Charles Duhigg, in his amazing book The Power of Habit, nails the importance of creating a keystone habit that practically guarantees success.
An example he uses is Michael Phelps.
Michael Phelps’ trainer, Bob Bowman, helped make Phelps the best swimmer in the world by helping him cultivate a set of strategic habits that made him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.
He didn’t need to control every aspect of Phelps’ life—all he needed was to target a few specific habits that had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with creating the right mindset.
Each night before falling asleep and every morning after waking, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would visualize his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns and the finish. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips, what it would feel like to rip his cap off at the end.
During practices, when Bowman ordered Phelps to swim at race speed, he would tell him to “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push himself as hard as he could. It almost felt anticlimactic as he cut through the water. He’d already done it before. He already knew what it looked like. He’d already embodied the motions of success.
Eventually, all Bowman had to say to Phelps before a race was, “Put in the videotape!” This would set Phelps off into his pre-race warmup routine, a long series of stretches, music, movements, visualization and personal rituals—none of which had anything to do with swimming directly.
Phelps embodied success before he’d even gotten into the water by training a specific routine suited exclusively to him.
As a lifestyle coach, I work with dozens of high-pressured entrepreneurs, entertainers and workaholics who battle their health on a daily basis to achieve a nearly impossible standard of success. I help these people create breakthroughs in their life around their relationship with food. It’s no surprise that many of my clients are recently divorced, or in the process of getting divorced. It’s often during times of disruption that we realize we have the power to change.
Still, the most common refrain I hear is this:
“There’s not enough time to take care of myself and support my family and business and deal with all the changes that are going on.”
To that, I say this:
Meet my client, Karen.
Karen just couldn’t get breakfast right.
For Karen, the morning was a race. She derived a great sense of pride in getting to the office before her colleagues. It was thrilling. She knew she was in line for a promotion to become an agent at the talent agency she’d been with for three years.
Her promotion, she thought, was at odds with her securing a healthy breakfast, which would often lead to a series of poor food choices she later regretted. For example, she’d frequently end up getting Cinnabon around 10 a.m., as it was conveniently located in the rotunda of her Manhattan office building. It didn’t always happen, and her choice wasn’t always as egregious as Cinnabon, but it was most mornings, and it was always a choice at odds with her goals.
Believe me, we tried everything. From preparing breakfast the night before, to waking up earlier and eating at home, to bringing a Greek yogurt with her on the go (which she didn’t like).
Nothing felt right. Nothing clicked.
And then everything clicked.
Karen had convinced herself that she could make it until lunch without eating because she read something about the health benefits of intermittent fasting. That, combined with her sense of “too much to do” in the mornings, and she set herself up with the limiting belief that nothing could be done, wishfully thinking that fasting was the appropriate strategy.
As a high performer, however, she demands a lot of energy from her brain, and inevitably she’d fail her quest to wait it out until lunch. She’d get the Cinnabon for a quick fix so she could go back to crushing work and then, feeling badly about herself, would continue to play the starvation game at lunch—trying to “make up” for her earlier mistake by not eating enough at lunch either, which would perpetuate this unhealthy loop all throughout the day, every day.
I thought of the dynamic at play, and then it clicked. I made breakfast a game.
“What time does everyone else get to work?” I asked.
“And by what time do you try to get to the office?”
“7:30 or 7:45.”
“I have a challenge for you…”
(See, Karen wasn’t opposed to preparing food. The morning was just the worst time of the day for her. In fact, in the evenings, she delighted in stopping at the local grocery store and preparing a meal for herself.)
“Here’s what I want you to do,” I said. “Right before you prepare dinner, I’d like you to go online and order breakfast for yourself to be delivered to the office the next morning. Make sure it gets there at 7:30 a.m.”
“That means I’ll have to get there by like 7:20. That’s earlier than I normally go! I’ll have to leave really early.”
“That’s actually perfect. Without question, I’ll always get there before everyone else.”
Do you see what we did there?
I determined what Karen’s primary motivations and triggers were (timing), what roadblocks were getting in her way (race to office), and how to trigger the craving for a healthy breakfast (“gamify” her race to the office).
I made sure we established the routine of ordering breakfast BEFORE Karen prepared dinner because I knew that her hunger and craving for food, in general, would get her excited to order the next morning’s food. If she ordered after dinner, then she might’ve felt complacent, full and unmotivated to see to a “silly game.”
By ordering the night before, she’d already paid. If she didn’t eat breakfast, it’d be a total waste of money. Ordering ensured her option was healthy. No concession stand nonsense.
Within one week, the routine was set. Karen would order over-easy eggs over sliced avocado and tomato basil salad, along with a cup of black coffee, from a gourmet coffee shop around the corner from her office. Simple. Healthy. Effective.
Do you see how the order of events matters? If we understand motivations, behaviors and routines, we can completely overturn our daily experience—which in turn changes our mindset, thought patterns and self-confidence.
In fact, Karen’s new routine spurred her to go to bed 30 minutes earlier, which dominoed into a new positive flow of routine.
She spent less time online and more time reading; her mornings were mentally more organized because she knew that food was taken care of (one less thing to worry about); and at night when she prepared dinner, it became common for her to also prepare lunch for herself the next day if she knew that she didn’t have a client meeting.
The relief of knowing that breakfast would be covered freed her up mentally and emotionally to see the bigger picture, insert herself in it and take action—with enthusiasm.
Oh, and a few months later, Karen got the promotion and the $50,000 raise, and now sits inside a corner office in one of the most powerful talent agencies in New York.
Karen’s success showcases the power of nailing a keystone habit, which sets off a series of small wins that create widespread change.
Just as Phelps’ routines had little to do with actually swimming and everything to do with success, and just as Karen’s routine had little to do with actually eating and everything to do with motivation and games, so too can your efforts begin snowballing into changes that are unrelated to dieting (directly) but prove transformative throughout your entire life.
Identifying and committing to a keystone habit is something I work on with all of my in-demand clients. A keystone habit is the one piece of the puzzle that makes everything in your life fit. It’s the most important habit to address because it starts a process that, over time, transforms the way you do everything. It’s the lead domino that ripples out into the rest of your life.
Success goes way beyond the food. You’ll see, your food decisions are really about everything else: your mindset, attitude, behaviors, habits, thought patterns, stresses, triggers, daily routines, weekly routines, past relationship with food and dieting, responsibilities, and so forth.
All of your choices are connected. The keystone habit is the lead domino in a powerful series of change. It all comes down to planning and preparing.
This article was published in April 2018 and has been updated. Photo by @arthurhidden/Twenty20