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What are Keystone Habits?

When you’re recovering from addiction or mental illness, positive lifestyle changes are often a big part of the equation. Improvements in diet, exercise, sleep, and healthy routines can make a huge difference in your mood, memory, concentration, and willpower. Having more energy and focus makes the other parts of recovery much easier.

The trouble is that changing your ways is hard. New behaviors are often uncomfortable and we often give them up before they become healthy habits. It’s even harder if you try to change several things at once. How are you supposed to make all the changes you need to make without increasing your risk of failure?

This is where keystone habits come in. Keystone habits were identified by author Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit. Once you adopt a keystone habit, other positive changes happen almost automatically. So by focusing your attention on one or two specific changes, you can potentially get benefits in other areas as a bonus.

Perhaps the most powerful keystone habit is exercise. Exercise has many benefits in itself. It improves your mood and concentration. It has been shown to grow neurons in the part of your brain responsible for consolidating long-term memory and it improves executive function and self control. Physically, it strengthens your heart, lowers your blood pressure and resting heart rate, and reduces stress hormones such as cortisol.

It’s not always easy for people to adopt a regular exercise habit, but once they do, they tend to notice other improvements follow automatically. For example, people almost always find they eat better when they start exercising regularly. They may not do it intentionally, but they start to notice that if they eat half a pepperoni pizza before running, they’ll end up feeling terrible. Gradually, they start to be more conscious of their food choices and their diets improve almost automatically.

Exercise also improves sleep, which is another important factor in recovery. Better sleep leads to better concentration, better mood, and better memory. When you exercise regularly, insomnia is less of a problem. You fall asleep more easily and sleep more deeply. Again, you don’t even have to really try. After a day when you’ve gotten a decent amount of exercise, you’ll feel like going to bed just a little earlier.

Other keystone habits include meditation, journaling, making your bed, regular reading, and spending time around positive people. Try to focus on one habit at a time. Start by choosing something related to your top priorities. If you want a better relationship with your family, maybe your keystone habit could be sitting down for dinner every night. If you focus on an important habit that’s central to your life, you will likely find other things fall into place.

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