Charles Duhigg, in his amazing book The Power of Habit, nails the importance of creating a keystone habit that practically guarantees success.
Duhigg explains: Michael Phelps’s 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.
According to Duhigg, Bowman designed a series of habits that got Phelps calm and focused before each race. This series of habits is the very reason Phelps went on to become history’s most impressive swimmer.
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 anti-climactic 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 was “Put in the videotape” before a race. 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 high performance dietary strategist and lifestyle designer, I work with dozens of entrepreneurs, entertainers, and in-demand badass human beings who battle their health on a daily basis to achieve a nearly impossible standard of success.
Time is the enemy. “There’s not enough time to take care of myself and support my business,” is a constant refrain I hear.
Meet my client, Karen…
One of my clients, Karen, just couldn’t get breakfast right.
Her mornings were rushed and scattered and she’d often leave the house without having eaten breakfast. For Karen, the morning was a race. She derived a great sense of pride 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 10am, 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…until it did. And then everything clicked.
Karen had convinced herself that she could “go all the way” to 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 in the office?”
“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 at the office the next morning. Make sure it gets there at 7:30am.”
“That means I’ll have to get there by like 7:20am. 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 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, 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.
Many busy people believe that health and responsibilities are at odds with each other. This is a myth. Just like lack of time. There’s never a lack of time, you’re simply confused about your priority matrix.
By being strategic and planning proactively for your food options throughout the day, you won’t ever have to rely on willpower to get you by.
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.