 and by the time she was 34, she was a success.

From the perspective of an entire life, 4 years is almost nothing. And yet so many of us do not have the patience to start small with something we can control and stay persistent with it.

Because she did have the patience and trusted the process, she now gets to live 40, 50 maybe even 60+ years as a happy and successful person. All because she had the willpower to start with just one thing that she could control.


  1. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.
  2. Yin, H., & Knowlton, B. (n.d.). The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience Nat Rev Neurosci, 464-476.
  3. Oaten, M. & Cheng, K. (2006) Longitudinal Gains in Self-regulation from Regular Physical Exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology 11.4: 717-33.
  4. Gailliot, M., Baumeister, R., DeWall, C., Maner, J., Plant, E., Tice, D., ... Schmeichel, B. (2007). Self-control Relies On Glucose As A Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More Than A Metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 325-336.
  5. Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.
  6. Oman, D., Shapiro, S., Thoresen, C., Plante, T., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation Lowers Stress And Supports Forgiveness Among College Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of American College Health, 569-578.