For Michael Phelps, the morning was like many others. Though a race-day, he fell into a routine that had become automatic. He ate the same breakfast he always ate, did the same stretching routine he always did. He swam his typical sequence of warm-up laps. He had already won three gold medals that week at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Today, however, his calm in the midst of intense pressure would be further tested.

Minutes before the race, he fell into his customary pattern— bouncing slightly on his toes, stepping on and off the block, swinging his arms three times. Then the gun sounded. He began swimming the 200-meter butterfly, but something was wrong. Moisture was collecting inside his goggles. Everything became blurry. Soon the goggles filled completely with water. No longer can he see the lines on the bottom of the pool, guiding his direction, or the movements of his competitors, or how close he is to the wall in front of him. He is swimming blind.

It is in just such moments, when sensory input is confusing and muddled that the brain kicks into habitual responses. In this case, Phelps reverted to what he had learned through years of training, including how to relax and respond in stressful situations. His coach, Bob Bowman, had helped Phelps know how to handle life stress, which spilled over into athletic performance. In training, Bowman had trained Phelps to swim in the dark: turning off the lights at the pool, wearing blacked out goggles, and swimming the perfect race in his mind. Every night, in the dark, Phelps imagined the perfect race, how many strokes, what his body would do, where the wall was, how he would finish. Phelps had rehearsed how he would respond to goggle failure. Habits that had been developed took over when other supports failed.

Research on habits has shown that developing a significant key habit often spills over into other parts of life. One good habit developed or one bad habit broken sets off a signal for positive change in other areas. These are thought of as keystone habits. A keystone is the stone or brick at the central topmost point of an arch that locks the other rocks or bricks into place. It is something on which other interrelated things depend. A keystone habit may not be obvious at first glance, but a specific discipline or strength can spur on positive qualities elsewhere.

It can be quite overwhelming to look at oneself and assess everything that needs to be changed. It is a long list. I should exercise, lose weight, avoid snacking, stop smoking, stick to the budget, have a better attitude, not be impatient, have meals on time, study harder, think the best of others, smile at fellow employees, make time for the kids, stop worrying, work less, work more, etc., etc. Throwing the kitchen sink at ourselves, or others, tends to crush us. Rather than tackling them all, the thought behind the keystone habit is that tackling one “can cause widespread shifts.”1 Coming in through a back door rather than fighting the beastly habit head on can be a successful approach in some situations. For example, the simple act of eating with the family and making your bed every morning have been found to be keystone habits that fuel better homework skills, greater emotional control, and greater ability to stick with a budget.

Exercise has been found to be a powerful keystone habit for many. James Prochanska PhD, of the University of Rhode Island, says, “Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”2 For many, exercise behaves as a catalyst, propelling other good habits into action. Experiencing a successful change in one area can be contagious, in the mind as well as in our actions, helping us to take the next step.

When you think about it, our life is a mass of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual habits. Some have developed through either neglect or opportunity at some point in our lives. Others have been acquired through painstaking training and diligent repetition. We are blessed with the freedom to make choices that when repeated form habits that can build character and influence our happiness and health.

Habits are more than something we do, they are part of who we are. They gift us with stability and resilience when times are tough or something goes wrong. Phelps’ training had perfected his swimming technique. He had zeroed in on a few key habits that established a mindset enabling him to swim his laps, kick off the wall, estimate how many strokes it would take to finish, and glide in with outstretched arm, timing everything perfectly and all while not being able to see. Not only did Phelps win yet another gold medal, but he beat the world record.

It’s a big project, but beginning with one keystone habit is a powerful step forward in improving your overall health, happiness, and well-being. Take that step today, you’ll be glad you did.


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Risë Rafferty

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