What Keystone Habit Overshadows Everything Else?

I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. There are references to companies, sports, education, medical practices, and a myriad of other fields. Habit after all is essential to anything and everything in life. The following sentence from the book is my most important takeaway. “Sometimes, one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else.” It is what Duhigg refers to as the ‘keystone habit.’

Duhigg argues that by emphasizing one thing there is a domino effect on many things. For example, a woman determined to give up smoking decided to go jogging whenever she felt tempted to smoke. That, in turn, impacted what she would eat, how she worked, slept, scheduled her day, and planned for the future.

The Case Studies

When I interviewed Paul Tanglis over the summer, he said everything for their team starts with when a player was on the floor. It was the responsibility of everyone on the team to go and pick up that player. The immediate pay off of this is that it gets a player off the ground. The residual effects are incredibly deep. Here are some of them:

  1. Reward and appreciation for hustle despite temporary physical pain.
  2. Complete equality among every team member.
  3. A culture of caring about each other.
  4. Reason to pause and celebrate and find joy in mundane tasks.
  5. Appreciation for little things that help the team instead of focusing on flashy things that help indivduals (diminishing SportsCenter highlights).
  6. An increased sense of trust in your teammates and coaches ability to follow through.
  7. Taking more charges and lowering the opponents points total.
  8. Getting more 50/50 balls which widens the gap in the number of shots each team takes.
  9. Higher willingness to attack the rim and get to the free throw line.
  10. A higher probability that the opponent will be in foul trouble.
  11. The team was the Division 2 Sectional Champion.

Coach Tanglis could have said it was their goal to take three charges per game, take more shots than their opponent, or try to make the twelfth player engaged. Instead it was all incorporated in this one little rule that he stringently makes sure the team obeys or they will have consequences.

Similarly, Will Healy is guiding the Austin Peay football program through making positivity a keystone habit. A colleague shared this Yahoo article with me recently and I came away with goosebumps. Healy films body language, pays for baby-sitters so his assistant coaches can go on date nights with their significant others, and focuses all of his efforts on recruiting the right players. As a result, he has helped the program turn around.

John Wooden’s keystone habit could be summed up in the fifteen values of the Pyramid of Success. There are numerous other examples in recent and not so recent memories of teams developing a culture around one theme.

A Keystone Habit Can Drive Change

The bottom line with keystone habits is that they make tough choices much easier. If a talented player is a locker room cancer and the keystone habit revolves around team culture, the player must change or go.

Any coach, athletic director, administrator, or person in a leadership role needs to recognize the opportunity that adversity presents. Typically a bad situation comes wrapped in many problems. Trying to fix all of them is overwhelming.  Any time the situation appears bleak, it is an opportunity to look at one thing that must change. Allocate all of your attention to one question: What keystone habit can overshadow everything else?

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